The Blue & Gray Press

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Historic preservation builds on the past for a better future

3 min read
A self-proclaimed preservation junkie, I decided to major in historic preservation even before I moved in for my freshman year.


historicpresI declared it before the deadline and stuck with it to the point that I am now going to be graduating with a degree in preservation.

I did not decide to pursue preservation because of the money I could earn, and I did not choose a path routed in history because I thought it would help me get a date; I chose preservation because there is a certain magic in the past, a certain beauty that one cannot find in today’s world.

On November 15 and 16 I attended a symposium at Mount Vernon centered on the topic of preservation, what it means and the challenges it faces in the future.

Throughout the symposium it was constantly mentioned how preservation was a job advocated for and by members of the baby boomer generation and older. I was one of a handful of attendees under the age of thirty.

Reasons for the disinterest of young people is debated, but the general consensus was that we lack the education from an early age, that teaches us to appreciate the past, and we are too interested in flashy careers, with immediate returns.

While I felt very self-conscious being in a crowd populated by people condemning a large portion of my generation, I do not disagree with their assessments.

Young adults today are strongly tied to their smartphones and their social media, and a future preserving the past is not a high priority.

As one audience member mentioned, the humanities are currently at the apex of a crisis. According to an Oct. 30 article in the New York Times, enrollment in humanities programs across the country accounts for just seven percent of the total student population. Big name universities mentioned in the same article, such as Princeton University and Stanford University, are concerned enough that they began altering their programs to attract more students.

Lists published by reputable outlets such as Forbes and U.S. News World Report are also turning more prospective students away from humanities majors.

The fact that, on average, one can make more money in the sciences than the humanities is often used to dissuade students from choosing an English or historic preservation major.

Here is where I stand up and say that I am the exception. I chose historic preservation as a major not for what it could bring me, but for the contributions I could make to the discipline and practice of preservation.

What many people fail to acknowledge is that not everyone is motivated by a paycheck. Preservation is not a field one chooses for money.

Yes, financial stability is a concern, but it is not the only concern, nor is it the primary one.

Most of us preservationists choose the profession because we have a passion for the past and desire to see it preserved for future generations.

It is also a discipline that encapsulates a wide range of people and interests. Traditionally, historic preservation is associated with buildings and other architectural features.

While this reputation is not unfounded, the first preservation attempts were undertaken to save the homes of famous historical figures; not all we do is attached to restoring buildings.

People falling under the scope of preservation include museum workers, archaeologists, folklorists and historians, in addition to architects.

Not everyone who works under the guise of preservation has a degree in historic preservation; most people have degrees in history, which allow them to bring a specific area of knowledge into the wider discipline.

To be a good preservationist one must know what he or she is preserving so they can preserve it as accurately as possible.

A common misconception about preservationists is that we preservationists live in the past.

This is not entirely untrue, given that many of us work in offices surrounded by the vestiges of the past, but it also does not represent the whole of what we do and why we do it.

In the past, we see the future because much of what we do and believe today is rooted in the past. I am a preservationist because preserving the past is my passion.

Not all answers can be found in the future; often the blueprints for future actions can be found in the past.

It is not a choice to be a preservationist, it is a calling. It is more than living in the past. As preservationists, we live for the past and are deserving of respect.


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