Critical Conservation as Social Activism: History, Theory, and Methods

Historic preservation strategies have been used by communities to achieve various social ends, ranging from staving off gentrification and restricting neighborhood development to developing tourist districts that attract travelers from around the world. In these instances, preservation policies have been deployed by groups from across the political spectrum, reflecting the ways in which these policies, practices, and methods have been used to define and delimit, to celebrate and exclude, to forge communities as well as to create further social divisions. This course analyzes the political effects of such strategies in the preservation of physical environments and cultural heritage by situating conservation practice within its historical, theoretical, and methodological origins. Through readings, discussions, and class assignments, students will extract a theory of a “critical conservation” by analyzing preservation history and theory, and by critically examining both the governmental and private sector tools and resources available to preservation practitioners at the local, regional, state, national, and global levels.

Topics to be covered include: the significance of historical significance; memory and the meaning of history; identity and its invention; cultural landscapes; public history and the place of preservation in the United States; the fair, the exhibition, and the museum in conservation planning; period rooms and the house museum; histories of heritage tourism and historic districts; designing the past at Colonial Williamsburg, Greenfield Village, and Disney; anti-monumentality and the anxiety of loss; memory infrastructure; the cultural politics of preservation in “post-racial” America; heritage in war and conflict; legislating memory; conservation and the recent past; and intangible heritage.

By the end of this course, each student should be able to:
1. Identify and define the broad themes affecting conservation practice today.
2. Discuss and explain the historical origins of conservation practice and its application to architecture, landscapes, and cities.
3. Identify and critique the major policies and institutions shaping conservation practice in the United States and globally.
4. Analyze the relations between planning, heritage, and politics.

To achieve a passing grade, students are required to attend class regularly; participate in class discussions; complete weekly readings; and complete three short papers and presentations.