Have you ever dreamed of what it would be like to go back in time to take part in a historical event? In this podcast, we’ll meet someone who has been involved in helping many folks do the next best thing. Her name is Carrie Phillips, and she is the director of marketing and communications at Historic Columbia in Columbia, South Carolina.
Historic Columbia used digital media to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the burning of that city during the American Civil War. This kind of concept is gaining popularity in a variety of contexts, and I think you’ll agree that Carrie’s group designed Burning of Columbia expertly. Here are the highlighted topics from that interview:
An inclusive approach to historic preservation outreach, coming up on this edition of Voices of the Past. #00:00:50.7#
Welcome to Voices of the Past. The show that helps you connect to — and advocate for — heritage. I’m Jeff Guin.
I want to start this show with an invitation to share your questions and success stories on the website. Connect by visiting us at voicesofthepast.org and comment there, or look for your favorite social network at the top of the page. Or you can click the “send voicemail” tab on the right side to share your thoughts and questions directly from your browser .
Speaking of heritage success stories, I’m thrilled to bring you an interview with Carla Bruni. Carla is a historic preservationist who is author of two blogs. She’s also a good friend and supporter of Voices of the Past. We’re going to talk about her latest blog, BuildingRevival.com [NOW INACTIVE], which explores ways to make historic preservation more accessible to the public. I know of few people who articulate the challenges and opportunities in that arena more effectively. Here’s that interview …
Guin: Carla, you’ve been on Voices of the Past before, featured in a blog post. What are you up to these days? #00:02:07.7#
Bruni: Last time I was talking about my blog “The Green Preservationist,” which I’ve had going on for a few years now. There’s a few things I learned writing that blog that made me want to create a new website called BuildingRevival.com [site dep. I talk a lot about sustainability in preservation. I’ve been concerned for a long time about those topics and wanted to focus on growing a preservation audience. Preservation is kind of a dirty word in some circles. I wanted to change that and not necessarily call it preservation but at the same time encourage preservationist thinking by simply talking about vintage buildings and how things used to be done and making them more fun and positive. Think of it as being “sneaky preservation” in the way that we’re targeting an audience that doesn’t realize they’re preservationists but they are compelled to preserve regardless. #00:03:11.1#
Guin: What kind of content can people find on your site? #00:03:13.5#
Bruni: We have things like a fun style guide so you can figure out what different parts of your building are called. We want to talk about what the general styles of buildings are in the first place so people can get interested and understand better where they are living and connect more to it. We have a series called “Barn Porn” that people seem to think is fun. We take or find pictures of beautiful barns in all different parts of the country from different time periods. We come up with sort of playmates profiles that we call “HayMates.” This is to help people look at architecture and not just see rotting buildings, but something that can be fun and sexy from a certain point of view. We just want people to care about buildings again. #00:04:12.6#
Guin: Sounds like a great educational tool, and possibly even a heritage education model. #00:04:25.4#
Bruni: It’s kind of like when you hear people say, “when you’re walking down the street, just look up.” Nobody does, but the cornice tends to be the most beautiful part of the building. We just don’t pay attention. We want to do that with kids as well, who don’t notice buildings that much and don’t really have an opportunity to learn about them or understand the materials. It kind of like “Preservation Lite” in that way. It’s introductory, but at the same time we have hundreds of resources on the site. Technical and otherwise. I’ve heard there are people from the National Trust reading it now. And I’ve heard lots of stories of the content cracking people up at work, which makes me really happy because preservation offices can sometimes be kind of sad places. Things go wrong a lot. So it provides levity while providing rich resources. If you want to know how landmark your house or know how to properly repoint a building, that’s also on the website. #00:05:50.2#
Guin: You have a collaborator on this website … #00:05:50.2#
Bruni: Elisabeth Logman is my collaborator. She’s done a lot of landmarking. She’s also a masonry and mortar expert. We went through the same graduate program a couple of years apart but became friends through our common need to proselytize preservation and still smile. #00:06:12.2#
Guin: Where are you taking the site? #00:06:15.3#
Bruni: Elisabeth designed the site and it’s the first website she’s done with this kind of depth. We’re always tweaking it–always trying to get feedback on the content–what’s working, what’s not. Looking at our stats and figuring out what stories people are responding to. We’re on Facebook and tweeting now with the “building revival” brand. I’m playing around with the social media part of it, trying to figure out what to post where. Am I posting the same things on Facebook as I am Twitter? Is there a point of doing that? We’re trying to study who our audience really is and how to grow it. #00:07:23.5#
Guin: Do you have any particular kinds of partnerships you are looking for with the site? #00:07:26.8#
Bruni: We want preservation organizations to participate. We also have a lot of stuff about green building and sustainability. We even have content about canning and composting in your home, so we have a really broad scope. That’s something I wanted to change after Green Preservationist because I had some people from green building interacting, but it was mostly preservationists. We’re willing to partner with anyone who cares about old buildings and has anything to do with them and the space in and around them–that we don’t find unethical or frustrating. Probably not window salesmen! #00:08:26.9#
Guin: Does this replace the Green Preservationist blog? #00:08:29.6#
Bruni: Green Preservationist is more technical and specifically geared toward green building people, preservation, and people working specifically in the field. For Building Revival, we’re targeting a really general audience. People like my friends who have nothing to do with architecture and normally bore them to tears over beer talking about these things. I find them liking these stories online and engaged with the content of the site. #00:09:11.3#
Guin: I love how you integrate topics of vice into your blog posts–porn is a very popular term, and the key to one of your most popular posts on Green Preservationist. #00:09:25.4#
Bruni: Absolutely! To be clear, it was about “ruin porn”–architecture. But I swear we got most of those hits from people searching porn online. I’m aware of that and I’m fine with exploiting that as long as it gets people reading things that I think are important. #00:09:50.6#
Guin: Did you coin that term? #00:09:50.6#
Bruni: No. Ruin porn as been around for a few years. “Barn Porn” was Elisabeth’s brainchild. Barn porn sounds good to the ear–the vowels hit right, it’s fun and everyone giggles when we say it. That’s what it’s about. We work in a pretty tough field where we tend to be on the defensive about what we do. Everyone needs to laugh a little more and have fun with it. #00:10:22.8#
Guin: You can defuse some of the spirited debate or at least give it a more positive spin when you apply humor. #00:10:31.3#
Bruni: It terms of sustainability, it’s not just growing an audience. I know a lot of people who were in the preservation field and are now librarians. One person I know is a yoga teacher. People can burn out in this field. It makes me happy to hear people are enjoying the content. #00:11:20.4#
Guin: You do a lot of consulting, correct? #00:11:20.4#
Bruni: I do a lot of educational programming. I do a lot of work with the Historic Chicago Bungalow Association. I’m working on another project with the U.S. EPA. I’ve done a lot of work with the Chicago Department of Environment, working on their green rating system trying to make it more preservation friendly. I do landmarking as well. I consult homeowners privately sometimes to help them make their homes more sustainable. I help them put a plan together to prioritize what they’re doing to make sure they don’t throw their money out the window. My focus in graduate school was greening historic properties. At the time it was a challenge, but now it’s everywhere. It got me on the right path working with environmental groups–some really smart, innovative people. I’ve been working on the environmental side to help push the preservation agenda through that way. I find that seems to work better than pushing the environmental agenda through on the preservation side sometimes. Things have changed a lot over the past few years. We’re learning more about passive houses now to use historic homes and implement more of those practices. #00:13:02.2#
Guin: What’s your grand vision for making preservation tangible and practical to everyone? #00:13:07.5#
Bruni: I think its just about collaboration. We’ve been a bit of an island. First I saw it in terms of we need to be friends with the green building advocates and professionals. But it goes beyond that. One key we can take from the green building movement is they are very adamant about involving engineers and landscape architects and designers–everyone on the ground level when they’re planning something. I think we need to be more mindful of that too. Planting trees around that historic house is extremely important. How can we reach out to different groups and be really integrated with that instead of our own specialty field? I know we can make more money specializing but I think the effect is that we come off as inaccessible and sometimes a little elitist. It’s a stigma that we need to continue to combat. #00:14:12.1#
Guin: The fact is that everyday folks can do as well for their historic homes even if they can’t necessarily afford a professional. #00:14:24.1#
Bruni: Just showing how easy it is to fix your boiler and tune things up–little easy fixes so things aren’t so intimidating that we want to rip them out and replace them with things that are supposed to be easier to maintain but often are not. They’re just newer looking. Breaking down a lot of that lore that surrounds old things that are “just so hard to deal with.” They’re generally not; they’re usually a lot easier to maintain because they were built to last for a much longer period of time. #00:15:09.1#
Guin: Tell us again how people can connect with you. #00:15:09.9#
Bruni: The website is BuildingRevival.com. Folks are still welcome to check out greenpreservationist.org. Twitter account is “buildingrevival.” Facebook is also “buildingrevival.” #00:15:37.5#
Guin: There’s branding for you! So if we google “building revival” we’ll probably run across you.” #00:15:49.5#
The City of Stone’s iconic kullë houses have a new ally in GlobalGiving, an online fundraising site that is harnessing the power of social media to raise funds for charitable projects around the world. Adventures in Preservation’s restoration of a kullë house in Gjirokastra, Albania, is one of the projects competing in GlobalGiving’s Open Challenge for April.
During the Challenge, AiP has 30 days to raise a total of US$4,000 from 50 different people for the project.
Adventures in Preservation (AiP), a non-profit organization whose mission is saving the world’s architectural heritage by using historic preservation as a tool for positive change, has long been searching for ways to attract donors and sponsors to help fund its preservation projects. (The volunteers who participate in AiP programs do pay a fee, but those fees cover only a fraction of total project costs.)
How GlobalGiving Works
In January AiP discovered the GlobalGiving website (probably via Twitter!), which is the primary tool the GlobalGiving Foundation uses to attract donations from individual donors. AiP applied for and was accepted to the April Open Challenge. Each of the 125+ organizations competing in the Challenge must raise a total of US$4,000 from 50 people in order to “earn” a permanent spot on the GlobalGiving website. There are prizes for the organizations that raise the most money, attract the most donors, and have the most shares on Facebook.
Inclusion on the GlobalGiving website is key to the project’s success. Listing will draw attention to the plight of buildings in Gjirokastra, a World Heritage Site, and also help raise funds for the restoration, which is being accomplished in two ways. First, on-site training and restoration work at the Skenduli House, and second, encouraging the trainees to use their training and new-found skills and knowledge to restore other kullë houses.
The main focus for AiP at this point is reaching the 50-donor target. Donors thus far have been very generous and AiP is closer to meeting the donations target than the donor target.
If AiP wins the challenge, it will open more funding opportunities, including exposure to corporate sponsors and the ability to list additional projects on the GlobalGiving sites. AiP has a long waiting list of projects that are ready to ramp up once there is funding.
GlobalGiving has given AiP the chance to focus the world’s attention on cultural heritage preservation – and the fact that historic preservation is a very green, very sustainable way of providing assistance to communities in need. AiP’s project to restore a kullë house in Gjirokastra is the only GlobalGiving project in Albania and the only one using historic preservation as its primary mechanism for change. We hope there will soon be others!
What if you could take your vacation time to not only see a new place, but meet new friends and use your hands to preserve built heritage all at the same time?
That’s just the kind of unforgettable experience Jamie Donahoe facilitates around the world. She co-founded Adventures in Preservation with the mission to save the world’s architectural heritage by supporting community-driven preservation projects that seek to create economic and environmental sustainability.
Jamie has a very down-to-earth personality that comes through in her communication online as well. In this interview, she talks about how she uses the web to tell the stories of heritage resources. But, just as importantly, she’ll explore how the Adventures in Preservation concept came about, and hopefully give you some insight into developing and marketing your own heritage brand.
Guin: Your site is called Adventures in Preservation, and was actually just rebranded. Tell me how it got started, and where you are today. [Time stamp #00:02:30.6#]
Donahoe: We used to be called Heritage Conservation Network and we started back in 2001 with an idea that a friend of mine–Judith Broeker–had. It was a typical Catch-22: People wanted to learn how to preserve buildings, but there was very little opportunity to get practical and experience. What was available was very expensive. So she had this idea of finding buildings that needed help. We did that for a while, and it eventually faded away. Then, in 2001, I was in the process of moving from Bangkok to Switzerland, and she said she would like to give the idea another try. So, I said let’s do it as a non-profit as a way to get grants and work with different types of structures. We launched Heritage Conservation Network, and we have projects in Italy, Mexico, and throughout the U.S. Word started to spread, and we found ourselves with more places in need of help than we had people to work on them. So we decided we needed more volunteers. We changed the focus more toward the volunteer vacation than the preservation training. You don’t need experience to go on the trips, although we love to have people along that will share their experience. That’s where we started. Then we did some research and decided to change the name to Adventures in Preservation, which seemed to be a little more dynamic and fun. For some reason, people couldn’t remember Heritage Conservation Network, just as they can’t remember names like The National Register of Historic Places–it’s always the National Historic Register, or something like that. We’ve had workshops in eight countries at this point. #00:04:57.4#
Guin: It really is a greater experience than just the classroom. Is that what inspired you to enter this “realm of endeavor?” #00:05:09.0#
D: In terms of the hands-on stuff, yes. Similar to the environmental movement, we really believe that the heart of preservation is education. By making preservation more accessible to people we help them realize that much of what they see around them has historic value and help them gain an appreciation of that. Just like teaching children you recycle for a reason, you try to convey why a building should be preserved by pointing out its special architectural value, history, setting, etc. I think that’s why our trips do well. We do a pretty good job converting people who aren’t yet die-hard preservationists. #00:06:02.9#
G: What do you see being the most common story about why people want to get involved? #00:06:09.8#
D: First, there are people who are contemplating a career in historic preservation, but aren’t yet sure it’s for them. We have a high success rate with that. We’ve had people pounding rocks for a week in the hot sun and they finishing saying “this is what I want to do for the rest of my life!” We also get a lot of “desk preservationists” who have never had the opportunity to do any of the hands-on stuff. For example, preservation planners may talk to planners or see their plans get implemented, but never have the opportunity to get their hands dirty. They then return to their jobs renewed and connected to what they’re working for. #00:07:06.8#
G: What do you see for the future of Adventures in Preservation? #00:07:20.8#
D: We’d like to continue to grow. We get many more requests for assistance than we can possibly account for. A sustainable level for us right now is 4-5 workshops a year. We’d like to expand that to 15-20 fully-staffed programs around the world each year. #00:07:51.9#
G: You alluded to the evolution of the brand. Adventures in Preservation is a name that sticks. Probably there are many heritage preservation organizations who are contemplating reworking their image for the digital age. Tell me about the process you went through, and what advice would you have for others? #00:08:19.9#
D: We made a decision early on, due to environmental concerns and the global nature of our work, to be a virtual organization. There are just two of us, so the nature of internet communication lets us accomplish quite a lot. There are so many ways to communicate now–Twitter, Facebook, etc. But before those, we had a strong presence using website and e-mail strategies. We’re very lucky that the person who set up our website was very together and designed our presence to be organized, easy to navigate and polished. In redesigning the website, we began to incorporate social media like embedded video and images to make the experience more dynamic. Interestingly, we have hits from 72 different countries, and when we look at our stats, we have a number of people who choose to receive our e-mail in text only, and have very slow connections. We have to consider the needs of our audience because we have projects in Africa, South America, and other countries. So everyone should keep in mind that not everyone is running broadband and wireless. #00:10:37.8#
G: How did you come up with the new name? #00:10:42.6#
D: In Boulder, Colo., you get a lot of creative and outdoorsy people. So Judith convened a panel–some had marketing expertise, others had adventure travel expertise–who generously donated their time. They brainstormed coming up with a name from both the heritage and travel angles. The name Adventures in Preservation came out of that with the tagline “restore a building, renew a community.” That is essentially what our projects do. #00:11:28.5#
G: You’re using your website to great effect, and your social media presence as well. I’ve never been on one of your trips, but I’m certainly a fan and follower. Tell me how you picked the communications tools that you did and how you use them in such a targeted, conversational way. #00:12:13.6#
D: Unlike many preservation organizations that work locally or regionally, we work all over the world. We honestly sat on the idea of getting into Twitter and Facebook because we couldn’t imagine fitting it in. It got to the point that we realized that we had to be on there if we wanted to start attracting students and younger people to the programs. Then, information started coming out about the fastest growing demographic on Facebook is women 55 and older. We knew we got a lot of those people on our trips, so we knew we had to be there. We didn’t want to miss the boat. I’m a total information junkie and love computers, so I love finding so many interesting things on Twitter. We had people become fans because I talk about so many topics. I don’t know yet it that has translated into people coming to our workshops yet. I’m still having fun. What’s been useful about social media already is getting feedback from people who might tell us they can’t go on our trips because they are too expensive. Because we have a dialog already going, we can let them know we sometimes have scholarships or financial assistance, and offer other tips for reducing their costs. We can also communicate that more broadly to other people who might be thinking the same thing. #00:14:23.7#
G: Have you run across anyone who went on your trips and really discovered a new passion, and went on to become involved with preservation as a mission in their own lives? #00:14:33.2#
D: A lot of our guests already have a preservation bent anyway. There is a woman who has been on four trips with us. She is a self-described conservation junkie. There are more people who went on a specific project and became preservation advocates of just that project. For example, in Waynesville, N.C., at the Francis Gristmill, there’s a man there who turns out to be my father’s long-lost cousin. He lived part time in Waynesville and saw an article in the newspaper. As retired engineer, he was intrigued. So he joined that workshop and has since become one of the key volunteers of the Francis Mill Preservation Society. He is now one of only three people who know how to run the mill, so that resource certainly benefited longterm from his participation in that project. #00:15:47.2#
G: What sparks people to make the leap to sign up for one of your projects? #00:15:58.8#
D. That is the $100,000 question. Ordinarily, they see something on the website. It interests them personally, but not quite sure so they call for more information. We do have a lot of people who hear about a project, instantly fall in love with it, and sign up. To show you how far the web has come since we started, there is a group called the Analysis Exchange, and they match mentors. They are helping us with the web analytics, which is more deeply scientific than I ever knew. That is helping us understand how people are interacting with our website and informing what we do to communicate through it. #00:17:03.4#
G: What analytics platform are you using? #00:17:09.9#
D: We’re using Google Analytics, and learning so much. I always just looked at the reports to note if our hits had gone up, but have now learned an incredible amount. I would recommend that any non-profit organization that’s looking to use its website to help further its mission to contact them. #00:17:42.2#
G: How important is an international perspective for a preservation organization? #00:17:46.8#
D: I think an international perspective is important for everything. I’m personally very grateful to have worked overseas for so many years, and for my daughter work grow up overseas as well. I think the more information you can get for any problem you are facing, the better. A lot of the problems buildings in the United States are now having, people in Europe dealt with 200 years ago. We have to share that knowledge. There’s a lot of historic reinforced concrete (yes there is such a thing) here that’s falling apart due to humidity, and they bring in experts to deal with those problems. Steven Booker is an Australian conservation architect who went to our workshop in Slovenia two years ago and just fell in love with the country. He agreed to come back this year and lead the work. His perspective is that our purpose is to share our stories and experiences and hopefully they decide that approach is for them. But we’re not telling anyone how they have to do anything for it to be right. It’s about doing what’s right for the buildings, but also helping people make informed decisions. #00:19:22.3#
G: How can people connect with you, and are there any new areas of the web you are starting to explore? #00:19:33.6#
D: We have started blogging, and the site is called “Preservation Journey.” We’re currently merging the blog into our main site. Blogging is fun because it can be about anything–Twitter on a larger scale. We’d also like to be able to do commerce online more easily. This is a bigger issue when you are working internationally. For example: we have people who are Slovenian and they want to go to a workshop in Albania, but PayPal may not take their currency. As the world becomes even smaller and web software makes these kind of transactions easier, these problems will continue to become fewer. #00:20:48.4#
G: Do you ever get to do some of the hands-on work, or are you stuck in the virtual space? #00:20:48.4#
D: I get to do a little of both. I had a good time broiling in the sun at the Bartow-Pell Mansion. My best experience was at the Francis Mill, though. Partly because of finding my father’s cousin. The people were great. When I was there in 2004, the building was in a state of near collapse. The east side was completely water damaged. We had two weeks there, and the last hour, we had a boom crane lift this 26-ft. hemlock sill beam and we slid it into place. It was the greatest experience of my life, other than having my daughter. We were all saying “Oh my God, we did it! We saved this building!” There’s not too many opportunities you can say you really did that. #00:22:06.6#
G: Very good! Is there anything else you’d like to add? #00:22:07.8#
D: We certainly invite you to come along on one of our workshops. We’ve got some great ones planned for the future!
In this edition of the Voices of the Past audio podcast, we’ll meet Kaitlin O’Shea. Kaitlin is the creator of the Preservation in Pink blog and newsletter. She will explain how the iconic pink flamingo, and a group of bloggy friends, have helped her find her voice to take the conversation about historic preservation to a wider audience.
Intro: Coming up on the Voices of the Past Podcast, we’ll meet a blogger who’s painting the preservation world in pink.
And welcome to Voices of the Past, the podcast that connects you to the world of heritage online. I’m Jeff Guin, and today I’m talking to Kaitlin O’Shea of the blog Preservation in Pink. Kaitlin uses a combination of collaborative blogging and printable media to reach her audience.
And Kaitlin, thanks for being here, and I wonder if you would just start by telling us, what is Preservation in Pink?
O’Shea: Well, it’s a long story. I am happy to share it. It was first a newsletter. When I graduated from Mary Washington in 2006, I went to work for a couple of years. And in the first six months, I realized just how much I missed my classmates and the comfort of the department, and the constant conversation that we would have anytime of the day. Whether we were in classes or studying or out drinking coffee or whatever. I suddenly had this one project that I loved. It was an oral history project. But it was only one thing. I didn’t have my buildings, I didn’t have my conversations. I was interviewing people and transcribing. And that was the extent of my day usually. So I decided that I need to do something. And I could have just read book after book, but when you get home from work, you are still kind of tired. So I have always loved to write and once upon a time, I had a dream of working with a preservation magazine. And I decided that maybe I could write about it. I have this one friend who had been blogging, but she just had a personal blog. And I thought, well, that is kind of interesting, but I didn’t start with a blog. So I decided to try a newsletter. I had four years of journalism experience in high school. I still remember all the lessons that I learned there. I did layout and editing and things like that. My very first issue, I think I only told one preservation friend about it. And she encouraged me. She’s like my preservation cheerleader. And I said, well, I am just going to write all the articles and show people what I can do. And then next time I will ask people to contribute. And she wrote one article, and I wrote six pages of stuff and sent it out to everybody I knew.
Also back in school, senior year, in one of my classes, we watched an anti-Walmart video about how Walmart came into Ashland, Virginia. And the people were fighting, and for whatever reason they chose the pink flamingo to be anti-Walmart. And the movie, it was just so heart-wrenching and by the end Ashland, Virginia lost and they got their Walmart. And my friends and I, we were distraught. We were heartbroken. Some of us were already not shopping at Walmart, and we decided we loved the pink flamingos. And so that kind of just picked up speed that last semester of school.
To fast forward again to the newsletter. This time, flamingos have just been out of control. We would send each other little flamingos and do little things like that. So I was tossing around the idea of including flamingos just for fun, and thought it was not that serious, but then I decided that it was going to be mine and I wanted it to be fun and not just “preservation.” Somehow I came up with Preservation in Pink, and it just kind of went from there.
Guin: Excellent. I think sometimes when people think preservation and they think preservationists, they think strident… obstructionists… just talking about average, everyday people. And this seems to be a reputation that has developed overtime, justified or not, but looking at your blog and even the beginnings of it, you’ve got some elements in there where you have a very strong preservation ethic, but it’s presented so well and so subtly that it has a different tone to it. Is that something that was intentional on your part?
O’Shea: I started Preservation in Pink with the mission of teaching people and showing them that preservation is not just academic, it’s not just professional, it really applies to every part of everyone’s life. Because it’s not just buildings, it’s not just battlefields. It’s quality of life, it is pride where you live, it’s heritage, it’s knowing where you came from and where you want to go in respect to the past. And all these things together, whether it is shopping locally or respecting the environment, it’s really important and if we do all that then we will all live in a better place.
And that is a lot to take in all at once, so I try to insert it here and there where it is talking about local shopping or this fun preservation activity, I mean really. I can connect anything to preservation, just give me a few minutes.
Guin: Well, how do you define historic preservation? What’s your personal definition?
O’Shea: It means a lot of things to different people. For me, preservation is collectively looking toward the future with respect for the past. It’s understanding communities, the way of life, your built environment, your heritage values, in the sense that we need to remember the past in order to create a brighter future. That’s the basis of my definition. But the methods of doing that are all the facets of historic preservation, which to me is this huge umbrella term. But it involves architecture history, research, community and preservation maintenance, folklore, museum studies, economics, archeology..the list is never ending. For historic preservation, it provides us the opportunity to shape and direct a world in which people are proud of where they live even though people may be proud of different areas for different reasons. We have to respect cultures and areas and regions. When people have tried in what they and where they live and where they came from, then every action they do in a place matters. And that’s how we can create a better place and that’s how I believe historic preservation has the ability to save the world.
Guin: I guess in that same thing, taking that a step further, looking at your blog, you have a lot of things that are strictly historic preservation or strictly heritage values, but then you sometimes go into some things that are a little peripheral there. And you mentioned Walmart earlier, and actually one of your most popular posts is about Walmart. Can you talk about that?
O’Shea: Sure. That post–Save Money, Live Better–I wrote because the campaign just bugs me, and I won’t go into that. I think that one is one of the most popular because people are Googling “Walmart” or “save money, live better,” and for whatever reason, Preservation in Pink just pops up. So that remains one of the most popular posts every single day. We can get 100 views in one day, just that one.
Guin: Looking at your popular posts, and what people seem to respond to, what seems to make up a good blog post?
O’Shea: I guess I would categorize a good blog post in a few different ways. One is obviously a popular one. One like Save Money, Live Better. If that is getting a lot of people to visit Preservation in Pink, and maybe see the blog and are looking for something preservation related, and not just Walmart related, then that’s great. That helped increase the visibility.
But I guess a good blog post, from my perspective, is one that is well thought out and meaningful, and brings people to historic preservation maybe in a way that they didn’t know before. There is just some little anecdote I told that they became more interested in it. Maybe the story was interesting that day or maybe one of the guest bloggers wrote something fun, maybe broadening their horizons, and hoping that they will come back.
Sometimes I say that a good blog post is one that my sister, who is a freshman in college, will comment on. Because she is just starting to understand what I talk about and what I do. And if she found it enjoyable, then I figured that a lot of people might have enjoyed the post that day.
Guin: Well, tell me bout your favorite blog post on Preservation in Pink. What’s the must read blog post on your site?
O’Shea: I have a few that are my favorite, a lot of them relate to my oral history project, kind of just days on the job. Because they mean a lot to me and to kind of share what I do and what I did as an oral historian, and remember a fun day of what it was like to be in oral history every single day.
One of my favorite to write is called, Why they don’t let me outside. And the title is inspired because most of the time I am inside. But once in a while, in my office we would just go outside. And that day I jumped and kind of twisted my ankle and it was still a really good day, but by the time I got home and sort of fainted from a swollen ankle. And it was a mess of a day. But after I fainted and woke back up, I was fine.
Guin: And you still have good memories of that day?
O’Shea: Yeah. So kind of posts like that. Another one is Oral History and Me: It is Complicated. Not love-hate, but sibling relationship with oral history. It’s so frustrating, but you love it no matter what.
And then I have some others that are more personal reflections. One is called Old Memories: The Evolution of My Favorite Place. And that’s about my grandmother’s town in New York. And I grew up playing on the beach, but now that I’m older, I don’t play as much, but I run on the beach. And I appreciate the place in a different way. And all of those I attribute to touching out on preservation values in a non academic way that I hope people enjoy.
Guin: The reason that we have these cultural resources is because of the people and the traditions handed down. In talking with those people you get a lot more insight and context about the cultural resources themselves. So I think that’s great. Well, you mentioned earlier your newsletter and your journalism experience, and design and layout. You’ve used that in the Preservation in Pink newsletter. Now not many bloggers do this. Why did you do this, and who is this newsletter targeted to?
O’Shea: Again, the newsletter was first and the blog came after. I needed a way to keep Preservation in Pink on the web for anyone who wanted to access it because I can’t afford to print it and mail it to everybody. And that is kind of silly since everything is on the web. So the blog, at first, was just two posts a year. I need articles for the newsletter, and then in 2008, I started putting on more posts every couple of months. And then toward the end, I really wanted people to read Preservation in Pink. I really needed this to go somewhere, and so I started making it a daily blog. And the newsletter and the blog are intended for the same audience. But it is a wide audience. It is anyone who is interested in preservation because it is what they do or because they don’t know much about it. And I try to gather articles from the wonderful contributors that seem to always be willing to add something. But everyone has different experiences, and for me to just share my own on the blog is not the same as having a newsletter. Having a newsletter kind of bring out more voices than my own, which I imagine people don’t want to read all the time.
Guin: Then let’s look at how your blog has developed over time because aside from having a newsletter, which is kind of rare for a blogger, you also have multiple contributors. And that’s not that rare for a blog. For a heritage blog it is fairly rare. How did that start?
O’Shea: Really, having a 5-day per week blog was kind of hard. And to come up with something that is hopefully interesting everyday. Right now it is three to four with grad school getting in the way. But I thought maybe I could be like other bloggers. I read a lot of different blogs: running blogs, wedding blogs, friends blogs. And a lot of people have guest bloggers. And I thought that would be a good way to draw in more readers/viewers. People could say, hey I wrote for this blog, go read it.
So the guest bloggers, I guess they started out kind of slowly. People I knew, my friends from college and fellow preservationists. And it was a nice break for me, and I figured it was a nice break for the readers. It was something different. It was something I couldn’t write about because I didn’t know much about it. And now I have a permanent posting up on Preservation in Pink asking for contributors and bloggers. Some people are more willing to contribute to the blog because it seems like less pressure. I mea, it is. I always feel like the blog is less serious than the newsletter. I mean, when I talk about cats and flamingos and whatever, it is a little more fun. And it is also more time-sensitive. So, one guest blogger, Brad Hatch, he has a ton of “preservacation” blogs, as he calls them, because he has a whole series that he wrote for me. And we posted them every couple of weeks or so. Whereas keeping all that for the newsletter would be a lot. And having a series in the newsletter that’s only twice a year is hard because that is asking readers to remember or go back six months ago and follow up from that first article. Whereas on the blog, I can link from post to post and readers can find it that way. So I guess the newsletter developed the same way, there was not a lot of people at first and now there is many many people. For this next issue, I have even different contributors than usual. It’s really just helped to bring more of an audience. And more diversity.
Guin: Excellent. Well, you talked about being a grad student. I know that’s a lot of pressure. I want to hear about how you balanced being a grad student with doing such a rigorous blog schedule. Also, I am sure you are involved with other forms of online media or social networks as well. How do you balance all that?
O’Shea: I am just the type to do what I have to do. And it was a concern, maybe I wouldn’t have enough time. But I decided, no. It has come this far, it is still getting a lot of viewers. And I really enjoy it. It is kind of an outlet. So, if I don’t feel like writing my paper, maybe I can do something a little bit easier like writing a blog post. It also keeps me connected with everyone in my grad-school bubble. It’s the same of balancing anything else. I like to run a lot, I help out with the UVM track team. As far as other social networking, I have a few other blogs that are not like Preservation in Pink, they are just for fun or to keep track of running or something. Those I only do when I have the time.
Guin: Do you promote Preservation in Pink through any other networks? Do you do anything else other than consistent blogging to attract readership?
O’Shea: I do. I have a Preservation in Pink Facebook group page. And when I have a newsletter or I am asking for contributors, I pretty much email everyone who has ever met me. Any more former and current classmates have done a lot to help. They will share it with people they know. Send on the newsletter or send on the website. Last year I made business cards and postcards. So anyone who wrote for me, I send them a “thank you” with some business cards and also a Preservation in Pink magnet. Some people put it up at work so their coworkers saw the magnet and asked about the website. I try to make sure the tags and the categories are sometimes general and sometimes specific. So it could come up in photography, it could come up in preservation, and people could come across it that way. I have it on my resume. I like to share it with fellow preservationists.
Guin: Knowing that you are in graduate school right now, and knowing that you are going to have to get a job, does that affect what you blog or what you blog about?
O’Shea: It’s the same as when I started. I won’t write anything that I think is too judgmental or something that I would look back and go, “Oh geez, why did I write that?” I mean, my opinions might slightly change or my intellectual understanding of something might change, but I feel that what I put on Preservation in Pink is fit for anybody to read. And I am really honored when people way above me have read it.
Guin: Well the great thing about a blog is that if you do evolve intellectually or learn something new, you can always update the post or you can go and write another post and reference the old one. And it’s OK to show that you’ve learned something. And your readers learn along with you. So that’s great. Well, you mentioned early about using WordPress, and I use WordPress. I am active in the WordPress community. And you talked about tags and categories. And I don’t think that is something I have covered on Voices of the Past before. Can you tell me, in your opinion, what the different is between a tag and a category. And how you use those concepts to optimize your posts.
O’Shea: Well, this is just my understanding, and I might be slightly off. But from what I found, is tags are what people come across when they Google something and categories seem to be just within the site itself. I have a lot of tags because of all the posts, and I try to minimize the categories. So categories I use if someone is searching within Preservation in Pink itself. How can I find out your roadtrip posts. Whereas tags I look at as something people search on the web that could bring them to Preservation in Pink.
Guin: You said that you actually get inspiration from other blogs sometimes. What other blogs do you actively follow?
O’Shea: A new blog that you just did a feature on, My Own Time Machine by Sabra Smith. I think we are blog soulmates. Our blogs are similar, they are complimentary, they are a lot of fun. I love what she writes, so I have been following that since she started.
I follow Place Economics, which is not updated that much, but I like reading whatever he writes.
I follow Route 66 blog. Another WordPress blog. It is like the clearinghouse for Route 66 news.
Then I follow unrelated preservation blogs as well.
Guin: Obviously social media and blogging and all this stuff is growing. And a lot of heritage folks, although some have been slow in coming on board to using the social networks, that is going to change. And folks are getting on there wondering, what do they do to get started. Especially with blogging because that seems to be the heart of any social media effort. What advice do you have for those individuals or organizations getting involved in blogging for the first time?
O’Shea: I would say, if you have something that you love and you want to start a blog and write about it and talk about that subject, don’t start it expecting tons of readers and comments. Do it because you love it and keep doing it. I mean, Preservation in Pink isn’t the biggest blog out there by any means or even close to it, but the readership has grown immensely between this year and last year, and it is just consistency and I don’t really do it for anyone other than myself. I write for people who are interested in preservation, but I do it for myself too. So just keep at it and share your blog with anyone you know. I guess that’s my best advice for anyone.
Guin: OK, I want to take a step back a bit. What made you decide to use WordPress instead of any of the other blogging platforms that are out there?
O’Shea: Well, I love WordPress, let me just say that. I don’t really like Blogger for a professional looking blog. I think it is too simplistic and too kind of bubbly. You can’t create very many pages, and I don’t know much about creating your own template. Whereas WordPress had all these beautiful templates and you could change them all the time. And add all these Widgets, I think we call them. And those were really the only two I knew. I guess TypePad and so many others you have to pay for, or at least you used to. But anyone who is going to start a blog, I always recommend WordPress because it is just really easy and really fun.
Guin: Well, good. Kaitlin, thanks for being on Voices of the Past.
O’Shea: Thank you very much!
Outro: And that was Kaitlin O’Shea of blog and newsletter, Preservation in Pink.
Now, if you would like to learn more about Kaitlin and Preservation in Pink, that is at voicesofthepast.org. There you will find a transcript of this interview plus several others we have done with other folks in the heritage field using social media to make a difference in their world.
That’s all for this edition of Voices of the Past. Until next time, I’m Jeff Guin, and we’ll see you online.
A lot has changed for heritage organizations since the advent of social media. What has remained pretty constant are the elements of a good strategic communications plan. Social media provides strong tactics for strategic planning, and will probably even change the way you think about communicating. But social media shouldn’t be set apart from the normal strategic communications process.
The key is taking your good ideas and intentions with social media and developing them into more defined goals, objectives and tactics that can be measured for results.
Most organizations start with general goal statements that contain a little of all these elements, but are not quite any of them. As a longtime public relations professional and occasional adjunct professor on the topic, I can tell you the PR planning mindset may seem counterintuitive to your good social media intentions. I’ll start by giving you a very general rundown of how I plan using a fictional “Clementine Hunter Art Museum.” Your mileage may vary.
1. Goals are extremely general and are rooted in the organization’s mission. They are based on changing your organization’s position in either reputation, relationships or the work of “getting things done.” They are your guiding light, Pollyanna statements about your organization’s perfect world, stated in present tense. This sounds stupid at first, and is surprisingly hard to do, but still necessary to the effectiveness of your ultimate plan. You can’t really measure these.
For example: CHAM is the top-of-mind source among publics who require easy online access to information about the life and art of Clementine Hunter.
2. Objectives are specific, measurable, time-based tasks that support your goals. Usually you have three or more.
For example: “To increase weekly traffic to the CHAM website 30% by the end of the current calendar year through an aggressive Facebook campaign targeted to students at art colleges.”
3. Tactics are the tools that you will use with intention to accomplish your objectives–Flickr, YouTube, direct mail, a poster contest, etc., etc. In this case, we’ll continue with the theme above.
CHAM conservator will post weekly updates (augmented with photos and video) to the Facebook page on the “journey” of conserving a work of art.
Initiate a Facebook ad campaign with appropriate demographics
Post monthly updates to art college Facebook pages
Facebook video contest — “How is CHAM’s legacy inspiring you?” Winner–museum membership, free print, small scholarship, etc.
Emphasize through semi-weekly updates, photos of the artist and woman as well as trivia about her technique, etc. (Folks want to feel connected to her, and the people preserving her legacy, not to a “museum.”)
Produce a direct mail postcard advertising CHAM’s website and unique Facebook content.
The critical leap to success depends on your tactics being rooted in larger goals and objectives for the organization. Your organization may have already done this. If not, the more effective and productive method would be a staff retreat, even if it’s just after hours at the museum. It’s an exhausting, but fruitful process. The Hoshin Method (http://www.siliconfareast.com/hoshin.htm) is effective for this purpose.
Just remember, the principles of social media will often engage naturally when you are using the social tools while intentionally remembering who your audience is and what drives them. This will make participation from the staff and publics much easier as well.
Carla Bruni is an historic preservationist, architectural historian, soon-to-be energy rater, and neurotic volunteer, and in this Heritage Blogger profile, she discusses how she combines her passions to create a hospitable environment to discuss preservation-related ideas in her blog, The Green Preservationist. Carla hopes to bridge the gap between historic preservationists and green building advocates…one post at a time.
How do you try to bridge the gap between historic preservationists and green building advocates? What role does your blog play in your mission?
Well, if I were to sum up how these two groups often view each other via “light bulb jokes,” it might go something like this:
Q: How many historic preservationists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Change? We should just go back to candles and forget this light bulb nonsense!
Q: How many green building advocates does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Well, that old fixture isn’t terribly efficient so we’re going to go ahead and tear your old house down and design a better one.
Obviously this might be a wee bit exaggerated, but I’ve been in meetings where the tension was so thick that I thought the cornice would explode off of the building, and as a result, nothing is accomplished. I think we need more people working with, and listening to, both green building advocates and historic preservationists with an open and creative mind. I like to think that me being active on both sides of this coin gives me a unique angle, and honestly, I’m still learning all the time, so having a blog is a great way to throw my questions and opinions out there and see what I get back.
I also give lectures and workshops for universities, preservation and green building organizations throughout the city; this gives me the opportunity to introduce “greenies” to preservation issues and vice-versa. I have recently been working with an organization to administer grant funds for green retrofits on historic homes, and the homeowners get really into it, which is super fun. On the flip side of that, I worked as a spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Environment while getting my Masters in Historic Preservation, so I would always weave my preservation agenda into my environmental tours, when most of the time they expected the answer to be “buy solar panels” or “replace your windows with triple-pane low-e fiberglass sashes.”
So, after two light-bulb jokes and a couple paragraphs, I guess the answer is simply “educate people through whatever means possible.”
Why do you think historic preservationists and green building advocates need each other?
Well, it’s completely unrealistic to think that we can build ourselves out of an environmental crisis. Any new building takes a whole lot of energy and creates a whole lot of waste—from the manufacturing and mining of building materials (also depleting our resources), to transportation, to creating new infrastructures, to demolition—there is simply no way around it. Of course, it is also unrealistic to think that human beings will never build new, so we need to be much smarter about building materials, sustainability, design, density and walk-ability than we have been for the past 50 years. What I spend the majority of my time doing is working on projects that involve making older buildings more energy efficient.
Of course, beyond energy, we also need to remember our history and culture and honor much of the existing architecture around us, which typically has incredible detailing, craftsmanship and materials, not to mention that our country is so young that this stuff is literally some of the oldest architecture in the history of the United States. It’s a tough balance right now for preservationists. I think that both groups are starting to come around a bit, however, and finding ways to work together. Preservationists are realizing that due to the current state of the environment, we need to worry less about the thickness of mullions during restoration projects, and begin focusing more energy on HVAC systems and weather stripping if we want to be socially responsible and actually save more buildings. Conversely, there has been more focus on energy efficient retrofits at green conferences lately. Both of these changes are likely encouraged by the current economic recession, but hey, at least some good is coming of it.
How did you get interested in preservation and architecture?
Ah, well, I stumbled upon the Robie House as a child and have dedicated my life to architecture since then. Ha, yeah, that’s totally not true. I was an English Literature major in my undergrad with a poetry focus, and thought I might go back to school for a Master’s in either Comparative Theology or Medieval Literature. In the meantime, I did public relations for the City of Chicago, worked in an orthopedic office promoting a knee replacement device, was a shipping and receiving manager at a software company, and then worked in a custom metal welding studio, among other things. Fortunately, a coworker friend introduced me to his future wife, who was a preservationist, and I was like “people can actually save buildings for a living? Whoa.”
Once the greystones started coming down around me, or being turned into unrecognizable monstrosities, I decided to volunteer with a local preservation group called Preservation Chicago, and was inspired by their chutzpah much more than I was by the work I was currently doing. I started studying architecture on my own and soon after applied to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Historic Preservation Master’s program. I began paying more attention to environmental issues at around the same time and managed to snap up an internship with the for Green Technology, where I was able to help the public on a regular basis and gather information for a manual that I was writing to help historic homeowners “green” their homes. It was both a challenging and seriously cool experience. I’m currently in the process of becoming a certified energy rater and am thinking of also getting my LEED Green Associate certification just because I can’t seem to learn enough about how these issues impact each other. I figure if I’m going to write about these things and express my opinions, I had better have an intimate knowledge of what they are all about.
Tell us about your blog “About” photo. Is there a reason you are “Superwoman?”
Oh, I’m just mostly poking fun at myself for taking on huge, seemingly insurmountable projects because I just get so obsessed and excited about things. A recent “To Do” list on my desktop actually reads: 1) Get three new certifications by the end of the month, 2) Clean apartment until it sparkles and get rid of 50 percent of my total belongings, and 3) Change the general public’s perception of architecture throughout the United States.
I realize, of course, that #2 will never happen.
Why did you decide to begin blogging?
I think it was a combination of reasons. First, I realized I was really skirting both careers and thought that perspective could be useful. There are a lot of preservationists who know about environmental issues and vice-versa, but I think that it is easy to maintain a (strong) bias when you come much later to one field than the other. While I started off with preservation, I very quickly saw the connection between the two fields in light of recent trends, so I don’t think I even know how to separate the two most of the time. Also, I think that preservationists really need to change their image, and we seem to be struggling with that. We live in a very different time than we did even 10 years ago, and now preservation is constantly measured up against exciting, innovative technologies and a sort of environmental morality that didn’t exist before. To top it off, there are a zillion new (supposedly) “eco-friendly” products and homes out there that are being marketed like mad, and it’s a lot easier to market new things than old things. It is also difficult to make the argument that some things should not change when we are constantly told that anything that isn’t new and “green” is responsible for killing baby seals.
Beyond making people understand how crucial it is environmentally to preserve, maintain and perform energy efficient retrofits on existing buildings (somewhere along the line we lost sight of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!”), Historic Preservation needs a more energetic, creative and fun side to it. You can certainly debate whether I have these qualities or not, but I can at least point out the fact that we need more of this if we are going to win over the masses and save more buildings.
And also, I think my friends and family would have thrown me to the wind turbines if I didn’t start talking about something other than architecture and the environment, so I figured I’d ease their burden a bit and find a more, er, tolerant audience.
What is your dream for your blog?
That’s a really good question. I suppose I want it to be a touchstone for students, preservationists, green building advocates, planners, landscape designers and architects, etc. when they have some downtime, and ideally a way to generate more discussion on the timely and important topics. I have also been using my friends as lab rats to see if the content is accessible for people who do not already work in the field. It’s a difficult balance to strike because I try to keep the posts relatively short—an almost impossible feat for a notorious rambler—so I can’t spend too much time explaining concepts and then also get down to the nitty gritty. I suppose it would be great if a more general public could at least start thinking more about these concepts and then possibly even get more involved in their free time.
Your blog has a fascinating combination of “personality” and fact throughout your posts …
I think that having a more casual and accessible tone makes more people want to listen to the issues and better able to grasp them. And as I’ve mentioned before, accessibility is really key. It is also important, in my humble opinion, to not take oneself too seriously or be so self-righteous that you ostracize people vs. bring them into the fold. I am certainly not infallible and always have more to learn, and want the blog to be casual enough that friendly and useful discussions can bubble up from posts. Of course, I also come from a rather large and loud Italian family—if you want to be heard you have to be either really, really loud or funny enough to at least warrant a pause.
I can’t yell on a blog…
You have some interesting guest bloggers. How do you go about finding them and getting them engaged?
I realized from the beginning that I needed to get some perspectives on these issues from places other than Chicago and beyond my own experiences. Whenever I meet an enthusiastic soul—either through my blog or various events—who have a different experience either nationally or internationally, I find it to be incredibly valuable. I’ve been fortunate to do preservation work in Louisiana, Washington and Idaho, and realized pretty quickly that different places have different battles and feelings regarding preservation. I’d like to keep growing the blog readership around the country, so including these voices is really important. And heck, they’re interesting!
How do you develop and maintain a relationship with your viewers?
I always to respond to people who contact me through my blog. I’m curious about what they do and ask them to come back and express their opinions. I also try to keep the tone playful enough that it is engaging and people want to check back periodically. Fortunately, some local advocates and organizations have also put me on their blog roll and this bumps up my readership. I think I’m really lucky to be involved in two fields that are brimming with feisty advocates and like to keep stoking those coals to keep the dialogue between groups alive.
Are you engaged anywhere else online? If so, where and why?
There are so many great places to read about what is going on in these areas. Vince Michael’s incredibly insightful blog on preservation issues is an excellent source for preservation info and great fun to read. I often to jump over to Matt Cole’s Twitter page, which covers a variety of issues, often involving planning, preservation, and sustainability issues—he updates it obsessively, so there is always something new and fun to look up. I also work with the Historic Chicago Bungalow Association on a variety of projects, and we’ve recently been discussing a series of video podcasts that cover discussions with contractors, architects and energy raters, as well as filming how to properly weatherize and insulate single-family homes. It is somewhat similar to the This Old House website links that I like to check out when I cant wrap my brain around how something works—really practical, budget-conscious and effective projects for homeowners. Check in at http://www.chicagobungalow.org in the near future for that. Beyond that, there are a variety of online research sources that I can access for free by logging into the Chicago Public Library site, and Ancestry.com is perfect for digging up historic census information.
What is your advice for anyone wanting to start a blog? Or get involved with preservation?
My favorite thing to do is convert unsuspecting citizens into preservationists, and when they are within my clutches, I can’t help but rattle off a variety of volunteer organizations or free field trips that I know will ensnare them. I occasionally even undergo covert operations with design school students to try and convince them to weave creative adaptive reuse ideas into their projects. It is always rewarding to fight for something that you are passionate about. In my experience, looking up and noticing the architecture around you, and having someone explain that many of these buildings are, or likely will be threatened for demolition is a startling discovery—call it a preservation baptism or bar mitzvah or whatever you like. Once people start really seeing the built world, the whole city becomes alive and more engaging, and once that relationship is there a person will fight to keep it because there is a connection and respect.
As for blogging, well, I think that we are incredibly lucky to have these forums where we can talk about whatever it is that we want to talk about and share it to a much wider audience than ever before. Some will argue that “tweeting” is the best way to do this, others just don’t like writing all that much, but if you have a hankering to express yourself, why on earth would you stay silent? Restorations may cost a lot of money, green retrofits can add up sometimes, but our ability to rave and educate and change a collective mentality for the better is free, and ultimately, what is more exciting than changing people’s minds? It’s simply the cheapest, most effective way to take over the world.
In a world where heritage values are challenged by the economy yet empowered with new media, blogger Sabra Smith faces these developments head-on and relates her own journey through the blog, “My Own Time Machine.“
1. How did you begin blogging?
I’ve been blogging elsewhere since 2004 and was amazed at the potential the Internet offers for creating community and making connections. Working as a preservation advocate at a nonprofit, I saw a need for a matchmaking place where people and “buildings in need” could come together. A blog seemed like an ideal way to raise awareness of places to try to keep them from becoming endangered in the first place, or, if need be, alert the cavalry if help was needed. I started “My Own Time Machine” when I was laid off in May 2009 (the economic downturn has hit nonprofits as well as corporations).
2. What do you mean when you describe your blog being a “newfangled time machine?”
Well, I think we’ve seen that history can be compelling and find a place in popular culture – just look at the success of a film like “National Treasure” or Dan Brown’s novels and film adaptations (The DaVinci Code sold 80 million copies worldwide and his new record-breaking book sold 1 million copies in a single day. I predict the D.C. historic sites that are part of the plot will see an increase in visitation!).
Those books and films use history to capture people’s imaginations. History needs to be more than a list of dates and dead people – and this is still the default presentation at too many historic sites. So, in thinking about how to make history more approachable, my idea was to try and demonstrate that “history” is just a term we use for daily living that used to be – if you think about it, we’re living in tomorrow’s history now.
Our world, and the context in which we live, might change, but I think people’s basic hopes and fears don’t change very much. In my graduate thesis, I made this point sharing a portion of a letter written by Elizabeth Willing Powel, a wealthy Philadelphia socialite and confidante of George Washington. Writing to her sister, she described “spasms and pains in my Head,” which she blamed on her husband’s fondness for large fires in the fireplace, but which he dismissed simply as her “bad Nerves.” Though she may have lived long ago and far away in time, it could just as easily be a modern domestic scene of bickering husband and wife.
This sort of time collapse really hit home for me while going through my great-grandfather’s papers. I never met him, but his journals revealed that he dreamed of owning his own business. He studied hard, saved his money and achieved his goal of owning his own mill. But then I found the truth of his dream tucked inside a worn envelope. There were three letters, addressed to his wife, apparently written in case something happened to him. They all basically said the same thing, advice and a sort of apology because life had been hard and he hadn’t been able to provide the things he’d hoped. One of them was so worn it was falling apart along the fold lines. I imagined him carrying it with him every day, tucked in a pocket, just in case. It brings me to tears every time I read it. How is it that a piece of paper from 20 years before I was born can affect me in that way? Because it feels like I am alive in that moment when I read it.
So, when I was thinking of a name for the blog, I wondered how I’d get people to come with me on these journeys. How could I coax them to come meet people that could be their neighbors except for the passage of time? And I thought of H.G. Wells and his time machine. And Sherman and Peabody and the Wayback Machine. And I figured I needed my own time machine. (And I described it using the word “newfangled” because I like the oxymoron of a word some old codger would use – that stereotype of preservation — combined with a futuristic modern tool for meanderings through time.)
3. How can the past be approachable and how is your blog helping make that happen?
I think a great purpose of history is to inform the present. We can make it relevant for people today by connecting it to current events or by capturing modern imaginations. Philadelphia has a wonderful program, aimed at kids, called “Once Upon a Nation” where kids travel to 13 stations around Independence Mall. At each storytelling bench, they hear a tale connected to that location. The experience is interactive, it fires the imagination, it challenges young minds to put a historical event in the context of how they live today. I know it’s a successful program because my own children clamor each summer to make sure I take them! We’ve heard stories about ghost riders, bank robbers, baseball, and eating your vegetables that conveyed lessons about the Revolutionary War, the Constitution or life in Colonial times. I’m trying to do something similar with the blog – make these sorts of connections between past and present, or simply put historical things into modern context. For example, I did a post on the Transformers movie that came out this summer and the Philadelphia-area historical sites it featured – up there on the screen along with the great pyramids and the Temple at Petra. Who’d expect a bunch of robots from outer space to show up on a blog about history and architecture? And that’s sort of my point. There is a connection to be made.
4. How do you define the concepts of history and preservation?
Well, to my kids, I am history. When the elder one was smaller, he asked me what things were like in Colonial Times – there’s a child’s perspective on “history.” And I confess I’ve fallen into the trap of saying things like “well, in my day, we didn’t have ipods — you had to listen to the radio or a record!” (Do you think “history” happens faster now because of technological advances?)
I grew up in lots of little towns, mostly in New England. History was all around – I remember analyzing the walls, stairs and space of one 18th century house we rented because I was sure it probably had a secret passageway (none that I ever found) yet that was contrasted with contemporary history in the making, like the moon walk or even an object from my father’s dresser like the radiation exposure meter he wore onboard nuclear submarines (I venture to claim to be one of the few children in the world who celebrated their birthday party aboard a nuclear submarine during the Cold War). Once my father retired and I started helping him research family history, I became very conscious of a timeline of history and my ancestors placed, like little push pins, along that long stretch of time.
Now, as for “preservation” I am still attempting to define that word for myself. Is it about freezing time? Capturing history? Finding stability in a changing world? Collecting mementos of a time past? Is it about art and style (reflected in architecture) and their ability to contribute to the character of a neighborhood? Does it refer to the ability of a building to tell a story about the way things used to be? If the Eskimos can have so many words to refer to “snow” I don’t know why we have only this one inefficient word – “preservation” – that attempts to describe so much.
In some respects, this is probably a culmination of lifelong interests – historical fiction, art books, photography, films with a strong sense of place. When I lived in NYC I found myself studying buildings, looking up at cornices and fenestration patterns more than any tourist. I loved the urban patterns and the way each neighborhood felt like its own place and had its own stories.
Then I moved to Philadelphia and observed its strange dependence on the story of Independence while admiring its remarkable portfolio of buildings of all vintages. When I got divorced there was a moment of “what now?” that forced me to focus on my interests to find a new direction for my life. It seemed logical for a building lover to go back to school for a masters in historic preservation. What bliss to read, write, draw, photograph and study building form, theory and history. And there was a moment when I realized that to get anyone else to care about a building, it wasn’t enough to slap a curatorial label on it – Building x, by Architect z: Note egg and dart molding and fine example of Greek revival pediment – I felt there was a need to put that building in context of who lived there, who walked by and thought of it as a dream house, who worked in it, what happened to it after that person was gone, etc. etc. I’m in this field in a time when the Colonial Dames are dying off, the money is drying up and no one wants to go to a historic house museum that celebrates a doorknob just because it was made in 1767.
5. How else do you use the Internet to communicate your ideas and thoughts on heritage?
I love reading other blogs, I check the National Trust for Historic Preservation site for current issues, see Flickr for photosharing and armchair visiting, and use Facebook for passing along links I like or trying to get people mobilized to support an issue like tax credits for homeowner restorations. I adore that Google books makes it possible for me to browse a 1919 edition of the Architectural Record and seeing what buildings and architects were being reviewed. (It’s fascinating to read a scathing review of an architect we now revere.)
6. How did you first become interested in heritage issues?
I’ve had some funny conversations with colleagues in the field of historic preservation about how we got where we are. As near as I can figure it, it’s our parents’ fault. They dragged us to too many antique shops and odd little historic house museums when we were at an impressionable age. And more than one of us was profoundly affected by those historic sites of our childhood that featured those creepy manikins – you know what I mean, a smiling 1950s plaster model dressed in colonial attire, wig askew on its head, standing in the one room schoolhouse. There was something both sinister and engaging about those stilted displays.
It’s actually hard to say. It may have been the time I spent in a small New England village, with the wonderfully carved gravestones in the picturesque cemetery and the white church towering over the village green, and the aforementioned one-room school house across from the National Historic Landmark prison dating from the 17th century. It may also have been my Seventh grade English teacher, who gave me Jack Finney’s Time & Again to read. In the story, a government program experiments with time travel and the protagonist finds himself in Victorian New York City, climbing the Statue of Liberty torch on display in Central Park and caught up in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. My teacher took the class on its own time travelling trip to a tiny pocket of Victoriana in downtown Honolulu. She and the book both captured my imagination in a way that stayed with me. Now here I am with my own time machine!
7. How do can other people can contribute to your efforts?
Well, I’d really like to see people have conversations in the comments section, sharing experiences and opinions. If I feature a historical site or society archive, it would be great if others would visit and report back what they discovered. I’d love to see the Bulletin Board become a real sort of marketplace, finding owners to adopt sites in need, matching nonprofits who need assistance with someone willing to provide it – and not just for people who might call themselves preservationists, but anyone. So “historic preservation” can become more mainstream – in fact, I’d like people to help come up with a new name that better captures all the wonderful things that “historic preservation” is really about.