February 21, 2014

Why Do Old Places Matter? History

Access the rest of the Why Do Old Places Matter series.

Old places give us an understanding of history that no other documents or evidence possibly can. As the National Park Service website for “Teaching with Historic Places” states, “Places make connections across time that give them a special ability to create an empathetic understanding of what happened and why.” Marta De la Torre and Randy Mason, in their report on heritage values, summarized the idea this way: “Historical values are at the root of the very notion of heritage. The capacity of a site to convey, embody, or stimulate a relation or reaction to the past is part of the fundamental nature and meaning of heritage objects.”1

Simply put, old places tell us about the past.

At President Lincoln's Cottage at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, D.C., visitors appreciate walking where Lincoln walked | National Trust for Historic Preservation

But what is it about old places that give them this unique capacity to “convey, embody, or stimulate a relation or reaction” to history? Old places are tangible for one. Many people feel the excitement of experiencing the place where something actually happened, from the shimmering watery fortress of Fort Sumter where the Civil War started, to the quiet rooms of Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Mass.

At President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, in Washington, D.C., visitors experience the place where President and Mrs. Lincoln sought refuge from the protocol, noise, and office seekers at the White House. Here, visitors pass through the same rooms the Lincolns used, they walk on the same ground that the Lincolns trod, they trail their hands along the same stair rail that Lincoln touched, they see the same distant view of the monuments of Washington, D.C. This capacity to engage all the senses in the experience of history is unique to old places—and provides information that documentary history alone cannot provide.2

Other times the geography of the place tells the history. A stone wall, a sunken road, a long open field at a battlefield helps visitors understand troop movements and military tactics, as well as imagine the chaos, destruction, and loss of lives that occurred. Other places symbolize a decisive moment, such as the turn in the road at Wilderness Battlefield where Union troops cheered when they realized that the road chosen meant that General Grant was pursuing the Confederates rather than letting them retreat and regroup.

It is a common complaint that history education defaults to the tedious, dry, and rote memorization of dates and names. Knowing dates and names is necessary, but how do people really get excited about knowing history? It seems to me that history is most vividly learned and retained though experiencing the places where history happened. Joseph Farrell, professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania wrote to me, “old places and old things stimulate my historical imagination in a personal way—that is, in a way that is different from reading about the past…. for many, places and things are a much more effective way of being in touch with the past than reading is.”

History for the Present and Future

Why is it is important for people to understand history?3 A recent National Park Service report stated, “…if we inventory the fundamental benefits that historical insight and historical thinking offer society, it is clear that they extend well beyond dates and facts to provide a wellspring of skills, and a dynamic array of tools and insights that people can use to approach both their own times and the welfare of society as a whole.”4 The understanding of history provided by historic places, the report found, has the “promise of creating an inspired, informed and thinking citizenry.”5 Old places are perhaps the most evocative and powerful tools for us to tell and understand history.

Like civic identity and collective memory, history—the history we choose to tell—can be manipulated, and it is important to question who is telling the history and for what purpose. Mussolini, for example, consciously tried to tie the Fascist era to the history of Imperial Rome. But people who are aware of history and capable of historical thinking—critical thinking based on evidence—are less likely to be duped by the manipulation of history by others. All of us can think of a time when our reaction to a political event has been: Have we learned nothing? Don’t they know we went through this in the 1920s, ‘30s or ‘40s? This type of historical thinking also acknowledges that the “historical understanding of any era, topic, or event in the past is a moving target, a dynamic, ever-changing landscape of ideas, rather than a static narrative that once recovered need never be revisited.”6 Awareness of history is critical for an engaged and informed democratic society.

At Montpelier, a National Trust historic site, the Montpelier Foundation is researching and reconstructing the buildings where James Madison's slaves lived and worked | Paul Edmonson/National Trust for Historic Preservation

But something even deeper is also at work here. History is not simply a utilitarian tool to create an informed and thinking citizenry. History is central to the notion of our lives as humans. Joseph Farrell shared with me this idea about why old places matter: “My main point [is] about history and my belief that a conception of history is a distinctively human trait. I believe that not doing things that are characteristically or distinctively human means living a less fully human life….To live in an eternal present is not to take advantage of all our human capacities.”7 History is part of what makes us distinctly human, and has the capacity to deepen and enrich our conceptions of ourselves, and of our place in the world. We see this in people’s desire to connect to history through many paths—visiting historic places, historical reenactments, collecting antiques, living in a old house, researching genealogy, and hearing the stories of our ancestors.

Making History a Full-Body Experience

Old places have tremendous power to convey a sense of history. Sometimes, however, a visit to a historic sites is not always interesting; in fact, it can be downright boring, or even comical.8 While many historic sites are dynamic places to visit that engage all the senses, some are tedious, condescending, or even claustrophobic—and sometimes peddle bad history to boot. Catherine Wagner, an artist at the American Academy, told me that, from her perspective, “the moment someone tells you what the experience is supposed to be, they keep you from finding your own voice.” We see this in popular culture’s view of historic sites—take a look at the Alamo tour scene in Peewee Herman’s Big Adventure.

It’s difficult to balance the amount of historical information provided with a more open-ended experience of place—and people absorb information in different ways. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Association for State and Local History, the National Council on Public History and the regional and state museum associations have been encouraging the field of public history toward more engaging interpretation and a more sophisticated view of history. Old places are uniquely capable of giving people a full-body experience of history. Let’s take advantage of that natural strength and stop boring people to tears at the very sites where they have the greatest capacity to engage with history.

The places I’ve mentioned so far are mostly historic sites open to the public, with a stated purpose of education. But the scope of public history is much broader. It includes the many places where we might experience history—landscapes, gardens, and streets. The historian and poet Dolores Hayden writes about the need to acknowledge the histories of these places. “Creating public history within the urban landscape can use the forms of the cultural landscape itself, as well as words and images, to harness the power of places to connect the present and the past.”9 Hayden envisions the possibilities that this broad-based public history could unleash, “A socially inclusive urban landscape history can become the basis for new approaches to public history and urban preservation,” she writes. And further, “Both citizens and planners may find that urban landscape history can help to reclaim the identities of deteriorating neighborhoods where generations of working people have spent their lives.”10

The Panama Hotel, in the International District of Seattle, Washington, evokes the lives of Japanese Americans before, during, and after the World War II internment period | Tom Mayes/National Trust for Historic Preservation

I asked Max Page, professor of History and Architecture at UMass Amherst and a fellow here at the American Academy, what changes to historic preservation practice might be most beneficial to people and to the field. He suggested having the story of places on the National Register available at the places themselves so that people could become aware of and engaged with the history at the place. He also suggested that because public history uses oral history, architectural evidence, archaeology, and other sources, it has the capacity to give a more full view of the historical record. In addition, because public history engages more people in the development of the history, it has the capacity to develop a broader and more inclusive view of, and support for, history.

History is, and has been, a central rationale for laws and policies that protect old places. Virtually all systems that identify old places as worthy of preservation use history as a key criterion, from the National Register of Historic Places, which includes the phrase “associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history” in its criteria, to local historic preservation commissions, such as Seattle, which includes “…location of, or is associated in a significant way with, a historic event with a significant effect upon the community, City, state, or nation.”

The National Park Service website says, ‘Historic places have powerful and provocative stories to tell. As witnesses to the past, they recall the events that shaped history and the people who faced those situations and issues.” I get excited about being at the place where history happened—even when it’s in my own neighborhood. Thousands of others share this excitement, from the Battlefield of Gettysburg, to the quiet home of Emily Dickinson.

What historic places matter to you?


  1. De la Torre, Marta and Randall Mason, “Introduction,” Assessing the Values of Cultural Heritage, Getty Conservation Institute, 2002, 11.
  2. The first chief historian for the Park Service, Verne E. Chatelain, is quoted saying “An historic site is source material for the study of history, just as truly as any written record.” Imperiled Promise: the State of History in the National Park Service, prepared by the Organization of American Historians at the invitation of the National Park Service, 2011. 21 (“NPS Report”).
  3. See Stearns, Peter N. “Why Study History” American Historical Association.
  4. NPS Report, 17.
  5. NPS Report, 12.
  6. NPS Report, 18.
  7. Farrell, Joseph. E-mail to the author, December 5, 2013.
  8. See e.g., Vowell, Sarah. Assassination Vacation.
  9. Hayden, Dolores. The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History, Cambridge and London: the MIT Press 1995, 246.
  10. Hayden, 12, 43.

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Tom Mayes, chief legal officer and general counsel, has worked on the full range of National Trust legal issues since he joined the National Trust in 1986. He received the National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize in Historic Preservation in 2013 and is the author of the book Why Old Places Matter.

tmayes@savingplaces.org @thompsonmayes

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