October 2, 2014

Why Do Old Places Matter? Learning

Access the rest of Why Do Old Places Matter series.

People learn from old places, and they learn information that is not accessible to them in any other way. Like most people, when I think about learning at old places, I immediately think about visits to historic sites as a school child, places such as Old Salem, in my home state of North Carolina, where I remember a woman singing a Moravian song a cappella in a vaulted and plastered room, and the taste of sugar cake served at the Moravian love feast afterward. This experience fixed in me an awareness of the longstanding tradition of religious diversity, tolerance and freedom in our country. These types of visceral experiences at old places facilitate our potential to understand—and remember—complex ideas, and are available every day at hundreds of historic sites around the country.

Old Salem in North Carolina has interpreted Moravian history to generations of visitors | Old Salem Museums & Gardens, Winston-Salem, NC.

Historic sites like Old Salem have an express educational mission, and have developed interpretive programs that are designed to teach history, using an old place as the educational tool.1 In the earlier essay on History, I emphasized that history can be understood at the real place where history actually happened in a way that it can’t be understood through documents and books alone. Education is a traditional role for historic preservation, and is one of the main reasons expressed for why historic preservation is supported through laws and public policy. This traditional and invaluable—and undervalued—educational activity continues to be a primary reason for valuing and saving old places.2 As Callie Hawkins, associate director of Programs at President Lincoln's Cottage and Soldier’s Home National Monument put it, “Educators at historic sites put considerable time and effort into planning programs that reinforce local and national learning standards. These standards-based programs demonstrate to classroom teachers that time spent out of the classroom is time well spent. Most importantly, though, this type of informal learning environment helps cultivate in students a deep appreciation of how the past informs the present and shapes the future beyond what any textbook could achieve.”3

In addition to traditional educational programs, there are also other less obvious ways that we learn at and through old places. First, old places foster lifelong learning. As the website for the National Council on Public History states: “Those who don’t always remember their high school and college history classes fondly are often the same people who spend holidays, vacations, and their spare time seeking out history by choice: making pilgrimages to battlefields and memorials, visiting museums, watching television documentaries, volunteering with historical societies, participating in a community history project, and researching family histories.”4

And it’s not just history that we’re learning. Different places present different topics and issues. At Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island, we learn about religious freedom. At Montpelier, in Virginia, we learn about the principles of the Constitution. At the Lower-East Side Tenement Museum in New York, we learn about the experience of being an emigrant. At the Glass House, in Connecticut, we learn about architecture and design. And we don’t just learn about these issues as something in the past, something only about history, but about the way these issues are being discussed, developed, debated, and prodded into the future today.

Without exactly paying attention to it, we also absorb information about people and how they lived—what they ate, how they worked, how they made money, how they lost money, how they coupled, raised their families, and lived and died. And in learning about others from the past, we learn about ourselves.

Recently I visited the Kwan Tai Temple, a Taoist temple built in 1854 by Chinese immigrants in Mendocino, California. One of the women who saved this old place and who opens it to the public, Loretta Hee-McCoard, talked to us as we sat on the simple redwood benches along the walls, gazing around at Chinese calligraphy, ancient and fragile lanterns, the aged and crackled paint on the altar, and a thousand other telling details. A descendant of one of the people who founded the temple, Loretta told us that this red and green building was the only intact physical reminder that Chinese people were in Mendocino as early as 1854. It struck me that this building, every day, simply by its continuing presence, is testament to the fact that the Chinese were here. The idea that “we were here” seems a perfect example of what people learn from old places, and one that is deeply affirming.

The Kwan Tai Temple, in Mendocino, California, built by Chinese immigrants in 1854 | Tom Mayes/National Trust for Historic Preservation

I’ve primarily mentioned historic sites that are open to the public, where people go expressly to learn. But we also learn from old places that are not open to the public expressly to fulfill an educational mission. I treasure a visit that I made with my mother and my aunt to a distant cousin in South Carolina who lived in the house my great-something grandfather built in 1792. Although added onto many times, at its heart, the house was a simple log cabin, handmade by this great great himself, probably with the help of the people in the community in which he lived. I’d heard about this house most of my life, but nothing prepared me for actually being there. I was bowled over by the simplicity of the place, the unpainted plank walls, the small stair leading to a loft, the hand-planed mantel around the fireplace. Those earlier Mayeses had come and gone through that short plank door. I’d always wondered who those Mayeses were, and being in this place where they had lived helped me get a sense of who they might have been in a way that nothing else could do. I left that day deeply satisfied. I hadn’t found that my ancestors were rich, or powerful or important, but that they were self-reliant people, who could plane a molding for their own mantel. It felt like I had found out something about who I was.

There are endless facts, concepts and ideas that people learn from old places. Happily, the capacity to learn from old places is all around us today, more than ever before, and in a much more open and democratic way. Through mobile apps like NextExitHistory, cellphone tours, Wikipedia, mapping apps, and simply Google, we have the capacity to learn about virtually any old place where we find ourselves. And there are an endless variety of themes, from crime history to LGBT history, architecture, and even city planning. People now have access to information about old places wherever they are, and can access it when and how they want. I hope they will use these tools, and learn something that surprises and delights them.

I’d love to hear other stories of the things people have learned from old places. Please comment if you’d like to share something you’ve learned at an old place that you might not have known otherwise.


  1. See also the National Park Service program for “Teaching with Historic Places,” which provides lesson plans and other tools for teachers to use.
  2. There are a number of organizations that support the teaching of history and other topics through the use of old places. See e.g., the National Council on Public History, the American Association for State and Local History.
  3. Hawkins, Callie. E-mail to the author. September 22, 2013.
  4. Website: "What is Public History?" Accessed: 7/13/23.

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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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