Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Unpretentious Role of Historic Sites

Well, for three reasons it was a big week for history last week in Durham, North Carolina.

Even among those involved in tourism, most people don’t realize that a greater percentage of travelers visit historic sites than attend concerts, theater and dance performances combined.

Travelers who take in historic sites also outnumber those who golf or attend/participate in pro and amateur sports combined.  They also outnumber those going to theme/amusement parks, zoos/aquariums and water parks combined.

Soon those visiting historic sites will rival the number attending conventions and meetings or going to the beach or other waterfronts.

And because historic sites are also on the most authentic end of the spectrum of activities, they add destination appeal even for those participating in those more mainstream activities.

First, on Sunday a week ago the Bull City (Durham’s nick name) celebrated the re-enactment by Bennett Place of the surrender here ending the Civil War 150 years ago.

It would be another 58 years before the state took stewardship as a historic site.  More on the history of that endeavor later.

The next day, in Atlanta, three of those involved in the startup of the Durham History Hub including executive director Katie Spencer were asked by The Museum Group to be one of its five prestigious “conversations at AAM.”

TMG is a consortium of 31 of the top museum consultants in the world.  AAM is the American Alliance of Museums which was holding it annual meeting in Atlanta.

They wanted to hear more about the Durham’s History Hub, which they characterized as “a sustainable new model for community-based museums” affectionately termed by a friend and historian as an avatar for the day there is a Museum of Durham History.

But Katie Spencer is no avatar.  She is rapidly rising star and the startup has already mounted an incredible 18 exhibitions at the “Hub” in less than 24 months.  Hopefully Durham can keep her.

Her work in Durham caught the attention of those at AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums because the pop-up exhibitions at the Hub are an ingenious way to help officials and community leaders here understand why a Museum of Durham History has been ranked for decades by residents as the #1 cultural need.

The pop-ups also serve to identify residents who have artifacts that could be loaned and safeguarded when a full-fledged history museum becomes a reality.

Durham’s third history event last week took place on Wednesday when the state’s three historic sites here were celebrated by nearly 400 people attending the Annual Tribute Luncheon which is facilitated for the community by the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau.

A video reenactment wove the pre and post role that Historic Stagville, Bennett Place and Duke Homestead played in the history of not only Durham but especially the transformation of North Carolina.

After some editing, the video will be posted at this link along with a handful of the more than 20 Durham Annual Tribute Luncheons DCVB has produced over the past two decades.

North Carolina’s 27 state historic sites have been systematically starved through repeated budget cuts going back to shortly after I was recruited here 26 years ago, notwithstanding their importance to the state’s appeal for economic development.

Lawmakers today seem to have become unmoored from the public value of these sites as it was so well understood by their peers in 1923 when Bennett Place was donated as a state historic site, nearly 50 years before gaining national recognition.

The state apparently took possession of Bennett Place more than a decade before it began keeping track of theses assets in 1937.

It had been preserved and donated to the state by the Durham founder’s second generation in honor of its first.  Within six years, this generation went on to salvage Duke Homestead.

But it became a National Historic Landmark seven years before it became a North Carolina State Historic Site in 1973 at a time when Margaret Haywood was working to ensure the oldest of Durham’s now three state historic sites would be preserved.

For more than 25 years, Bennett Place fell under the precursor to the State Department of Economic Development showing that lawmakers and businesses back then and through the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s better understood the link of historic sites to economic development.

In 1955, Bennett Place was transferred along with by then 11 other state historic sites to to the newly created Department of Archives and History.

Less than two decades later, the nation including North Carolina were swept up in preparations for celebration of the America’s Bicentennial and Duke Homestead and Historic Stagville became state historic sites.

A decade earlier, Duke Homestead became a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and then part of the state’s historic sites, which in 1975 became its own unit in the Department of Cultural Resources.

Of course, the unique historic sites owned and operated by the state represent only 27 of the 2,780 Tar Heel listings on the National Register of Historic Places including 500 historic districts.

Only 15% are publically owned but 25% are of significance at the state level and another 5% at the national level.

Today, North Carolina Historic Sites are funded at roughly the same amount they were two decades ago or 54% less accounting for inflation even though the number of sites has increased.

This slow starvation has been bipartisan in nature, even though in the early 1970s voters overwhelmingly embedded an amendment to the state constitution to “conserve and protect”…”for the benefit of all its citizenry”…to preserve as a part of the common heritage its”…”historic sites”…

Although economic analysis of cultural assets shows a 7-to-1 return to governments on dollars spent on museums and cultural organizations, North Carolina invests only 52 cents per person on state historic sites, less than 2 cents per site.

Because they can also be leveraged into visitor centric economic development, the state has rightfully come to think of the 78 assets it began to accumulate beginning in 1879, such as historic sites, museums, zoos/aquariums and parkland/recreation areas, as “attractions.”

Unfortunately, state government doesn’t or isn’t able to conduct the analysis that would credit these “attractions” with the overall tax revenues they help harvest.

If that day comes, maybe lawmakers will resource them accordingly.

No comments: