The first part of this post is filled with a whole lot of navel-gazing. If you’re not here for that, skip down to “so, what can we do with this energy?”
Early Monday afternoon, my sister sent me a text message. “Did you see that Notre Dame is on fire?” she asked. The university in Indiana, I thought? Or the school I attended for seventh grade in Schenectady, NY? I jumped online and googled Notre Dame and saw what she meant. The Notre-Dame de Paris, the famous Cathedral, was on fire. It seemed inconceivable to me and yet there it was, in flames, smoke billowing from its roof and across the Paris sky. I watched live streams on and off for the next few hours, staring in open-mouthed horror as the fire spread and intensified and as the burning spire finally fell, feeling teary at the sight of so many Parisians and tourists from around the world watching silently from nearby bridges as flames ate away at one of France’s most visible landmarks.
I wasn’t alone in my reaction and, like millions of others, I felt relieved when French authorities reported that they had managed to control the fire, and again when they said that they knew for certain that no one had died in the blaze, and again when they shared footage showing that the sanctuary remained mostly-intact.
I’m deliberately emphasizing my emotional response for a reason. Material culture, including physical structures, has the power to evoke strong emotions and overcome some of the abstraction that can make it difficult to connect with people who lived so long ago. People care about historic buildings, ruins, and other historic elements of the physical landscape because, quite simply, they connect us in a very concrete way to an earlier time. They allow us to think about the humans who lived and loved and suffered in these spaces long before we came along. It’s the closest we come to meeting people who lived in the past– we can stand where they stood and know that they moved through the same space.
I thought about this the next day as I reflected on my response. Why did I feel so powerfully about a building I’ve never entered, located in a country I’ve never visited? I know a lot about its significance– it’s hard *not* to pick up on that, working in history– but I have no other connection to the Notre-Dame de Paris. But, significantly, I felt similarly watching the fire consume the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, and when I read about the three black churches Holden Matthews set on fire in Louisiana, and when looking up at the long-crumbling façade of a Boston building owned by the League of Women for Community Service. These buildings hold different meanings for different people and when disasters, including hate crimes, threaten or destroy buildings, they also threaten the various meanings embedded in their walls.
Obviously (and importantly), I’m not the only one who responded this way. My Twitter and news feeds were full of reactions similar to my own– historians and preservationists and others grieved by the damage to the Cathedral and concerned about its future. Friends and colleagues posted pictures on social media from their visits to Notre Dame, captioned with expressions of wonder and appreciation for the 850-year-old structure. The emotional energy we’ve built up over the past few days needs an outlet, and herein lies an opportunity for us to reflect on how we can use the powerful pull of historic buildings for good.
So, what can we– people who work in historic preservation and who interpret historic structures– do with this energy? What lessons can we take from what happened at Notre-Dame de Paris? And how can we implement these in ways that improve and advance our professional practice?
For one, if you work at a historic site or other kind of organization with a physical location, take a moment to check. your. disaster. plan. Make sure it’s updated and that all staff members and essential personnel know how it works and when it needs to be implemented. If your site doesn’t have a disaster plan, put one together ASAP. There are many publicly-available resources that explain what these documents need to contain. See, for example, guides and advice from the American Alliance of Museums, FEMA, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Additionally, there’s a lot of public attention focused on Notre Dame and the importance of historic preservation right now– a lot more attention than usual– and we should consider how to best sustain this interest in historic structures moving forward. We’ve already seen donations to threatened historic sites rise (not to mention the astonishing amount of money pledged by donors to help rebuild Notre Dame), which means that there’s an opportunity right now for historic preservationists and interpreters to talk with their audiences more explicitly and intentionally about the issues facing their sites. Some sites do this now and do it well, but many more don’t allow their visitors or members to see behind the curtain, obscuring the true extent of repair work needed at their historic properties. Significantly, at the time of the fire Notre Dame needed tens of millions of dollars in repairs, a fact that seemed to shock many people. After all, how could the Cathedral’s stewards, as well as Paris’ elected officials and the government of France, allow such a well-known place to fall into such disrepair? But I doubt people involved in historic preservation were surprised. Historic properties in need of serious repairs costing millions of dollars are not so rare.
There’s also an opportunity here to back up and take a hard look at the bigger picture, of which Notre Dame is only a small part. Where are we– public historians, historic preservationists, and others who preserve and interpret historic buildings– as a field? The field has its own fraught history and we continue to grapple with how to make historic preservation and interpretation truly representative of the people who lived and worked in the buildings we save, as well as how to tell equitable stories in physical landscapes dominated by images and narratives of white achievement. There are many people working on this exact thing, but it’s not yet the norm for everyone working to preserve historic structures. People in power have destroyed so many buildings built and/or used by marginalized and economically-disadvantaged people in order to create environments that convey messages of white supremacy. And in cases where these structures do still exist, they’re often underfunded, left to face uncertain futures as their facades, roofs, and foundations crumble. Furthermore, many of the buildings saved with the intentional of celebrating white progress continue to overlook how working-class people, people of color, women, and other marginalized groups shaped and used those very same places. We can’t preserve and interpret structures in ways that highlight the experiences of one select group of people– we need to talk about the lived experience of everyone who passed through a building’s doors, supported its operation and occupants, and lived and worked in its shadow.
If we take anything away from what happened in Paris this week, let it be that we need to be more transparent and vocal about the issues facing our historic structures and sites. We need to talk openly about deferred maintenance with our audiences and visitors, yes. But we also need to be explicit about the power lines underlying historic preservation and talk with our audiences about how and why the ways we preserve and interpret historic buildings and sites have changed over time.
We need to continue to push for more equitable interpretations of historic structures and landscapes. Many preservationists and historic sites have moved or are moving in this direction. But there are so many more that haven’t– historic sites ham-stringed by vocal donors, board members, or public stakeholders who feel threatened by the prospect of new interpretive frameworks, as well as sites facing so many problems that their staff feel that they can’t do much more than patch up holes in an ever-weakening dam. We need to do better. This work isn’t optional– it’s a matter of justice. The landscapes we live and work in are human creations and they tell important stories about who matters and whose voices are heard. Sustaining them in their current form helps to uphold the same oppressive forces responsible for marginalizing and abusing these communities in the first place.