What happens when a cultural resource management company becomes a community asset?

What happens when cultural resource management professionals are local heroes?Fifty years ago, United States legislators signed a law that intended to use historic preservation to make the world better for future generations. This decision did not come out of thin air. It came from local communities across the country.

Preservation advocates had been pushing communities to save cultural treasures since before the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union launched their campaign to save Mount Vernon in 1853. Theodore Roosevelt upped the stakes with the signing of the Antiquities Act in 1906, making it Congress’ job to care about archaeological resources. The “Federal nexus” continued to expand between 1906 and 1966 until a group of mayors from cities across the country converged in order to urge President Johnson to pass the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Today, the NHPA is the foundation of the cultural resource management industry in the United States.

From its conception, historic preservation has been rooted in community advocacy. Historical and archaeological sites are preserved out of the desire for local people to save tangible assets of their heritage. Preservation laws work at the local level, even though they are frequently prescribed at the Federal level. The CRM industry has arisen from this combination of community advocacy and governmental edict in order to help facilitate the preservation process; however, many believe the cultural resource management industry has forgotten its roots.

“CRM is all about money;” A statement said so often it makes me believe that it is true. All the bidding, efficiency, consulting, compliance, and moneymaking have a tendency to cloud the waters in which we live. It’s hard to remember why historic preservation exists when all you care about is bringing in the next contract that will keep your employees eating.

Every now and then I hear news about CRMers of a different breed—those who have not forgotten why the industry exists. There are companies out there that truly seek to become community assets. They give their expertise and skills in order to save what they can of their community’s heritage. In the process, they are fulfilling the mandate at the heart of our historic preservation legislation.

Using your powers for good

You’ve probably heard me talk about the CRM companies that have turned into heritage conservation organizations. Archaeology Southwest is the one I most frequently mention because I know he folks there the best. I am also a fan of the now deceased Bill Naito’s work in Portland, Oregon. But, there are a number of companies across the country that are using their knowledge of historic preservation to give back to the communities in which they work, live, and practice.

Historic preservation is about amenity. That is, historic preservation has always been about maintaining the intangible assets that make life worth living in a given community. I grew up in the suburbs. As a young man, I was inexplicably compelled to spend my free time (and my money) in the historic downtown district of Boise, Idaho. Why was downtown so much more interesting than the neighborhood where I lived? Because it was unique, interesting, and unlike any other part of the city. Although it wasn’t entirely livable, downtown Boise had many of the attributes of a good neighborhood as promoted by Jane Jacobs and the other sustainability/preservation advocates. It was a combination of mixed-use commercial, public, and residential zones that brought together a diverse cast of citizens for work and play. The district is anchored by the number of historic buildings dotting the landscape in this part of town. People love downtown Boise and it is a major reason why Boise has topped livability scores for the last decade.

Downtown Boise was saved from the wrecking ball during the 1970s. Urban renewal wrought wholesale destruction throughout the downtown district and the appalling loss of architecture, history, and heritage prompted preservationists to act. They lobbied to save many of the existing historical buildings in downtown Boise and to create historic districts elsewhere in the city. Historic preservation laws were harnessed to give this campaign a lasting effect. Those efforts paid dividends and helped make the unique, interesting place central Boise is today.

Historic preservation isn’t just about saving buildings. It is about creating sustainable coalitions for mutual benefit that are dedicated to improving the quality of life throughout the community. These collaborative coalitions have myriad interests but they converge when it comes to making livable, interesting, nurturing communities. Public/private/business collaboration is at the heart of the Plenitude Business Model I have discussed a number of times.

Cultural resource management is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the Plenitude Model because what we do is born from of the public’s concern for heritage conservation. Even though we aren’t always portrayed as such, we do make an important contribution to society because we make sure society remembers. The act of forgetting the past comes easy. Preserving, confronting, and commemorating that past is hard. But, social amnesia is an illness we cannot afford. The difficult task of preservationists and CRMers is judiciously doing memory work while also allowing for development and growth. The only way this can be done is through socially conscious CRMers who are willing to embed themselves in the community and use what they know about heritage conservation to do exactly that.

When business dovetails with heritage conservation

Dovetail Cultural Resource Group is one company I frequently hear about in the news for their historic preservation efforts. Located in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Dovetail continues to make headlines for their extracurricular and professional historic preservation activities in Fredericksburg.

(DISCLOSURE: I personally know Dr. Kerri Barile, the co-owner of Dovetail, and am familiar with her as a historical archaeologist. I never worked for Dr. Barile, but I am an admirer of her work. I am biased. Also, the following information was gleaned from news stories I found on the internet. I also haven’t run this post past Dr. Barile or any of the folks at Dovetail. This post is a personal commentary that is not endorsed by Dovetail CRG. Just wanted you to know.)

Dovetail is doing a lot of the things I believe makes a CRM company stronger. They are a full-service cultural resources consulting firm that does archaeology, architectural history, and other aspects of histpres. The company also does an excellent job of using the news media to let the community know about what it is doing and how its work affects citizens at the local level.

Private ownership is one of the strongest ways to preserve historic properties because of the strong private property laws in the United States. Property owners benefit greatly from preservation legislation through tax breaks for owning a historic property as well as rehabilitation cost rebates from histpres laws. Cultural resource management companies can use their qualifications to conduct the documentation necessary for property owners to qualify for the historic tax benefits. This is exemplified by Dovetail’s documentation of Thornton’s Tavern, which is one of Fredericksburg’s oldest buildings. The award-winning rehabilitation project was a collaboration between several private entities including a real estate investor in order to bring this eighteenth century building into the twenty-first century. Dovetail’s expertise was essential to making sure this property qualified for historic preservation tax credits that allowed the rehabilitation project to be economically feasible.

CRMers get paid for their expert opinions. We make recommendations on historical significance in hopes that our clients will heed our advice. This does not always happen. Sometimes truckloads of archaeological materials are removed during construction. Sometimes those truckloads contain human remains. Sometimes CRM companies are called in to help mitigate damage to archaeological sites that were supposed to have suffered much less damage. Last fall, Dovetail archaeologists did a damage assessment and mitigation to a historical archeological component that contained Civil War-era human remains that were accidentally damaged during construction.

The Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862 was one of the grittiest engagements of the Civil War. In this early battle, an overconfident Union Army attempted to dislodge a well-fortified Confederate force. After first shelling the city, destroying most of Fredericksburg’s eighteenth century landscape, the Union Army engaged the Confederates in the first urban warfare of the war. They suffered a crushing defeat. During the battle, the Union Army used a number of civilian houses as field hospitals. Dead soldiers were, generally, buried in cemeteries whereas we aren’t really sure what happened to all the amputated limbs. It is not uncommon for construction projects in Fredericksburg to unearth random human body parts, or unexploded shells for that matter.

It is uncommon for construction projects to unearth these remains without prior warning. Local historic preservation regulations call for cultural resource reviews for most projects in Fredericksburg’s historical neighborhoods and, for the most part, these historic preservation recommendations are heeded. Misunderstandings can occur and, when mistakes like this happen, it is up to the local experts to mitigate the damage. Mitigation projects in CRM are not unusual, but Dovetail’s reputation in Fredericksburg made them particularly well-suited for this project. One benefit of the Plenitude Business Model is the fact that you can position yourself favorably so local communities seek your expertise when it is needed, which makes your marketing efforts that much easier.

Special powers don’t always end up doing good

Like any other cultural resource management company, Dovetail’s work can be controversial because the many factions in historic preservation oftentimes oppose each other. Preservation advocates almost always want to see archaeologists make a discovery that will further their cause. This does not always happen.

While Native American tribes are taking the lead on public/private collaborations with regard to preserving archaeological and heritage sites, other non-Euroamerican groups, particularly African Americans, are partnering with preservationists, archaeologists, and CRMers to reclaim their heritage by protecting sites and historic properties. With a history steeped in slavery, the southeastern United States is one focal point for addressing the heritage of African American enslavement. Black people are starting to use every avenue at their disposal to help identify their ancestors and preserve African American sites, including former plantations. In Botetourt County, Virginia, Dovetail worked to determine the presence or absence of unmarked slave graves before two slave cabins were moved from the plantation:

The building relocation was opposed by the Friends of the Greenfield Preston Plantation, a descendant group that includes relatives of the enslaved workforce. The Friends wanted the buildings to remain in place. Despite the wishes of these descendants and preservation advocates, Dovetail’s work did not determine the presence of any slave burials. The project proceeded as planned. The buildings were moved.

Working with descendant and local communities will become an even more salient aspect of doing historic preservation in the future but CRMers still have an obligation to provide quality services even if those services don’t result in preserving a site. It is clear Dovetail has a commitment to local preservation but they also have an obligation to work within the legal and ethical boundaries of historic preservation law. We cannot control what exists under the ground and, although preservationists wanted to stop the relocation, there was no way for Dovetail archaeologists to make this dream a reality.

CRMers live their work

We all live someplace. Even if it isn’t your birthplace, the cities, towns, counties, and states where we live all have a history. Our simple presence in these landscapes is a testament to the continuation of history. I believe we all have an obligation to at least learn about the heritage of the communities in which we hang our hats.

For cultural resource management professionals, learning about heritage, history, and prehistory is our how we make our way in the world. It is also our job to protect that history as best as we can. We owe our employment because the Citizens of the United States of America decided that preserving history for future generations contributes to the common good.

The nature of our trade means we do not get to choose whose heritage we help preserve. We also don’t get to choose the outcome of our work because archaeology is a tentative venture. Our discoveries do not always further the cause of preservation. In order to keep working to live, we have to play by the rules. This means we are antiheroes and villains at the same time.

When historic preservation compliance is rooted in a community, there are more opportunities for CRMers to be the antihero. Sometimes we even get to be real heroes. Good cultural resource management work is what communities lobbied for when they urged lawmakers to create the NHPA. Good CRM is done in the spirit of this law. Companies like Dovetail demonstrate how cultural resource management and archaeology can be a communal asset. This model has allowed the company to steadily grow through its 10-year history. Providing value at the local level is how they have become a trusted purveyor of historic preservation services in the mid-Atlantic.

We can use our skills, education, and attributes to do more than just make money and help keep the dozers rolling. We can do what we all wanted to when we decided on this career path— do the kind of archaeology that matters.

Do you know anyone who works for Dovetail Cultural Resource Group? Is my characterization of their work correct? Tell me how they’re doing. Write a comment below or send me an email.

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