New Times, New Tactics
By Richard Moe | From Preservation | November/December 2009
For many people, a visit to a historic site represents their first-ever personal encounter with our heritage—and an introduction to the importance of historic preservation. Sites imbued with history play a crucial role in helping us understand who we are as a nation. That is why their preservation, management, and interpretation have been central to this organization's mission for the past 60 years, and why we've assembled a collection of 29 historic places, all of which illustrate the richness and diversity of the American experience, from California to New England.
In recent years, changing travel habits and economic conditions have led to alarming declines in visitation and subsequent drops in income at historic destinations from coast to coast. In response, many National Trust Historic Sites have cast aside the traditional "velvet rope" approach and, in effect, reinvented themselves. Iowa's Brucemore, for example, celebrates the legacy of the families that once called it home by functioning as a vibrant center for performances, exhibitions, and other community activities. Besides serving as a focal point for our efforts to recognize and preserve the legacy of Modernism and the recent past, the Philip Johnson Glass House in Connecticut hosts an annual public series of conversations exploring issues and ideas in American culture. Here in Washington, Decatur House uses its unique historic character, flexible space, and appealing location—just steps from the White House—to attract meetings and events; across town, President Lincoln's Cottage is establishing itself as an innovative center for studying Lincoln's ideas and their impact on our world.
These fresh approaches testify to the ingenuity and dedication of staff and volunteer leaders, but more must be done to ensure the long-term viability of our historic sites. To that end, special task forces have been examining the challenges and opportunities facing Chesterwood, Lyndhurst, and Woodlawn. The groups have already helped all three sites take steps toward greater sustainability, and now, their efforts have inspired the creation of an organization-wide Historic Sites Task Force, led by trustee Carolyn Brody. It is charged with coordinating the work of the existing task forces, identifying lessons learned thus far and applying them to our other locations, and more broadly, studying the sites' fundamental role within the National Trust to determine whether new strategic approaches are warranted.
Although the times are undeniably challenging for historic sites, the news isn't all bad: According to recent reports, attendance at some has actually increased compared with last year. This fact illustrates the public's continuing interest in the places that tell America's story—and underscores the importance of our efforts to ensure that they offer an authentic and engaging visitor experience, and that they stand on a solid, sustainable financial base.
Decatur House and President Lincoln's Cottage received matching grants toward their restorations from Save America's Treasures.
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