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Preservation’s Existential Crisis

Thu, Oct 15, 2020    6:30pm

Preservation’s Existential Crisis - A lecture by Marisa Brown

In the US, a struggle is under way to tell a more accurate story about the past. Across the country, educators are revising curriculum units on Black and Indigenous history, activists are demanding the removal or recontexualization of public art that promotes white supremacy, and a new generation of writers and artists are articulating a radical critique of the racial hierarchy and violence that has shaped American history and identity. Where does preservation fit into this movement? Not comfortably – and possibly not at all. A fundamental problem is that the urgent need to radically remake the built and interpreted environment to tell a more accurate and just story of our past is in conflict with the mission of preserving many of our “historic” sites. That is, we can have preservation, or we can have spatial justice, but it may be that we cannot have both. This presentation considers the dimensions of preservation’s existential crisis, and offers thoughts on the structural changes that would need to take place at all levels – from policy to culture to curriculum – for the field to survive this era of historical reckoning intact.

Marisa Angell Brown is the Assistant Director for Programs at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University, where she teaches a graduate seminar titled Critical Approaches to Preservation and Cultural Heritage. Brown received a PhD in the History of Art from Yale University, and an MA in History from the University of Chicago. She is the author of “Preservation’s Expanded Field” in Doing Public Humanities (Routledge, 2020), and numerous articles, reviews and exhibitions on American visual culture, urban history, architecture, and preservation. She serves on the Executive Committee of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies and on the State Review Board for the Rhode Island State Historic Preservation Office. Her new project, a book tentatively titled Inheritance: Dispatches from the Heritage Wars, explores conflicts over American history and identity that are playing out in battles over public art and preservation across the country.


Organized as part of the Preservation Lecture Series, an initiative of the Historic Preservation Program at Columbia GSAPP. Free and open to the public. Virtual events hosted on Zoom Webinar do not require an account to attend.

GSAPP is committed to providing universal access to all of our virtual events. Please contact Meredith Brull via email at hp@arch.columbia.edu to request disability accommodations. Advance notice is necessary to arrange for some accessibility needs.