Are Historic Sites Still Relevant?

When I tell people my job at the National Trust is all about promoting and supporting the regeneration of historic sites, I get some puzzled looks.  For us heritage types who use the Standards and Guidelines, we can understand that regeneration includes all the activities under the conservation umbrella. But for most people, the light bulb only really goes off when I say that our objective is to revitalize historic sites in a sustainable way that makes them relevant to today’s society.

I recently returned from our Launch Pad mission to the Glenaladale Estate in PEI, where I was energized to see how quickly a group of over 30 people understood this. No one at that meeting thought that the site could be saved by creating a static museum with cordoned-off rooms. Like at so many sites across the country, those designing Glenaladale’s future recognize that to be successful, it will need stable and varied revenue streams based on creative partnerships. But even more importantly, they understood that their vision needs a community to support it.

There is no cookie-cutter model for regenerating historic sites, but it is fundamental to have a community that believes and supports the site’s vision for the site.  That vision has to be relevant to their lives and their community’s needs:  what happens at the site should not be cordoned off from the reality of those it is meant to attract.  And a meaningful engagement with the community starts with sharing the decision making process:  those making the decisions and that manage a site need to reflect the character, and demographics of its audience.

And that is when the magic can happen: new ideas revenue generation can emerge, fresh solutions to challenging issues can be found, and new volunteers and partners can step forward.

And where does the interpretation of a site’s historic values fit into these new uses? Some may argue that today’s audience is less interested in history – and I would agree that the traditional single-narrative interpretation of a site has lost its appeal. A quick online search can often deliver more information than is provided on site.  But it is the multiple narratives – those other stories that a site can evoke – that people want to hear:  stories that expand on the known heritage values of the site, that are sometimes difficult to hear, or that expose conflicting versions of the historical record. Audiences are more captivated by the often overlooked roles played by women, indigenous peoples, or minorities; by historical themes of inequality and injustice.  Sites that not only interpret these themes, but that also have programming or commercial activities that address the issue strike a stronger cord with audiences.

History is messy:  it can be challenging and thought-provoking, yet it can also be playful and even a bit cheeky. But above all, it should be engaging and relevant.

Not all sites can be the stellar examples of creative regeneration strategies, with edgy programming and lucrative partnerships.  But given the precarious state of many sites, and their potential to punch above their weight, it is timely that this national dialogue on regeneration is taking place.

I believe that we are on the eve of a renaissance of historic sites. While the issues they face are often complex, their immense potential is limited only by the creative energies of those planning their regeneration. And from the signs I am seeing from across the country, local groups and individuals are stepping up to the plate.


Rob Pajot is Regeneration Project Lead at the National Trust, and will be co-leading a workshop on regenerating historic sites on October 20th at this year’s annual conference in Hamilton.

One thought on “Are Historic Sites Still Relevant?

  1. Rob,

    I agree with everything you have said. A house museum with roped-off rooms and displays of artifacts just isn’t enough to engage people. I for one love seeing old houses dressed-up to look like they did. Its romantic to imagine them as they were. However, that appeals to a very narrow group.

    I think that the very essence of why heritage buildings are important and the science behind their potential positive impact on community are things that are never visible when I visit sites. Focus is placed on the family that owned a house or the people that ran a business. It is a rare thing to see material relating to the people that built a house, the architectural elements that make it unique, why this house or that place of business is preserved and the one across the street isn’t. There might be a photo album of before and after photos and the first thought would be: wouldn’t it be nice to have access to the trades that made this magic happen.

    I have met so many people that love old houses and history. But I have met many more who just don’t see the point of it. Those are the people that put these places at risk the most. Those people may never care about the historical value of a place. They don’t care about the men and women who lived or worked there. They do care about costs and comfort. More effort has to be made to educate people about the ways in which all buildings can be updated to be relevant and useful in today’s world. Sure.. its great that the old such-and-such place down the road has been turned into a museum. 9 out of 10 people will drive by and not give it much more than a passing thought. The 1 out of 10 may stop and pay the nominal fee to look at the rooms and artifacts but will still walk away thinking “what a nice old house but it must be so cold in the winter!”. I believe that these houses should be places of learning. Not of history, or just how to weave a rug c.1880, but of how an old house can be used in a modern world. How many people buy an old house and immediately rip out the windows? Its all about energy efficiency. The vinyl window manufacturers aren’t going to tell them about old-growth lumber in original sash windows or how a properly installed wooden storm window will create just as much resistance to cold as a new insert. No one is going to tell them the real facts about savings vs. payback time when you rip out an old window and replace it with new. I know from my own experience that even when confronted with those facts people look at me like I made it up. The Government of Canada’s own websites will tell you how important it is to replace these things. No effort is even made to give people a reason to stop and think about an alternative.

    So we have restored that old homestead. We saved it from the landfill. And for what? Put up signs, put a flyer in mailboxes, put up a tent on the lawn one summer day and announce to the whole community that there is going to be a workshop – led by an expert – about the importance of original windows, the facts about energy savings and how easy it is to just spend a few hours and repair what you have. Oh… and as a bonus you are protecting the historic fabric of the property.

    Let’s make heritage designation more than a chance to put a plaque on the front. Let’s make it more about having done something that made sense and has real financial benefits. Put these old houses and buildings to work as a voice that refuses to be silent. Make them a place where a contractor goes when he needs to get information about how to fix that old rock wall with the proper mix of cement or how to glaze a sash or how to use epoxy on a rotten timber. People are hungry for this knowledge and the internet is full of people who know more about ripping things out than how to care for what is there. When someone buys an old house that needs work, their first thought should be “I know where to go for help to do this right”. That old place down the road is their first stop on the way to the building center.


    Liked by 1 person

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