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.