Tax Cuts for the Rich – Budget Cuts for the Past

The budget targeting of historic preservation and heritage programs (of all kinds) is based on an assumption that serious public reflection on the past is just a disposable luxury.  Sure there is waste, elitism, racism, chauvinism, and class favoritism in some areas of the historic preservation movement.  And sure we need to be smart and effective how we allocate and spend public funds.

Yet among the most promising trends in recent years is the growing attention to community-based heritage activities, increasing inclusiveness in the decisions about who or what gets included in “official” commemoration, and the widening awareness that cultural identity– and even more important cultural co-existence– is absolutely essential, especially in hard times.

A bugetarily microscopic initiative like the Preserve America program has been branded by Republicans as wasteful (along with other useless things like Public Broadcasting and the voluntary US contributions to UN activities).  More troubling still is the fact that President Obama has apparently agreed about the disposability of heritage programs of all kinds.

So what do we have left of our national memories beyond the factless history-babble of Glenn Beck and the wildly mythic notions of the Tea Party Movement?  The official neglect of our collective memories has a tremendous cost.

 

History at no cost to the taxpayer. Does it look intelligent to you? Photo from Steve M. blog/Fox News

 

The cuts will deepen our national historical dementia by increasing our inability to distinguish between fact-based reflection and myth-based assertions.  No less damaging, the continuing privatization of heritage “attractions” as venues for “edu-tainment” will further trivialize the multimedia costume drama that we increasingly confuse with the past.

And don’t assume that this is just an American problem:  outsourcing of conservation responsibilities for historic districts and sites to retail, residential, and tourism developers is a worldwide phenomenon.  We have to carefully consider our priorities, examine the impacts of heritage on society, and be aware of the dangers of public amnesia.

From http://www.governing.com   January 14, 2011

Feds Threaten Major Cuts to Historic Preservation Grants

Posted By Ryan Holeywell

President Obama and the GOP don’t tend to agree on much these days. But they’ve found common ground in one unusual place: Both want to cut millions of dollars in historic preservation grants.

This week, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), a GOP deputy whip and member of the Republican Study Committee’s steering committee, introduced a bill that would cut $150 billion over five years through nearly 50 types of spending reductions across the board.

Some of the cuts are politically charged, like rescinding voluntary payments to the United Nations and eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Others are common-sense proposals taken from the president’s fiscal commission, such as requiring the sale of excess federal property and reducing federal travel costs.

A little-noticed proposal was a plan to eliminate two programs that fund historic preservation grants: Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America.

According to a House-issued breakdown of Brady’s proposal:

This amendment would eliminate funding for the Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America Program, as called for by the President who said both programs are duplicative and underperforming.

The Preserve America Grant Program was established in 2003 (as) a grant program within (the Department of the Interior) to provide ‘planning funding to support preservation efforts through heritage tourism, education, and historic preservation planning.’

The Save America’s Treasures Program in Department of Interior awards grants to preserve historically significant properties. This account is also heavily earmarked. $4.6 million is appropriated for Preserve in FY 2010 and $25 million is appropriated for Save. The Department of the Interior oversees multiple, overlapping historic preservation programs. Additionally, every federal agency is required to maintain a historic preservation program and must appoint a historic preservation officer and comply with the National Historic Preservation Act. In addition, there are numerous other federal grant programs and tax provisions aimed at historic preservation.

But Patrick J. Lally, director of congressional affairs for The National Trust for Historic Preservation, said Brady is downplaying the grants’ significance. Save America’s Treasures is the only federal grant dedicated exclusively to physical restoration of nationally significant sites, and it represents a significant portion of all federal funding for historic preservation.

The historic preservation fund, which is part of the Department of Interior, is usually funded at about $75 million to $78 million, and Save America’s Treasures usually makes up about $25 million to $30 million of that total. Eliminating it would be a huge blow to federal preservation efforts, Lally tells FedWatch. “It’s not like when lawmakers propose elimination of these funds they go to another account within the historic preservation fund,” Lally says. “They go away.”

Save America’s Treasures has provided funding to restore the Montgomery bus where Rosa Parks made her stand, the workshop where Thomas Edison created his inventions and the cottage to which President Lincoln retreated during hot Washington summers, among other projects. Since its 1998 launch, it has provided nearly $294 million to more than 1,100 preservation projects.

While Save America’s Treasures focuses on physical work, Preserve America grants provide funding for things like marketing, research and digitizing records — ancillary work that helps to promote “heritage tourism” to cultural and natural sites. For example, Honolulu was awarded $150,000 to develop programs to showcase its Chinatown, and Oxford, Miss. received $75,000 to fund exhibits about the life of Supreme Court Justice L.Q.C. Lamar in his historic home. Preserve America has provided more than $17 million in grants to more than 225 projects.

This time, the programs are being targeted by a House Republican. But a year ago, it was President Obama who proposed cutting the programs in his 2010-2011 budget. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer wrote on the White House blog that they “lack rigorous performance metrics and evaluation efforts so the benefits are unclear.”

That decision was especially unusual, given that the White House has previously been a supporter of the programs. In March 2009, Obama signed legislation that permanently authorized them, and in December of that year, First Lady Michelle Obama touted Save America’s Treasures as a way to “empower communities all over the country to rescue and restore this priceless heritage.”

Lally says he believes Obama’s proposal to cut the programs last year was an oversight. Congress ultimately preserved funding for the programs, largely due to the fact that Save America’s Treasures has a record of creating jobs (16,000 since its inception), Lally says. The White House’s budget will be released next month, and preservations are anxiously waiting to see whether it will against target the two programs, like Brady has already done. And given that deficit reduction has been the theme repeated ad nauseum by the new House Republican leadership, the future of the programs could be in jeopardy.

The fact that the two programs are fighting for their survival is especially ironic, considering the $29.6 allotted to them is a pittance of the overall federal budget. Nancy Schamu, executive director of the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, tells FedWatch she doesn’t know why preservation funding is being targeted, especially since it’s basically “decimal dust” in the grand scheme of things.

“That’s something you’ll have to ask the bill drafters,” she says.

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Winner Announced: The Worst Museum Concept of 2011

Well it’s only January but I’m ready to declare the newly opened multimedia exhibit at the Yad Mordechai Kibbutz Museum in Israel as the most tasteless, insensitive, and utterly banal attempt at heritage presentation of 2011.

And the award for the most outstanding purveyor of trashy heritage goes to Mr. David Gafni, chief designer of such politically and religiously loaded heritage sites as Tel Aviv’s Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Jewish People (former the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora ); Jerusalem’s Western Wall tunnels museum; the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, in Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot, the Illegal Detention Camp Museum in Atlit, the Historical Museum of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the museum at the memorial site for the fallen of the Israeli intelligence community. In addition, he was the house designer of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.  Despite– or perhaps in light of– his long career of packaging history and culture into”visitable” attractions, Gafni should be seriously considered for a lifetime kitsch achievement award.

Of course, the idea of using multimedia to make history and heritage more exciting and attractive has always courted the danger that trivialization and entertainment would be the inevitable outcomes.  But now with immersive environments and interactive experience the watchwords of the museum biz, the Past– to paraphrase David Lowenthal’s famous epigram that “The Past is a Theme Park”–is well on its way to becoming a video game.

The following report from the Israeli daily Haaretz speaks for itself.  Gafni and his team of concept developers and exhibit designers who accepted money for this truly awful multimedia presentation ought to be ashamed of themselves.

From Haaretz – January 20, 2011

Experience the Warsaw Ghetto

Visitors to a new exhibit at the Yad Mordechai Museum can take a virtual train to a virtual death camp, and feel the cannon-fire in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Is the Disneyland approach the only way to interest today’s kids in Holocaust history?

By Yuval Saar

One of the first stops made by visitors to the new Warsaw Ghetto Uprising exhibit in the Yad Mordechai Museum, in Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, is the projection of a yellow star on their clothing. By moving your body, you put the virtual patch in the place where it belongs. It’s part of the concept of bringing viewers into the experience.

A day in the Virtual Holocaust: Yellow stars are projected onto museum visitors. Photo: David Gary

Later on, in order to peek at a model of the Warsaw Ghetto one takes a virtual journey on a railway car to a death camp. After the doors shut, with a realistic-sounding noise, the trip begins. A subwoofer speaker under the car simulates the sounds of traveling by train, while images of the ghetto, and then of the extermination camps, go past the barbed-wire-covered windows.

The freight car doesn’t actually move. Its “journey” leads to two of the exhibit’s high points.

The first is a huge, 1:100 scale model of the Warsaw Ghetto, with all the buildings as they were prior to its destruction. As stories from the ghetto are projected onto a background screen, walls and buildings in the model are lit in accordance with the narrative.

The second high point is the sound-and-light show of the main stages of the ghetto revolt and the recreation of a room in Mila 18, the famed bunker headquarters of the Jewish resistance. Against a background wall of burned bricks, the events play out, with museum visitors in the middle: Cannons fire shells, houses explode and fall down, guns are fired, planes are bombing, sirens, shouts and the crying of babies – fire and death all around. All in order to thrill audiences and make them part of the experience. The jury is still out as to whether this Warsaw-Ghetto Disneyland, whose official public opening is tomorrow, is the only way to make the history of the Holocaust real to young viewers.

The Yad Mordechai Museum is not the first one in Israel or abroad to tackle the challenge of conveying history in a way that will grab the attention of today’s “instant thrills” generation, for whom the Holocaust is not a top priority. That is apparently also the reason that the museum staff often use words like “exciting,” “unique” and “experiences,” demonstrating a surrender to trends that are problematic at best, or populist at worst. A press release boasts that the new exhibit “has not yet been seen in museums that deal with the Holocaust in Israel and the world over.”

The designer of the exhibit, David Gafni, doesn’t hesitate to say that among his sources of inspiration were Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida. “I wanted to cause people who come from far away to say that there’s something very special here that doesn’t exist anywhere else, something that’s impossible to send in a picture or by email,” he explains.

Read more– if you have the stomach to do so– by clicking here.

A Deal With the Devil, West African Style

From Wikipedia:

A deal with the Devil, pact with the Devil, or Faustian bargain is a cultural motif widespread in the West, best exemplified by the legend of Faust and the figure of Mephistopheles, but elemental to many Christian folktales. In the Aarne-Thompson typological catalog, it lies in category AT 756B – “The devil’s contract.”

According to traditional Christian belief in witchcraft, the pact is between a person and Satan or any other demon (or demons); the person offers his or her soul in exchange for diabolical favors. Those favors vary by the tale, but tend to include youth, knowledge, wealth, or power. It was also believed that some persons made this type of pact just as a sign of recognizing the Devil as their master, in exchange for nothing. Regardless, the bargain is a dangerous one, as the price of the Fiend’s service is the wagerer’s soul. The tale may have a moralizing end, with eternal damnation for the foolhardy venturer. Conversely it may have a comic twist, in which a wily peasant outwits the Devil, characteristically on a technical point.

But who’s making the deal here?  And who’s paying the price?

As a World Heritage site, Djenné, Mali, must preserve its mud-brick buildings, from the Great Mosque, in the background, to individual homes. Photo: Tyler Hicks/New York Times

From the New York Times  January 9, 2011

Mali City Rankled by Rules for Life in Spotlight

By NEIL MacFARQUHAR

DJENNÉ , Mali — Abba Maiga stood in his dirt courtyard, smoking and seething over the fact that his 150-year-old mud-brick house is so culturally precious he is not allowed to update it — no tile floors, no screen doors, no shower.

Who wants to live in a house with a mud floor?” groused Mr. Maiga, a retired riverboat captain.

With its cone-shaped crenellations and palm wood drainage spouts, the grand facade seems outside time and helps illustrate why this ancient city in eastern Mali is an official World Heritage site.

But the guidelines established by Unesco, the cultural arm of the United Nations, which compiles the heritage list, demand that any reconstruction not substantially alter the original.

“When a town is put on the heritage list, it means nothing should change,” Mr. Maiga said. “But we want development, more space, new appliances — things that are much more modern. We are angry about all that.”

It is a cultural clash echoed at World Heritage sites across Africa and around the world. While it may be good for tourism, residents complain of being frozen in time like pieces in a museum — their lives proscribed so visitors can gawk.

“The issue in Djenné is about people getting comfort, using the right materials without compromising the architectural values,” said Lazare Eloundou Assomo, the chief of the African unit of Unesco’s World Heritage Center.

Mr. Assomo ticked off a list of sites facing similar tension, including the island of St.-Louis in neighboring Senegal, the island of Lamu in Kenya, the entire island of Mozambique off the coast of the nation by the same name, or Asian and European cities like Lyon, France.

Here in Djenné, the striking Great Mosque is what put the town on the map. It is the largest mud-brick structure in the world, so unique that it looks as if it might have landed from another planet, an imposing sand castle looming over the main square. The architectural style, known as Sudanese, is native to the Sahel.

A trio of unique minarets — square, tapering towers topped by pointed pillars and crowned by an ostrich egg — dominate the facade. Palm tree boards poked into the mosque in rows like toothpicks create a permanent scaffolding that allows residents to swarm over the building to replaster the mud, an annual February ritual involving the entire town.

Djenné is the less famous but better preserved sister city to Timbuktu. Both reached their zenith of wealth and power in the 16th century by sitting at the crossroads of Sahara trade routes for goods like gold, ivory and slaves.

The town was also a gateway that helped spread Islam regionally. When the king converted in the 13th century, he leveled his palace and built a mosque. Mali’s French colonizers eventually oversaw its reconstruction in 1907.

The Grand Mosque was again near collapse when the Agha Khan Foundation arrived to begin a $900,000 restoration project, said Josephine Dilario, one of two supervising architects. The annual replastering had more than doubled the width of the walls and added a yard of mud to the roof. It was too heavy, even with the forest of thick pillars inside the mosque supporting the high ceiling — one for each of the 99 names of God.

In 2006, the initial restoration survey ignited a riot. Protesters sacked the mosque’s interior, attacked city buildings and destroyed cars. The uprising was apparently rooted in the simmering tension among the 12,000 townsfolk, particularly the young, who felt forced to live in squalor while the mosque imam and a few prominent families raked in the benefits from tourism.

The frustration seems to have lingered. While the mosque graces the national seal, residents here appear markedly more sullen about tourism than in many other Malian cities. They often glower rather than smile, and they tend to either ask for money or stomp off when cameras are pointed in their direction.

With the mosque restoration nearing completion, the town is focusing attention on other critical problems — raw sewage and the restoration of the nearly 2,000 houses.

“There is a kind of tension, a difficulty that has to be resolved by not locking people into the traditional and authentic architecture,” said Samuel Sidibé, the director of Mali’s National Museum in Bamako, the capital…

For full story, click here.

Will Repaving Be Permitted?

From Reuters December 22, 2010

Beatles’ Abbey Road crossing wins protected status

The most famous pedestrian crossing in popular music, outside Abbey Road Studios in north London, was designated a site of national importance by the British government on Wednesday.

Beatles fans from around the world flock to the road to pose for photographs imitating the picture on the “Abbey Road” album cover which shows Paul, John, George and Ringo strolling over the crossing.

“This London zebra crossing is no castle or cathedral but, thanks to the Beatles and a 10-minute photoshoot one August morning in 1969, it has just as strong a claim as any to be seen as part of our heritage,” said John Penrose, Minister for Tourism and Heritage in a statement.

Penrose declared the crossing a Grade II listed site on the advice of national preservation body English Heritage.

This means the crossing can be altered but only with the approval of the local authorities which would make a decision based on the site’s historic significance, function and condition.

Abbey Road Studios themselves were listed Grade II in February.

(Reporting by Olesya Dmitracova, editing by Paul Casciato)

Collective Memories

Interesting and worthwhile!  Better than biblical archaeological chimeras. But should the Kibbutz be commemorated via UNESCO as tangible heritage in need of physical conservation or intangible heritage in urgent need of social safeguarding?

Farming the kibbutz land. Photo Credit: Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem

from Haaretz December 23, 2010

Israel to push UNESCO to declare the kibbutz a world heritage site

The project is being advanced as the year-long centennial celebrations of the Kibbutz Movement come to a close.

By Noam Dvir

The Israel National Commission for UNESCO is set to promote the kibbutz and its heritage as a World Heritage Site, Haaretz has learned.

The initiative, which will focus on the unique social, cultural and architectural aspects of the kibbutz, is being promoted by a group of Israeli scholars led by architects Yuval Yaski, Shmuel Groag and Galia Bar-Or, of the architecture department of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Yaski and Bar-Or, who is also the director of the Kibbutz Ein Harod Art Museum, recently curated the exhibition “Kibbutz – Architecture Without Precedent” at the International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

The project is being advanced as the year-long centennial celebrations of the Kibbutz Movement come to a close.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, inscribes sites as World Heritage if it deems them uniquely important to human culture. The inscription has special significance in terms of image for the country in which the site is located, as well as economic importance; the chosen site may also be granted special funding by the World Heritage Fund.

The inscription process involves two stages. Each of the member countries in the United Nations can prepare a list of tentative sites for inscription, and during the annual meeting of UNESCO they may be put to a vote. The current initiative seeks to include the beginnings of the kibbutz or a group of kibbutzim on Israel’s tentative list and to then promote inscription through international institutions.

Only one kibbutz, Israel’s first – Degania – is now included in the group. However, Yaski said they will not be inscribing only one kibbutz, such as Degania or Ein Harod, “because each of them represents a different phase in the development of the kibbutz. We think we may need to promote a group of kibbutzim, each of which expresses the physical and historical importance, or a group of kibbutzim in a particular geographic region, like the Jezreel Valley or the Menashe plateau,” Yaski said.

Either way, Yaski said they will not be seeking recognition of all 274 kibbutzim.

He added that inscription is important particularly in light of the significant changes made to the kibbutzim in recent years, including the abandonment of public buildings.

“I believe the move will increase the importance of the kibbutz, both among decision makers as well as among members of the movement,” Yaski said…

For the full article, click here.

A Facelift for Auschwitz

Ironically this is precisely the same challenge facing almost every site of memory– sad or happy, triumphant or tragic.  The effort to make time and deterioration stand still, without considering the ever-changing context for the preserved site makes the actual place more and more “antique” and less and less resonant with the present.

There are no easy answers for the role of heritage in contemporary society, except perhaps to wonder about the ways that traditional physical forms of “world heritage attractions” may tend to museum-ize, routinize, and perhaps even trivialize what need to be powerful memories– even after all the original rememberers are gone.

Tourists at Auschwitz I, August 2004. Photo: Lars De Jaegher, Ename Center

Latest news from ArtDaily.org    December 17, 2010

Germany Announced It will Give $80 Million in the Next Year to Fix Auschwitz Memorial

By Monika Scislowska, Associated Press

WARSAW, POLAND (AP).- Germany pledged Wednesday to pay euro60 million ($80 million) over the next year into a fund for Auschwitz-Birkenau to preserve the barracks, gas chambers and other evidence of Nazi crimes at the former death camp, some of which are deteriorating to the point of collapse.

Germany is the largest of several countries contributing to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Fund, which was set up in 2009 to gather money to maintain the 472-acre expanse made up of the original camp, Auschwitz, the nearby satellite camp of Birkenau. The camp was operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II.

More than 1 million people, mostly Jews, died in the camp’s gas chambers or through forced labor, disease or starvation.

“Germany acknowledges its historic responsibility to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and to pass it on to future generations,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement. “Auschwitz-Birkenau is synonymous with the crimes of the Nazis. Today’s memorial recalls these crimes.”

Museum director Piotr Cywinski first issued a worldwide appeal for help in 2008, saying that euro120 million was needed to repair the memorial site, which stands as one of the most powerful symbols of the Holocaust.

The barracks, gas chambers and other buildings are in need of urgent repair, having been worn down by the ravages of time and the pressure of more than 1 million visitors a year…

For full story, click here.

Earlier essay on the issues from the New York Sun    January 10, 2007

Restoration or Preservation?

Memorials

By John Moretti

Is Auschwitz a tourist attraction to be updated with the times, or a solemn burial ground to be left untouched? An international debate has focused on this question ever since the new director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Piotr Cywinski, announced plans to renovate and remodel parts of the infamous death camp.

Controversy surrounding Mr. Cywinski’s proposal was sparked by an article in Ha’aretz, following his visit in October to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. The article described a “beautification” of Auschwitz.

“I think they got the impression I was going to turn it into a kind of Disneyland,” Mr. Cywinski said. “I will not alter anything, only the exhibition.”

Worries swirled among some former prisoners that the historical integrity of the place would be compromised, and historians posed the question: If you replace even one piece of rusted barbed wire, can the site still be called authentic?

“There are some people who say you should put salt in the earth, so nothing will grow,” the incoming chairman of the International Task Force on Holocaust Education and also the director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, David Marwell, said. “But if you’re going to let people in, you have to make the site accessible.”

Mr. Cywinski, 34, inherited a delicate task when he was installed as director over the summer to prepare for the museum’s first-ever facelift as it approaches its 60th anniversary this coming July. His plans to redesign exhibits that focus on prisoner life, housed in the original Auschwitz camp, and to continue structural upgrades to the crematoria in Birkenau — the massive and sprawling camp three kilometers away, where most of Auschwitz’s prisoners were put to death — were approved in December by the International Auschwitz Council, a group composed of politicians, historians, and Holocaust survivors. Since then, the director has been circling the globe, building support and elaborating on the project.

Like any other museum curator and guardian of a historical artifact, Mr. Cywinski needs to please a number of diverse interests, and regularly fends off charges of revisionism. This balancing act is especially challenging because Auschwitz is one of the most soul-stirring shrines in the world.

“It is a place upon which the entire world is focused,” Mr. Cywinski said during the holiday break, immediately after returning to Poland from Washington, D.C., where he spelled out details of his plans at the United States Holocaust Memorial. “The job requires taking into account a lot of perspectives, but I must prepare for future generations.”

For full story, click here.

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If the medium = message, does the form of the heritage site = the memory?