A New Approach to Cultural Heritage

Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.
— Henry David Thoreau

The study of history is an indispensable practice, critical to understanding people and society. Those who plumb its depths acquire a broader perspective from which to assess change, trends and conflicting interpretations. History’s lessons provide humanity with inspiration, inform our circumspection and broaden our moral understanding. Its aesthetic is worthy of art.

We believe that the study of history is an indispensable practice.

The growth of the internet and the advent of wireless communication has connected humanity like never before, offering advantages and challenges in equal measure. Traditional modes of communication have been transformed. Information which used to flow solely from one to one or one to many at a specified time and place, now flows between many individuals simultaneously and interactively, in times of their choosing and in any place. This explosion of global, multimodal communication is reconstructing the way we define community. No longer limited by location, work or family, new communities and cultures are being constructed in the ether, based upon shared values and interests, opening avenues for political and social change that are both exciting and frightening.

The information age is transforming how we process history. Though many historians originally shied away from the digital arena, a vast new network of both formal and informal sources continues to evolve and is now available to anyone with connectivity. The speed and flexibility with which both authoritative and speculative information is disseminated is remarkable. This plethora of interactive, dynamic references at our fingertips can make the classroom setting and traditional textbooks pale by comparison. Likewise, museums can no longer rely upon traditional, static exhibits imparting authoritative knowledge to attract visitors. These changes have had a particularly devastating impact on house museums.

The information age is transforming how we process history.

The Great House Museum Debate has been raging for some time. Though there are still vibrant and thriving house museums across Canada, North America and Europe it is no longer controversial to state that there are more that are struggling. Places where both programming and staff are being cut, where volunteers and funding are evaporating, and where critical maintenance is being deferred. Many are eventually donated to the cities in which they are located, in hopes that taxpayers will take on the burden of sustaining them. The gap between the desire to save an old house and the economic reality of running a house museum is wide and growing wider. It is incumbent on those of us who understand the value of these historic places, to find new ways to engage the community and share what we see.

This means making sure that our focus on the past doesn’t keep us from being presently relevant and forward thinking. It means being experimental and interdisciplinary and finding new ways to tell old stories. It means being civic minded and audience driven rather than collection driven. It means creating a culture of inquiry responsive to multiple viewpoints, rather than assuming a sole mantle of authority. It means being self-critical and reflective, and matching our innovation with quantification. Therein lies our future.

The John Brown Heritage Foundation will be a hub for innovative thought and action regarding the preservation and conservation of heritage buildings and sites. Our Values reflect these concepts. We want to share ideas and knowledge and to be a place where others can do the same.

We believe that by forging meaningful connections between the past, present and future, historic site management can and should become an integral part of community planning and development. This will be accomplished on many levels and in many ways.

We must be experimental and interdisciplinary and find new ways to tell old stories.

First and foremost, we will embody and demonstrate these values in the creation of a meaningful, sustainable and community based existence for The Brown Homestead. We will examine the history of the buildings and the area, and allow them to speak to us about their future. We will engage in ongoing dialogue with our community designed to co-create effective and meaningful programming.

The Brown Homestead will also serve as a testing ground for innovative heritage site practices and methodology. We will balance our appreciation for traditional methods with the exploration and use of new technologies and avenues of communication, building meaningful bridges from past to present. We will connect the buildings themselves and the trades that created them to current issues regarding sustainable living, and explore and embrace concepts like adaptive reuse. We will examine current issues from multiple perspectives through the lens of the past. We will leave no stone unturned (pun intended) as we look for ways to celebrate and sustain the vibrancy of these historic places. Most significantly, we will document and share our processes, our successes and our failures, as transparently, comprehensively and as widely as we can.

We want to hear from you!

Finally, we will invite others to participate in the discussion. From the general public and interested community members to heritage professionals, architects and tradesmen, from university professors and students to city planners and government representatives, we want to hear from you! We will look for every opportunity to engage in dialogue and to collaborate, hosting guest bloggers, lectures, seminars and workshops with and for others engaged in similar work. We will examine what is working and what isn’t, and discuss ongoing changes in methodology.

Please Join Us in this worthwhile endeavor!  Together, we will help ensure that the study, enjoyment and appreciation of our cultural heritage does not, itself, become a forgotten relic.