Friday, October 18, 2013

Heritage Conservation: Becoming (and Being) a Professional

In an earlier post we had emphasized the necessity of explaining to the public and to other built environment professionals what a Heritage Conservationist is and why we are important - as part of a yet-to-be-started public relations campaign to promote Heritage Conservation and to dispel misconceptions about the field. Defining and 'placing' Heritage Conservation also serves to solidify a movement to re-professionalize the field, set objectives in education and qualifications, and match Heritage Conservation to actual built-environment activities - a re-branding appropriate for the name change from Historic Preservation.

Rather than rehash a dictionary definition for Heritage Conservation (or, more likely, a definition of Historic Preservation), we took a pseudo-scientific look at what kinds of jobs actually exist (technically, what kinds of jobs are being offered) to create a basic understanding of what a Heritage Conservationist is. We sourced this data from the ever-popular PreserveNet's job posting board, with job postings going back to 2009 - about 1,100 in total.

A word cloud of job titles from PreserveNet's jobs board. Word clouds are a graphic representation of word counts for any given inputted text.

Excluding positions that are clearly within another field (Archaeologist, Architect, Engineer, etc.; about 90 posts); and positions that are clerical or supportive in nature (administrative assistant, IT, intern; about 80 posts ); We've compiled the following (representing a little over 900 posts), grouped by similar words/phrases:
  • Director - 203
  • Architectural Historian/Historian - 146
  • various "manager"/"supervisor"/"administrator"- 83
  • Historic Preservation Specialist - 59
  • various "coordinator" - 55
  • Conservator/Restoration Specialist - 50
  • Project/Program Manager/Coordinator - 45
  • Cultural Resource Manager/Specialist/Coordinator - 43
  • Professor/Dean/Chair/Faculty - 41
  • various "historic preservation" or "preservation" personnel - 37
  • Historic Preservation Planner - 33
  • National Register Specialist/Surveyor - 24
  • Administrator - 20
  • various "specialist" - 20
  • Historic Preservation Officer/SHPO/THPO - 16
  • Preservationist - 16
  • various "planner" - 13
We can break these down into several specialties:

Administrative and Management (director, manager, coordinator, supervisor, administrator)

These positions are largely within the not-for-profit realm and generally require several years of experience with management, fundraising, public relations, and fiscal responsibilities. Jobs might be site-based (Executive Director of a historic site), program-based (public outreach coordinator), or hierarchical (president of historic preservation foundation). A Heritage Conservation background is not often necessary.

Conservator (conservator, restoration specialist, materials specialist)

This field has some crossover with other fields; curation and material conservation on one side and Architecture and Engineering on the other. Conservators are often specialists in one area (e.g. wood, metal, masonry, sculpture, exteriors, interiors, etc.) and are sometimes also involved in the building trades (carpenter, mason, etc.). Most employment comes from the private sector (cultural resources or specialty design and architecture firms), though contracts may come from both public and private sources, or from academia/museums.

Academic (professor, dean, chair)

Employed by universities and colleges, these positions usually require ample professional experience and a proven academic background. Academic jobs in Heritage Conservation may also include temporary research projects and academic grants in policy, planning, or conservation science.

Policy and Planning (architectural historian, historian, specialist, planner, preservationist)

Heritage Conservationists working in policy and planning, sometimes called subject matter experts (SMEs), are experts in the historic built environment and Heritage Conservation policy. They are employed by both the private and public sector and are often involved in compliance, planning, policy, and research. SHPOs, local and state agencies, not-for-profits, and consultants are the primary employers. A Master's degree and/or a couple years of experience are usually required.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that about 60% of "Historians" work in government - "historian" is the most similar job title to Heritage Conservationist found in the BLS data. Federal agencies, or agencies that receive federal funds and/or permits, employ or contract SMEs to undertake their legal responsibilities regarding historic places (Section 106, 4(f), NEPA, state laws, etc.). This includes surveys, National Register evaluations, project effects assessments, and mitigation work. Local and state agencies and SHPOs employ SMEs in federal compliance review, land use planning, local zoning and code compliance, design review, National Register research, and administration of preservation programs.

Heritage Conservationists working for not-for-profits that are not site or subject specific (preservation trusts, associations, and societies) are often broadly engaged in Heritage Conservation policy, advocacy, and education. Site or subject specific not-for-profits employ Heritage Conservationists for research, property management, and program management, as well as advocacy and educational programming. These positions tend to favor additional relevant experience on top of a Heritage Conservation background - especially not-for-profit management and fundraising experience.

Private sector consultants use Heritage Conservationists for all of the above, but generally do most of their work in federal and state compliance. Consultants may also take on in-depth historical research, writing and developing publications, rehabilitation project management, architectural design work, preparation of National Register and tax credit applications, development of preservation plans, and lots more.

A recent study by the Savannah College of Art and Design took similar data and illustrated some trends in the field of Architectural History over time. I think they failed to parse out management jobs from non-management jobs, but the results may be useful to current job-seekers - showing salary ranges, required experience and job duties for their five "categories of employment", regional jobs distribution trends, and overall employment posting trends.

The Real World Versus Academia

As you can see from the above, most Heritage Conservation jobs fall into three categories: administrative, policy and planning, or materials-based. In academia, focus area within Master's programs, tend to be more idealistic. That said, the alma mater of one-half of Rag and Bone, the University of Pennsylvania, breaks down their Master's of Science in Historic Preservation program into five "areas of emphasis" that somewhat parallel real world applications.

Penn's program establishes a Heritage Conservation foundation and then builds a student's expertise in one of the above areas of emphasis. For student's interested in Site Management or Design, professional opportunities in these areas often require a background that goes beyond what is offered in Heritage Conservation courses. Site Management positions often require a background in management, fundraising, and public relations, and Preservation Design positions often require a degree in architecture, landscape architecture, or land-use planning., relating data they presented at the National Trust's conference in October of 2011, notes that "the most sought after skill by employers based on job descriptions is Management/Administration and Education/Interpretation... Be aware that schools are not necessarily teaching what is requested".

The challenge facing budding Heritage Conservation professionals is identifying graduate programs that offer professionally-grounded curricula (without sacrificing the benefits of courses in theory and perspectives) housed in colleges and universities with diverse professional and academic programs in architecture, design, management, and education.  Rag and Bone's other-half's alma mater, Cornell University, offers all of these, but many courses in other programs are unavailable or otherwise inaccessible. This is where the graduate faculty advisers and curriculum designers need to step in and make those connections with other programs at their schools in order to provide students the tools they need to be successful in this field, based on the current (or future) demands of this profession.  A successful graduate school experience requires concurrent preparation on behalf of the student going into graduate school and the school itself.

As time passes, it seems the term Historic Preservation is becoming amorphous and unmanageable, encompassing anything at all to do with historic resources, whether in a professional context or not. As a general field, there is nothing wrong with this, until a qualified professional steps forward and identifies themselves using a term that has little professional connotation associated with it anymore. Hence, Heritage Conservation. We can all be preservationists; the Heritage Conservationist, however, is a professional with the training and skills to be able to identify, define, and evaluate the significance of heritage resources (both tangible and immaterial) in a timely and defensible manner, and then take the steps necessary to actively (or through advisement) stabilize, protect, and utilize (or otherwise, conserve) those resources in a manner that is sensitive and appropriate for the particular environment to which they belong.

The enduring challenge is that this profession, like any other, is always evolving. We, as a community of professionals, need to be better organized in order to understand professional trends and with each graduating class, rear qualified professionals equipped not just with a foundation of the ideals of our chosen field, but of the current skills and experiences of our profession.

In part two of this post, we'll explore the flip-side of this conversation: how the built-environment professions can better incorporate Heritage Conservationist (hint: it has everything to do with the fact that there are, less and less, no blank slates left upon which to build or plan and, increasingly, this is a world of multiple, competing values).

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