The decline of historic homes: Does history have a value?

I stumbled across a Washington Post  article depicting the plight of American historic homes (Struggling to attract visitors, historic houses may face day of reckoning http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/struggling-to-attract-visitors-historic-houses-may-face-day-of-reckoning/2012/12/22/349116b6-4b93-11e2-a6a6-aabac85e8036_story.html).

Are there business models historic houses could adopt to safeguard not only their futures but the historic artifacts and information they contain.  It boils down to the question “what is the price of history?” I’ll tackle business models first.

In economies on the verge of tanking, how can historic houses – in any country – safeguard their future? If they can no longer rely on school trips, tourists or selling merchandise, what can they do?

Historical Document Databases

If a historic home contains documents, especially documents stretching back centuries, these documents can be digitised. Once digitised, they can be made available under license either as a collection or as part of an online database, for a fee, to:

  • Historians
  • Scholars
  • historical documentation databases
  • genealogists and genealogical enthusiasts
  • Genealogy websites and service such as Ancestry.com. Familysearch.org, etc
  • Historical novelists
  • Screenwriters undertaking research for historical films, television productions, etc

On the surface, a 17th Century household budget ledger might appear meaningless, trivial or boring.  Not true. It is a snapshot in time of how daily life was lived by a certain segment of society. It has a value. There is a marketplace for it.

Plantation Houses and Agricultural Estates (Indentured Servant & African American Genealogy)

Plantation houses in the American South have the potential to hold a wealth of genealogical material, particularly for African Americans researching family histories. The 1860 Census is a difficult barrier for many African Americans tracing their family history if their ancestors included slaves. Rarely are the names of slaves included; just their gender, approximate age and whether they were black or mulatto. With some time and care, such plantation houses can be cross referenced against the 1860 Census, pre-1860 tax records and any slave documentation still in possession. Careful cross referencing can begin to reveal identities. Again, this information can be provided for a fee to cover the costs entailed in research and then transcribing this information and making it available online. Other related documents could be of interest to historians, scholars and historical databases.

America was also founded upon the labours of indentured servants; pre-Revolutionary War immigrants who were bound for a period of time to employers who paid their passage to the New World. While not as anonymous as slaves, their stories are equally difficult to trace in the official records. They remain in the background of history and, in my research, typically only come to the fore in arrest and prosecution records. Similarly to slaves, they did not tend to leave a written personal history. This makes documents containing information about indentured servants all the more important. Such pre-revolutionary war era documents could literally be the only evidence that a person who was an indentured servant ever existed.

There are a number other business models these historic homes could adopt. The two given above are the most straightforward. Success relies above the will to do the work and thinking out of the box. For every historic house that is lost we lose another glimpse into the past. We lose a historical context.

The value of history

So why is the past important? What’s its value? We didn’t arrive to this modern age in a bubble. America, for instance, did not pole vault from the War of Independence straight to the present day. We’ve been shaped by all that has gone before.  Understanding what’s gone before helps us understand how we arrived at our current destination.  And hopefully, understanding the mistakes of the past helps us avoid repeating them in the future.

I was fortunate to have attended an excellent high school. History classes, however, were never very interesting.  It wasn’t a race or ethnic thing – although minorities made up less than 1% of the town’s population. Very few of my classmates seemed inspired by or interested in history.  It was a very, very dry and dusty affair – an endless litany of dates and events.  There was little to no insight. Added to this was the fact that I was African American and, as such, apparently denied a history. It was never said outright (this was New England after all, where subtlety rules) but it was there nonetheless. The subtle message was that American blacks might have a history but that it would be impossible to trace. Nothing was included about black Americans’ achievements or contributions. This made me even less interested in American history. It wasn’t my history, it was someone else’s history. Indeed, it was only when I went to university that I realised that not all blacks had been slaves. Some had been free, and remained free, throughout the pre-Civil War era.

Younger generations – regardless of colour or ethnicity – seem even less inclined to be interested in history. How can one have a pride in one’s country without knowing its history – both the good and the bad?

Genealogy has inspired in interest in history in me. Knowing that every single family line I have traced were in American long before the Revolutionary War makes American history interesting to me. Black or white, in their own way, they shaped it – be they congressmen, renowned lawyers, lauded judges, farmers, shoe makers or slaves. I have a vested interest in the country of my birth. I have a connection to it.  Its history has a meaning for me that it never had when I was in high school studying it. Understanding this history helps me better understand the world my ancestors inhabited. This will have to suffice since it doesn’t appear that many of my ancestors left a written record of their lives and experiences. If they did, their writings have been lost to time. Understanding the times they lived in makes my ancestors more than just names, dates of birth and dates of death.

Genealogy can be a great tool to connect students in particular and people in general to history.  It lifts history from the dusty dry reams of facts and being merely a list of events to be memorised without any surrounding context. Genealogy can give history meat, bones and substance. It’s a relatively easy, and very inexpensive, activity to introduce into the classroom.

It also gives history value.

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