Removing invasive garlic mustard at the Ashley House, Sheffield, Massachusetts
Around the time that I took on my current position with The Trustees of Reservations, the organization made an internal change: our historic resources department became the cultural landscapes department, our historic resources staff the cultural resources staff. Why was this significant? Because unlike the previous title, which focused on properties with historic structures, any one of our 107 properties can now be looked at and interpreted as a cultural landscape and the scope of work is broadened tenfold.
The idea behind the change was consistent with what I had come to hold close to my heart: there is no firm line dividing human history and the natural history of the earth we live on. Landscapes that we view as “natural” or “ecological” are just as rich with a legacy of human intervention, meaning, and memory as those for which the buildings and artifacts remain as a more tangible reminder. Our “historical” properties often have ecological or environmental stories to share along with the human ones. The change in terminology acknowledged that identifying some properties as specifically historic created an unfortunate “silo-ing” effect between departments and may have hindered innovation.<!–more–>
After three years of holding this lens to our properties, I’m happy to stand back and see the difference it has made for our region’s programming. It has been exciting to see history bleeding into programs that previously would not have contained it.
For example, I love that we have begun referring to the historical antecedents of our Youth Conservation Corps programs in marketing materials, grants, staff training, and with the youth themselves. “Rooted in the spirit of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s…” is how many of our descriptions of the program now start. We did not change the program into “a history program”– the teens spend most of their time working in parks, on farms and on trails around their communities–but by making the association with another moment in history, the program feels anchored in time and the staff and participants can feel connected through the spirit of service and hard work to those people of the past.
The change also illuminated another period in American history when money was scarce, work was hard to find, and people were struggling to make better lives; all experiences that most of our participants and their families are going through. For the team of youth that I work with in Holyoke, the connection is deepened by the fact that many of their projects takes place on Mt. Tom, a site shaped by a CCC crew in 1933. The Holyoke Youth Conservation Corps is in its seventh year of doing work projects on Mt. Tom but it is only within the last couple of years that we’ve made a direct link between the program and the people who had worked the land before them.
Japanese knotweed is incorporated into the garden plan at Naumkeag in Stockbridge, Massachusetts
The flip side, of course, is that we have begun to integrate other topics into the programming at our traditional historic sites. One example is a series of programs which use both our historic gardens and natural sites to educate visitors on the importance of native pollinators and train people to create landscapes that encourage their abundance. We are also looking into programming that would use our designed landscapes to highlight how some of the choices made by individuals in the past have impacted our ecosystems (for instance the introduction of decorative plants that turned out to be invasive species, like Japanese knotweed which is still cultivated at Naumkeag).
Overall, our efforts have focused on smaller-scale additions and shifts, not major program overhauls. When multiplied across sites, I believe these small infusions will strengthen our endeavors by intertwining heritage and ecology in an organic and meaningful way.
I feel empowered and energized by the breakdown of the invisible lines that denoted which properties and programs were “about history” and which were about other things. To me it is a natural extension of seeing beyond the walls of an historic home and into the surrounding landscape, but I also know that this mixing and mingling is strategic and supportive of the broad mission of The Trustees.
With this in mind, I’d be interested to hear others’ perspectives on interdisciplinary programming at historic sites:
- Do you think that ecology programs hosted at historic sites enhance the visitor experience, or do they dilute the story of the place that we’re trying to tell?
- When is it appropriate to add breadth and diversity to the subjects being covered at your site, and when does it become “mission-creep”?
- At sites where little physical evidence of human intervention remains, how can we interpret the history in ways that are not too conceptual for visitors to engage with?
- I work primarily with fusions of ecology, sustainability and cultural history – what other subject areas have made for successful interdisciplinary programming at your historic sites?
During this coming season I will continue to work with my colleagues, partners, and communities to add a little history here and there where I can, and to engage people on a variety of topics at all of our sites. I’m especially looking forward to gathering feedback from our visitors and participants and gauging the success of this new way of working.
~ Kate Preissler, Trustees of Reservations
Additional notes on images:
(1) The Ashley House and Bartholomew’s Cobble, A National Natural Landmark, are adjacent. For years we have provided information on the history of the Ashley House to visitors at the Cobble, but we have not integrated information on the ecological restoration work that we do at both sites, like the invasive garlic mustard removal seen here at the Ashley House.
(2) Our field staff spend countless hours removing invasive plants from our properties. But at Naumkeag, Japanese Knotweed is part of the historic garden plan and is therefore preserved and cultivated. Its presence in the designed historic landscape offers a great opportunity to inform visitors as to how aesthetic choices of the past have impacted our ecosystems today.