PRESERVATIONIST VS. REVISIONIST HISTORY, REVISITED. It’s been awhile since we specifically addressed this topic, but given current circumstances, it bears repeating, albeit updated to current events.
“History, despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.”
-Defaced Robert E. Lee Monument, Richmond, Virginia. Image Source: By Mk17b on Wikipedia’s entry on Robert E. Lee Monument (Richmond, VA).
Definition and History
Firstly, what is “revisionist history” or “revisionism”? Merriam-Webster’s second definition applies: “advocacy of revision (as of a doctrine or policy or in historical analysis).” This does not provide much information for our purposes. It only indicates a revision – update, alteration, correction, or improvement – of what was there. Taken at face-value, this might be considered a neutral or even positive action, supposing that something is improved upon. However, we must also take into consideration the history of revisionism, and the fact that the term has become synonymous with reprehensible intentions.
Many historians and writers have contended that all history is revisionist, in the literal sense; once additional historical information is discovered, it is added to or replaces the originally-known history, revising the history that was previously accepted. The result is (hopefully) a more accurate and objective representation of the past. Positive examples include providing more accurate, comprehensive history in the educational system.
When discussed in the context of current events and past atrocities, it often takes on a more pejorative meaning: namely, that some people will modify history to benefit themselves and their agenda, often in a way that harms others. Perhaps a more accurate distinction is between the technically neutral term “revisionism,” and terms with inherently negative connotations like “negationism” or “denialism.” These terms more specifically refer to a politically-motivated distortion of historic records and rejection of facts or reality to avoid one’s own discomfort, meanings that are not automatically part of the definition of “revisionism.”
Most history is revisionist, and revisionism is not inherently bad. Negationism or denialism are really what people mean when disparagingly referring to revisionism.
Revisionist History and the Built Environment
People typically discuss “revisionist history,” “negationism,” and “denialism” in terms of substantial pieces of cultural significance, such as public properties (owned by historical societies and the National Park Service), monuments, and world heritage sites. These terms may not come to mind when thinking about a privately-owned historic house or property. However, depending on an owner’s intention, the ideas may loosely apply or parallel decisions related to the four treatments of historic properties: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, or reconstruction.
For example, certain regulatory (or financial) issues may be mitigating factors in which treatment process is chosen, including local and federal historic district designations, building codes, insurance, etc. Once these factors are addressed, depending on resulting latitude, a homeowner may choose to restore a home only to a single time-period. More often, “revisions” are made that include multiple eras, especially as historic homeowners who steward homes built prior to the advent of modern plumbing opt to restore other parts of the home to its original time period while retaining the modern plumbing retrofits to maintain a standard of modern-living. This could be considered revisionist in that the home ends up telling a more holistic story of the house’s history, rather than focusing on only one earlier iteration of the home. However, a full restoration to one specific time period could also be considered revisionist in that it eliminates certain parts of the house’s entire history, and chooses to only depict one era. Neither of these revisionist examples is necessarily wrong, or negative, depending on circumstances. However, many preservation-minded people would probably agree that someone making changes in a way that attempts to falsify the history of the home (e.g., changing features that might suggest it comes from an earlier time period) is a poor choice and a negative example of “revisionism.” But, any type of architectural revision to a private property may be more closely related to the intensity of an owner or steward’s preservation-mindedness and personal taste than to ethics, which is really what seems to separate pure “revisionism” from “negationism” or “denialism,” in our opinion.
What typically separates pure revisionism from negationism and denialism is ethics.
Relevance of Revisionism in the Year 2020
On first glance, it may seem odd that a historic preservation and restoration contracting company is writing about an ethical issue. But as stewards (and supporters of stewards) of our built history – which includes more than just the brick, mortar, wood and stone objects themselves – we know that the buildings are about the people.
That being said, we must address the current issues. Although many of our clients, readers, and followers own private homes or buildings and generally do not deal with issues of revisionism and related terms directly, we also have worked with several organizations (historical societies and the National Park Service among them) that steward buildings for the general population, and who have a duty to represent an inclusive history. We believe it is important to support an inclusive narrative, including that of historically oppressed groups, and tell the entire story. Saving certain objects in a contextual way is an essential element of this cause. One example is the preservation (or attempted preservation) of some of the Holocaust’s concentration camps. These remain for the purpose of telling the full story of the horrors that humans can inflict on one another (despite what denialists say).
Inclusivity – telling the entire story – is an essential part of appropriate revisionism.
In the U.S., the picture has become more complicated with recent events. Large movements have attempted to remove many symbols of racism and oppression, but often indiscriminately and impulsively. We agree that many of the confederate monuments that were erected many years after the Civil War, typically during the height of Jim Crow, and typically far away from battlefields or other relevant sites, are not appropriate – typically, the losing side does not get to write the history or build the monuments to remember their “glory.” In reality, the Confederate cause was treason and open rebellion against the United States, with the intention of continuing to enslave other people for their own economic gain. With that in mind, it seems strange that we have U.S. military bases named after Confederate Generals.
At the same time, it is important to carefully consider what should be removed and how. Confederate monuments on a battlefield, or even memorials in a graveyard, are contextually-appropriate, representing and educating about battles that occurred at the site, or memorializing the dead in their final resting place. Other objects or sites related to slavery (e.g., whipping posts or slave auction blocks) may warrant removal from the current locations, but likely would be appropriately placed in a sensitive museum display educating people about the heinous acts humans have committed against others, to prevent those things being repeated. Another consideration is that we separate our Founding Fathers and buildings or monuments in their name from the belated Confederate monuments; several historians have pointed to acknowledging that many of them enslaved people, but were essential to creating the U.S., unlike the Confederates who wanted to demolish it.
We may be falling down a slippery slope of rewriting history – history can be inclusive and tell a more complete story without rewriting it (e.g., revisionism vs. negationism). Seeing things like #cancelHamilton (which Danielle watched and thoroughly enjoyed) because of his ties to his wife’s family’s slave ownership, or private homeowners attempting to have their historic homes demolished because of an association with slavery, or renaming college and university buildings because of ties to enslavement, we worry about the indiscriminate calls for wiping away things because of their negative associations. We would hope we can look honestly to the Founders of our Country and tell the completeness of their story (messy, imperfect humans with a noble vision that was also economically motivated) without writing them out of our history. We think it would be better (and more healing) to acknowledge the truth of their story, provide historical context, and commit to social justice. This would do more to see the truth of history than remove all traces of the undesirable parts via negationism. Acknowledging that a lot of prominent Northern families made their money from the slave trade (as shipping companies, supplying plantations in the Caribbean, and textiles) is one way we can come to terms with our collective history.
Regardless, we believe the answer is to take our time deciding what should be done with our vestiges of history before we lose all traces and risk repeating the same injustices.