11. Valuing Traumatic Heritage Places as Archives and Agents

  • Randall Mason
Places associated with trauma, tragedy, or other “negative memories” have recently taken on great cultural significance in contemporary society. Global discourse on trauma bears on conservation decisions and values-based approaches. Traumatic heritage places (THPs) challenge traditional value categories and hierarchies, foregrounding societal values and questioning conservation paradigms that prioritize heritage values bound up in the fabric of sites. Using cases from the United States and Rwanda, this chapter explores THPs as both archives of past events and agents of contemporary social change, framing the potentials and stresses of expanding the spectrum of values at play in conservation decisions.

An early-nineteenth-century prison in Philadelphia. Rural churches transformed into genocide memorials in Rwanda. A newly created memorial to a terrorist attack in rural Pennsylvania. What do these three heritage places have in common?

They are recently identified heritage sites marking places of cultural trauma, and they are conserved to convey the societal (non-heritage) values ascribed to them by contemporary stakeholders, as well as the heritage values of their buildings, landscapes, and collections. The cultural significance of these places relates strongly to conflicts around genocide, racial injustice, civil rights, mass incarceration, the specter of terrorism, or other cultural traumas. Like all heritage places, their conservation and management is shaped by the challenges of curating historical fabric (using the sites as archives) as well as the desires projected onto them by broad stakeholder interests located in society at large (using the sites as agents for societal change).

Places associated with tragedy, “difficulty,” or other negative histories have long been acknowledged as heritage sites (battlefields, for instance). Traumatic places, too, have for generations occupied an important niche in the heritage field (for example concentration camps). What’s new since the turn of the twenty-first century is global society’s embrace of a “discourse of trauma” as a master narrative of social change—one effect of which is to push sites of collective (cultural) trauma into the foreground of consciousness. These places where cultural trauma is materially represented and commemorated possess growing influence on public discourse, and correspondingly present challenges to the heritage field. The politics of trauma cut deeply, and in both progressive and repressive directions. Traumatic heritage places are so dominated by societal values constructed in broad social milieus that site-specific values of historic fabric and conservation processes get reframed. The function of the sites as “platforms” for representing and debating issues of contemporary relevance is compelling and risky. With a decided turn toward societal values, the managers of traumatic heritage places face difficult challenges balancing heritage and societal values in decisions about acknowledging (valorizing) and subsequently planning and designing (valuing) these places.

The notion of “traumatic” places emerged from the social science and humanities literature in the 1990s. The author’s experiences practicing at several negative-history sites brought the concepts of values-based conservation to bear on the phenomenon personally. For varying reasons, these sites faced opportunities to connect with urgent societal issues, and reacted by reinforcing their commitments to conservation of heritage and societal values and their functions as platforms to discuss, interpret, and engage audiences about the conflict. The difficulty of balancing these valuing processes in the frame of a specific site presents an acute challenge. Since these societal values and benefits are not well modeled by the existing values-based conservation frameworks, naming a new category of values seemed in order. Traumatic heritage places are extreme versions of “negative” or “difficult” heritage (; ; ; ) in three senses: they respond in a timely fashion to urgent contemporary cultural crises; in scale, their influence extends well beyond site-specific, place-bound values traditionally taken into account in conservation management; and trauma leaves permanent indelible marks, metaphorically and materially. In the words of sociologist Jeffrey Alexander, a leading scholar of cultural trauma:

Cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways. (, 1)

In terms of values-based conservation, the disruption associated with traumatic sites is a transformation in the spectrum of values that shape their management. The outward-facing, external, societal values of sites (which may or may not be expressly reflected in their physical fabric) take priority, potentially at a cost to the sites’ conservation-specific heritage values and qualities. The urgency of managing the sites for healing, cultural identity, and political functions can undermine attention to the values relating to the sites’ capacity to materially bear witness and serve as literal texts representing the past. Traumatic heritage places foreground societal values as drivers of conservation management decisions, realizing the capacity for built heritage to provide additional benefits beyond the literal site. This presents both an opportunity and a danger for heritage conservation interests: for instance chances to respond to current social needs, and risks of undermining the core curatorial values of heritage places in reaching for contemporary societal urgency. Political manipulation and inciting conflict around heritage ideas present acute dangers, too.

These heritage places, in other words, are shaped as much in response to external societal stresses as to the internal conditions more typically addressed by conservation.1 Their management is expected to sustain both the “archive” function foundational to heritage conservation (providing and interpreting data about the past) as well as their functions as “agents” for social change (advocating for social justice causes, for instance, or providing economic opportunities for the disadvantaged). In terms of values-based conservation, these sites face the challenge of protecting and interpreting the heritage values of the sites, supporting social-value uses, and responding to demands to realize societal values (these distinctions are elaborated upon below).

This concept of societal values has been implicit in values-based conservation since at least 1979 with the introduction of the Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance, or Burra Charter (), as intangible, broader-scale valuation processes were recognized as consequential if not always present or decisive. Such traumatic societal values have typically been classified as a social value, societally resonant though place-bound. To the extent that values-centered preservation aspires to holistic management of heritage places, these societal values should factor into values assessments and management, design, and conservation decisions.

Expanding Values Perspectives

Built heritage is defined by its pastness—its capacity to present historical evidence and represent moments of past experience, literally and conceptually, in the present—and by its physical presence as discrete sites. Heritage sites function to concretize and locate memory and provide space for commemoration; the function of their management centers on sustaining their performance of archival and curatorial functions. In other words, the core outcomes are protection and interpretation of objects, buildings, landscapes, and their associated cultural values. Yet heritage places are called upon to do more as well—especially as they seek greater relevance in contemporary society. If heritage is defined as the past made useful, one should expect its utility to extend beyond archiving, curation, and instruction, and indeed heritage places do generate revenue, provide public and recreational space, and so forth. So, in addition to the pastness that has long been the focus of the conservation profession, heritage these days possesses other (non-heritage) qualities that are undervalued, have gone unacknowledged, and should be part of holistic management.

How are the different value categories distinguished from one another? Heritage and social values are already established in the literature. Societal values make explicit the very nature of heritage as a construction of modernity—that societal needs for heritage are created by the stresses, failures, and contradictions of modern society (; ).

Heritage values are clearly and well established; discerning, sustaining, and interpreting them are central to the whole enterprise of conservation, historically and today. The Burra Charter and myriad other academic works and policy documents related to values-based conservation frameworks define them: the historical, aesthetic, social, scientific, and spiritual qualities or potentials ascribed to a heritage place, connecting present to past, arising out of the place’s particular evolution through time and space, and contributing directly to a place’s cultural significance.

Social values are attached to the pastness and site-specificity of heritage places, but provide benefits beyond curatorial uses, including non-archival, non-curatorial uses or applications of heritage values and fabric for “community identity; attachment to place; symbolic value; spiritual associations and social capital” (, 2). Social values activate the associations and meanings ascribed to the heritage place by contemporary communities, often in direct reference to specific historical narratives and particular spaces or fabric (). Taken together, the social values of a heritage place are “a collective attachment to place that embodies meanings and values [specific to the site that are important to a [contemporary] community or communities” (, 2).

Societal values, as elaborated in the article I coauthored with Erica Avrami in this volume, are non-heritage qualities ascribed to heritage places. The broadest take on this definition would include economic values (which would be a distraction from the present argument),2 but this paper centers on societal values directly corresponding to traumatic heritage places: qualities of heritage places that relate to contemporary issues of social, political, and identity conflict. If heritage values are seen as endogenous (originating from response to the place itself), societal values are exogenous (originating in society at large). Societal values’ connections to heritage places are less literal than those between heritage places and social values. Instead of mapping specific narratives to specific historical fabric (social values), societal values can emerge from a general alignment of a place with social conflict, and not just from the very specific associations of particular fabric with particular events typical of heritage values. For example, one site can stand for an entire genocide, or one prison for the issue of mass incarceration.

As exemplified by traumatic heritage places, societal values: reflect important desires, demands, and issues of broad contemporary relevance; relate to the scale of society, not the discrete site; are presentist and quite changeable; connect to stakeholders external to (and often well beyond) the site; and enable flows of non-heritage benefits (advocating for social justice, peace building, civil rights, and so forth).

The argument here—with reference to values-centered conservation theory—is to expand the categories of potential value ascribed to traumatic heritage places in order to model better how contemporary society uses these places. By acknowledging the additional category of societal values, managers can encompass the non-heritage, not-necessarily-site-specific, society-wide functions, meanings, and benefits realized beyond the better-known and better-theorized categories of heritage and social values. Strategically, the contemporary relevance of sites is thereby advanced beyond what their heritage functions produce.

Metaphorically, societal values enable sites to function as platforms on which issues of contemporary relevance can be acknowledged, represented, and debated. The quandary for heritage management is accepting societal values, but not letting them eclipse the heritage and/or social values specific to the site (or erode the site’s material integrity or experiential authenticity). How to have it both ways?

Traumatic Heritage Places Defined

Traumatic heritage places have emerged as a distinct type of heritage, the relevance of which derives substantially from the societal values ascribed to the sites (; ; ). Traumatic heritage places mark and represent negative events of the past as part of the contemporary social process of constructing and responding to cultural trauma: emerging over the course of the twentieth century, reaching a crescendo on the eve of the twenty-first century, relating to violence, discrimination, armed conflict, genocide, natural disasters, and so forth (; ). The significance of traumatic heritage places resides in their ability to represent such societal narratives or memories as loss, destruction, violence, and discrimination, such that they “perform” social functions of healing, mourning, or politicizing culture in the present. They are distinguished by a combination of physical evidence, site specificity, compelling narratives, and spaces for commemoration, enabling representation of traumatic events and healing at a societal scale.

Traumatic heritage places produce two benefit streams to the public: first, traditional, canonical heritage benefits flowing from the curatorial functions that form the core of conservation; and second, societal benefits flowing from a site’s function as a platform for representing, discussing, and enacting social change, resolving conflicts, and otherwise connecting to urgent contemporary issues. In other words, traumatic heritage places serve both as archives of cultural history and memory for the long term and as agents of social change in contemporary society. They add layers of complexity and opportunity to heritage management and decision making.

Heritage sites with tragic narratives and/or representing traumatic social events have been around for a long time. Their functions, and their mix of values, evolve. Older tragedy sites are presented as memorials to the past, essentially fitting the model of archive, effectively passive. Their mere presence enforces their tacit social impact as historical lessons and “archives.” Battlefields are a classic example: scrubbed of most undesirable or graphic aspects of their story, and foregrounding valor, sacrifice, and noble causes in abstraction. Sites of wartime iconoclasm, such as the cities of Hiroshima, Warsaw, and Dresden, interpret citizen slaughters. Holocaust memorials may be regarded as sui generis, but they also set something of a model for sites of traumatic heritage.

While they are nothing new, traumatic heritage places have particular relevance today. Influential cultural critics have argued that the spectacle of others’ suffering became essential to the experience of modernity in the twentieth century, when the means to project images of war and other violence via the media became ubiquitous. As Susan Sontag observed, “Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience” (, 18).

Traumatic heritage places enable us to reflect on some of the most deeply meaningful and troubling narratives of recent history—genocide, terrorist attacks, violence, incarceration—and engage them as heritage. Such events have long been a part of social history, but lately have become much more prominent objects of open memorial reflection, valorized by any number of political, artistic, and academic reactions to pursue peace building and reconciliation in the aftermath of conflict, trauma, and disaster. The roles of the media and of commodification of culture have been crucial in fomenting reaction to societal or “cultural” trauma (; ; ; ; ). And, as argued elsewhere in this volume, this era of mass reckoning with trauma and social upheaval has historical roots in the Vietnam War, postcolonial, civil rights era culminating in the 1960s.3

Places of trauma and tragedy have claimed a prominent role in contemporary politics, in public space, and in the construction of heritage. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, is often cited as a turning point; the litany of Holocaust memorials and post-Soviet and post-Yugoslav memorials have also been important reference points. More recent memorials at sites of terrorism are the latest type (; ). Notably, the cultural significance of such sites is not dominated by the sites and collections themselves, as in the mode of typical heritage places. Their meaning is equally invested in societal narratives and social processes—the fugitive ideas and political, moral crises provoked by conflict that the sites have a role in representing and reproducing.

The current expectation that traumatic heritage places function as archives of history and memory as well as active agents of change is exemplified by “sites of conscience” and the work of the NGO International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, “the only global network of historic sites, museums and memory initiatives that connect past struggles to today’s movements for human rights.” The coalition’s objective is to “turn memory into action” (, n.p.). Sites of Conscience member organizations interpret history in site-specific facilities and engage public audiences by stimulating dialogue on pressing social issues, all to the end of promoting social justice and human rights. Sites of Conscience focus on conceptual connections between historical narratives and contemporary politics, mostly through creative and performative works such as exhibits, programs, workshops, and dialogues—which is to say not through projects of constructing, conserving, inhabiting, adapting, and reusing buildings and landscapes. Sites of Conscience (SOCs) are, in other words, very focused on societal values, but less on the materialities of heritage places (; ).

For heritage conservation, SOCs are a provocative model that uses heritage as a means of social justice and civil rights advocacy, as opposed to the conservation of sites as an end in itself. Indeed, the coalition is currently evaluating its impact by looking not at site conservation, but rather at “the global impact of Sites of Conscience in addressing wider social processes such as human rights reform, violence prevention and transitional justice” (, n.p.).

SOCs and other forms of traumatic heritage or tragedy memorial have, in the past generation, marked a turn in the global culture of heritage. From globally prominent, ideologically fraught, carefully designed, large-scale memorial complexes to more ordinary, personal, makeshift, and modest sites, the “negative” and the mournful are embraced, bringing heritage from the annals of the past to contemporary social conflict on front pages and websites, and in public spaces (, sections 1 and 2; ; ).4

Scholarly analysis devoted to tragic heritage places tends to focus on the processes of their creation and interpreting their meaning through the lens of social psychology or creative practice. Much less attention is paid to their design and ongoing management as heritage places. Thus, the influence of traumatic heritage places and negative heritage is only beginning to be reflected in theories and modes of practice. Notable exceptions, in the context of the present volume, include Getty Conservation Institute case studies on Grosse Île and Port Arthur analyzing the evolution of values-centered conservation histories (). Both cases detailed traumatic recent events and the incorporation of narratives related to these events as site-specific social values.

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

Eastern State Penitentiary is a heritage site in Philadelphia.5 It possesses highly significant heritage values as an architectural monument and historic landmark in the development of penal philosophy (“the separate system” of total isolation). Social values realized by art and entertainment programming have also been pursued as part of a sustainable management strategy. Most recently, Eastern State has become a platform for raising awareness of divisive societal issues about the traumatic experience of mass incarceration combined with racial discrimination in the United States. It exemplifies the process of managing a site by building from the cultivation of heritage values toward an embrace of societal values relating the collective trauma of mass incarceration to public heritage practices.

The eleven-acre building complex was opened in 1829 to meet an emergent social need—reform of lawbreakers based on a strategy of isolation and penitence articulated by Jeremy Bentham and advocated by Philadelphia Quakers.6 Architect John Haviland’s design centered on a simple and monumental architectural form: hub-and-spoke cellblocks, each consisting of individual cells surrounded by a massive stone perimeter wall with a single gate (fig. 11.1). The panopticon form was later copied hundreds of times around the world.

Contemporary aerial view of Eastern State Penitentiary showing its hub-and-spoke layout and massive perimeter wall.
Figure 11.1
Contemporary aerial view of Eastern State Penitentiary showing its hub-and-spoke layout and massive perimeter wall. Image: Darryl Moran, 2015, courtesy Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Philadelphia

Listed as a city landmark in 1958 and a National Historic Landmark in 1965, Eastern State closed as a prison in 1971. Preservation advocates mounted a grassroots effort to protect it from demolition or unsympathetic rehabilitation on the basis of historical and architectural values (its age, legacy of innovative social policy, and as a work of Haviland). A mayoral task force formed in 1988 and began basic repairs; the site was interpreted to the public soon thereafter. In 1998 Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Inc., a nonprofit corporate management entity, was organized to manage the site, including preservation, interpretation, and fund-raising operations (initially centered on a Halloween event).

A policy to conserve Eastern State Penitentiary’s fabric as a “stabilized ruin” was adopted for practical as well as philosophical reasons: the great cost of anything more than stabilization and basic safety, and a consensus preservation philosophy valuing the layers of the site’s built heritage. In other words, the period of its abandonment and decay also held heritage value. Financial need led managers to experiment with revenue generation and audience building by expanding the Halloween event to become the lucrative “Terror Behind the Walls” and commissioning an ongoing series of site-specific artworks. The success of these two added functions has grown the management organization’s capacity to sustain the heritage and social values of the site and connect with larger audiences interested in societal issues of social justice, civil rights, and mass incarceration.

Through the 2000s and 2010s, managers carefully balanced heritage and social values—the functions of a museum versus those of an attraction. As contemporary debates about mass incarceration in the United States grew more prominent, managers realized an opportunity to interpret Eastern State Penitentiary as a (failed) experiment in penal reform and use it as a platform to discuss the current role of prisons and incarceration in US society. Large, prominent exhibitions were mounted: the Big Graph, displaying the disproportionate number of citizens imprisoned in the United States vis-à-vis other countries, and the award-winning multimedia exhibit Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, presenting contemporary debates about incarceration as part of the standard tour of Eastern State as a heritage place (fig. 11.2). The “archive” had evolved into an “agent,” too.

Part of the exhibit Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration at Eastern State Penitentiary.
Sign asking if one has ever broken the law. If yes, pass through the left, if no, pass through the right. Figure 11.2
Part of the exhibit Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration at Eastern State Penitentiary. Image: Darryl Moran, 2016, courtesy Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Philadelphia

Societal values are still framed by and related to the heritage values of the site, but more directly responding to the societal issues of incarceration in US society. In terms of material heritage, some decisions to support adaptive reuse of historic spaces were required to enable the realization of social and societal values, for instance stabilizing and reusing cells and exercise yards for art platforms and exhibition spaces.

Over the first twenty-five years of its conservation and development, Eastern State Penitentiary’s management evolved by gradually embracing a wider range of values. As a mature organization, it has looked to broader societal questions provoked by (but not confined to) its heritage—the multifaceted debates and complex politics of mass incarceration and penal reform in the United States.

Can a historic prison be a platform for reform of contemporary incarceration policy while effectively conserving its built heritage? Absolutely. But it takes a keen awareness of the distinctions between, on one hand, values emanating from the site’s fabric and responsibilities for stewardship and, on the other, values resonant in broader social discourse that opportunistically find a place on the platform. And it takes a commitment to balance the conservation of heritage values reflected in fabric, built environments, and heritage experiences with the opportunities the heritage conservation success provides to convene new audiences on the basis of interpreting societal values. The site’s management has embodied the strengths of both traditional conservation and the active social and political project of sites of conscience.

Rwandan National Genocide Memorials

In the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, eight national genocide memorials were created as part of recovery and reconciliation processes (fig.11.3).7 They are starkly traumatic places marking sites of significant massacres during the one hundred days of genocide that began in April 1994, and they display extensive collections of human and artifact remains (). The sites are literal archives of the killings’ aftermath as well as platforms for social healing. They also serve the national government and political regime as symbols of recovery. These evidently damaged sites and collections are activated by the government’s ongoing national campaign of genocide prevention education. They constitute an important category of “proof of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda,”8 a meaning carefully circumscribed and scripted by the Rwandan state.

The sanctuary building at Nyamata Genocide Memorial, Rwanda.
Stained brick building with white panels in the front and on the side, a small stone memorial with two crosses. Figure 11.3
The sanctuary building at Nyamata Genocide Memorial, Rwanda. Image: Randall Mason

Each of the eight memorials identified and created around the small country have buildings and collections displaying physical evidence of violence; the contexts of the sites tend to be orderly and improved with new visitor facilities. Societal values dominate the sites—the integrity of collections and other fabric have been sacrificed for clarity in projecting the national political narrative—resulting in a threat to heritage values in the long term. In order for both heritage and societal values to be sustained through time (past the lives of those with direct memories of 1994), heritage values have to be asserted against overwhelming societal values about the victimization of the Tutsi. Heritage values are (to date) barely tended, other than through government ownership and staffing of the sites.

Flight 93 National Memorial

The location of Flight 93’s crash on September 11, 2001, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania—an agricultural and mining landscape—almost instantly became an object of intense memorialization, and, in time, a National Memorial—albeit a National Memorial created with an enormous amount of citizen input, especially from the victims’ families.9 The site was documented and carefully developed to perform both the longue-durée archiving function to remember the event, and the immediate social function of creating a platform for social, political, and personal enactment of loss, anger, and grief. Curatorial tasks included the national government’s purchase of the site, forensic work on the human remains and crash site, displaying and archiving popular memorials that immediately and continually were left at the site, and eventually staging a memorial design competition leading to the creation of a permanent visitor center and other facilities.

A National Memorial heritage landscape emerged, epitomizing the balance to be struck when conserving heritage stemming from contemporary tragedy. While the site was not explicitly managed with a values-based framework, it exemplifies the need to extend the values-based categories. The principal challenge of managers was embracing immediate, urgent societal need for a memorial at the site of the crash while balancing long-term archival responsibilities, the sanctity of a gravesite, and mass tourism facilities. Management was aided by the sheer size of the National Memorial (more than two thousand acres, compared to the small “sacred ground” crash site).

An elaborate traumatic heritage place has taken shape, performing contemporary functions of commemoration, political symbolism, creating a long-term archive of 9/11, and providing a place of personal mourning for families of the victims. One cost of this was erasing previous layers of landscape history in favor of monumentalizing one moment in history, quite a departure from contemporary conservation philosophy, which generally aspires to represent multiple layers.

Repercussions for Practice

The idea of societal values functioning as a metaphorical platform to deal with non-heritage issues, functions, and benefits has emerged as an abiding theme in professional practice. Clients, users, managers, and conservation professionals often express the desire to connect preservation resources and heritage places to the everyday life of their communities so they may serve to address the deep issues plaguing our societies as well as directly conveying understanding of the past. In other words, our collective goal is broader societal relevance for heritage conservation through construction of broader concepts of value. At the level of design, conservation, management, financing, operation, and programming, this often boils down to colocation and sharing of facilities—or, in terms of this paper, using heritage resources to advance non-heritage goals. Heritage places function as platforms for a changing combination of non-heritage benefits. The “platform” notion is a riff on adaptive reuse—an adaptation of the site for non-heritage functions in response to external needs, demands, or opportunities—which can be accommodated as long as historical fabric and cultural significance are not eroded unduly.10

Societal values open new opportunities for contemporary relevance of built heritage and raise some constructively critical issues regarding values-based conservation as a framework for conservation practice, theory, and education. The idea of admitting a set of values less connected to the particularities of a site’s fabric—values driven by issues far beyond the site and unabashedly momentary/presentist—seems to invite conflict and trade-offs. Being too responsive to the political issues of “right now” may come at the cost of responding to conservation’s traditional and central responsibilities for the “long now.”

Heritage values have by definition always taken priority in conservation, but not in society at large. They have fed a tendency in the field toward insularity. Expansion of societal uses may threaten the integrity of historic fabric and/or draw financial and human resources away from conservation, and may risk opening sites to “outside,” non-conservation influences. These are valid concerns and real conflicts, and can mostly be addressed as matters of design, and management decisions and leadership. In some circumstances, though, the cultivation of societal values should have a stronger claim on decisions.

For instance, recent conflicts surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments from public squares in cities in the American South reveal a weakness of preservation as a materialist ideology, sometimes verging on fundamentalism: some “preservationists” argue for the retention of statues as historical evidence, against evolving societal norms that they are offensive. Destruction or removal of these monuments has the whiff of compromise to some conservation professionals, but it may be a reasonable cost for relevance and societal benefits.

Stakeholder roles and the politics of heritage practice and management are made more complex by embracing societal values. Connecting with more (and more “distant”) stakeholder groups might provide additional (presentist) benefits but amplifies the divergent interests managers are compelled to consider. For Eastern State Penitentiary, for instance, new relevance is gained by engaging advocates for the formerly incarcerated, reform of drug laws, racial justice, and so forth, moving beyond those previously engaged on the basis of the site’s heritage and social values. The composition of staff and leadership has shifted accordingly. The changing power of certain stakeholders must remain a matter of vigilance for managers so not only the most powerful are heard. Because stakeholder engagement is fundamentally a political process, the prospect of hijacking heritage places for political purposes is a real risk. A broader collection of stakeholders is both a lure and a danger: the lure of greater relevance and support; the danger of outsize influence from presentist stakeholder interests ().

The successes of values-based conservation have rightly been acknowledged and applauded, though limits are also recognized (; ; ). Values-based conservation is a powerful but not totalizing framework, and rests on the premise that heritage conservation is an established, even self-justifying, public good. It provides an important and adaptable bridge connecting traditional curatorial practices of conservation professionals and the varied, changeable heritage values attributed to sites by multiple stakeholders.

Values-based conservation concepts and tools deal very well with particularities and characteristics of sites themselves, and with values ascribed to sites by stakeholders within the context of site planning and management. They are much less focused on presentist values at large in society.

Adopting the perspective that values are rooted principally in the site can lead managers to insufficiently account for the values generated by society writ large. To the extent that conservation of these sites fuels a pursuit of society-wide benefits, society-wide values also need to be accounted for in management and decision frames. In other words, we traditionally see values as place-bound, and tend to each site as an island; while this protects the integrity of the island best, it may not realize the larger societal values ascribed to the place best. This is not to suggest that decision making about a site should be based on distant, society-wide needs, but conservation professionals should be aware of, and validate, “platform” functions. Embrace of societal values is part of the evolution and extension of values-based conservation frameworks.

A skeptical view will suggest that traumatic heritage sites are no different and represent only a nuanced rebalancing of the stakeholder involvement that is a foundation of values-based conservation—that “social values” already encompass enough non-heritage value and benefit. Traumatic heritage places, though, demonstrate the potential to transform heritage places into cultural sites of societal activism, reform, and development (sympathetic with conservation but distinct from it). Eastern State Penitentiary, the Rwandan Genocide Memorials, and the Flight 93 National Memorial are examples of heritage places actively conceived and constructed as means to other (societal) ends balanced against their heritage conservation as a self-justifying end.

All heritage places, it is hypothesized, potentially have influential societal values; thus, establishing them as a potential category of values in typical values-based planning and management frameworks seems warranted. Traumatic heritage places foreground the phenomenon of societal values, adding contemporary relevance while satisfying core conservation values and benefits. Societal values can relate strongly to social justice and cultural identity issues, but the category could also extend to economic development, environmental conservation, or other issues in society at large.

Of course, the pursuit of societal values is not necessarily progressive—such values can also be the province of undesirable political forces. The perspective of this paper, formed by practice as much as scholarship, is that societal values present major opportunities to increase the contemporary relevance of heritage sites and improve the efficacy of values-based conservation. Societal values fuel a more activist form of conservation, envisioning work on sites and collections not only as an end in itself (archiving) but also as a means to other social ends (agency) (; ).


  1. The notion of “internal” and “external” used here, in relation to heritage places or sites, parallels the idea of “essential” and “instrumental” approaches to heritage advanced in my article with Erica Avrami in this volume.
  2. Mostly for reasons of length. Economic values can operate as both social and societal values for heritage places, but there is no space here to develop this more elaborate argument.
  3. See my article with Erica Avrami in this volume.
  4. The distinction between a tragic versus a traumatic site rests on ongoing societal function: a tragic site passively marks a historic event, person, or location associated with negative history; a traumatic site connects to contemporary healing processes, identity formation, and political debate, actively advocating particular interpretations of negative histories (; ).
  5. The author has been an unpaid advisor and director of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Inc., chairing its strategic planning committee.
  6. The history of Eastern State Penitentiary is sourced from Johnston, Finkel, and Cohen () and Eastern State Penitentiary ().
  7. The author led a research, training, and implementation project in partnership with the Rwandan government, focused on the memorial at Nyamata.
  8. This is a politically fraught term used in reference to these sites.
  9. The author participated in the memorial design competition as a member of one of the five finalist teams; this experience included several site visits and conversations with officials and other stakeholders in the conservation process (; ).
  10. The platform idea has been invoked elsewhere in heritage management practice to describe the functioning of partnership parks, in particular heritage areas codeveloped by local and state authorities with the National Park Service in the United States (); public spaces and other civic infrastructure (, 13); and public libraries ().


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