Terminology Clarified for Preservation Usage

News presents briefs about current and forthcoming programs, events, exhibits and activities of historical and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

One of the most perplexing problems with such rela­tively new fields of endeavor as historic preservation is that it does not have a generally accepted or recognized vocabulary. There seems to be some confusion in describing cultural property by both professionals and laymen alike. Some people use the term properties or historic property to describe the historic house museum, but that does not fully portray the natural setting or structures other than the house, nor does it apply particularly to certain battle­fields or restored villages. The phrase “the built environ­ment” refers only to that produced by man, when a major portion of an historic site may be the natural landscape which was the major reason for the history in the first place, as in an original lumber camp or ore mining site. Moreover, the word museum suggests to the general public the exhibiting of objects in display cases.

More confusion may develop when we use the terms landmarks or historic landmarks. They cannot be used universally because these terms cannot be applied without running risk of confusion with the official designation used by the National Park Service in identifying historic sites of national significance.

Historic restorations is a descriptor often used in the last fifteen years. However, many historic areas are not restored but are reconstructed on the original foundations or locations, either from original plans or on the basis of extensive research; historic Indian villages are an example. Others are adaptively preserved as they exist today, includ­ing their modification and additions. Still others are preserved and interpreted as ruins, as in the case of many historic industrial sites. Archeological and paleontological sites are significant categories in this area and, although they are very important historic sites, they are definitely not restorations!

It is past time that we make a decision on this issue. We have to make a choice! I submit that the use of the term historic site is the most appropriate. The dictionary confirms our suggestion as the term: historic site means the place or setting of an event, thereby giving a full meaning to the phrase and meeting all the requirements that we are seeking. It is also a term which has been used by sensitive historical administrators for some years now and has been given emphasis by Dr. William T. Alderson, director of the American Association for State and Local History, and Shirley Payne Low in their book, Interpretation of Historic Sites, published in 1976.

When we use the term historic site we mean the historic house, outbuildings, and other structures including contemporary monuments and sculpture recognizing history, as well as archeological and paleontological sites, natural areas connected with historical events, historic districts, architectural sites, restorations, re-creations, and certain geographic areas that are notable because of their asso­ciation with a historic personage or event, or because of their reflection of the culture or flavor of a historical period.


Michael J. Ripton is Director of the Bureau of Historic Sites and Properties, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.