A Reflection on the Materiality of Preservation

Posted on: November 30th, 2011 by Priya Chhaya 2 Comments

The bustle of Union Station in DC. (Photo: Flickr user jenpilot)

I once wrote a paper about a pressure cooker for a course on foodways. It was a plum assignment—find an object in your kitchen over the Thanksgiving holidays and write about it. Look at it in a way that you’ve never looked before: as a piece of culture, a mirror into the way we cook, the way we eat, and the role that object played in the history of your home, your community, America, and the world (yes, the world!)

So I went home, picked the one appliance we used the most—and told its story. The narrative didn’t begin with its physical description (stainless steel, about 10 inches in diameter) or with an origin story (Denis Papin, inventor) rather it began with a memory of my mother cooking an entire Indian meal in 30 minutes flat.

I was thinking about this assignment this past weekend when I strolled through Union Station (Washington, DC) on my way back from my Thanksgiving break, watching as shoppers milled through the stores, and travelers sprinted to their trains. I found myself struck with the materiality of it all.

What exactly do I mean by materiality? I mean that much of what we try to preserve is based in the tactile, in the physically present, something we can touch. Preservation is a pursuit to save the material culture of the past.

However, we also know the following: Preservation saves places. Preservation saves history. Preservation saves memories. Preservation saves character.

Through this lens we admit to ourselves that preservation is not just about the stuff. The materiality of preservation is very much rooted in these places and objects ability to tell a story - to evoke the intangible in such a way that makes it more certain, more reliable, more real. Place-History-Memories-Character, are all names that describe either something so big it isn’t easily defined without examples (place, history), or an intangible detail that evokes feelings and emotions on a human level (memory, character).

Recognizing that distinction is key when trying to preserve. It isn’t the building, landscape, or the neighborhood that is going to garner support alone, rather it is those intangible elements, the memories, the character, the history that will pull in the unexpected advocates. For me it was the visual of my mother, cooking dinner during that half hour that made the pressure cooker real - just as our stories will make this piece of material culture a continuing part in the history of your home, your community, America, and perhaps…the world.

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Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

General, Reflections

2 Responses

  1. Why we preserve what we preserve | BMORE HISTORIC

    December 1, 2011

    […] tells us preservation makes good economic sense.  Priya Chhaya blogged recently about the “materiality of preservation“.  From the National Trust, we get “This Place Matters“.  Barbara Campagna, […]

  2. Preservation and a Pressure Cooker (A Reflection on the Materiality of Preservation) « …and this is what comes next

    December 2, 2011

    […] work this week I wrote a piece reflecting on the stuff of preservation. I also managed to loop in a paper I wrote during my […]