A couple years ago my sister and her partner rented an old house in an historical part of Kitchener, Ontario. They knew the house was over 100 years old, and they knew that I had done research on the housing styles of old Kitchener, so they asked if I knew what architectural style best described the old duplex.

I should mention that this reflection isn’t about architectural styles. It’s about commemorative and associative values in designation. Recently I have been following and joining discussions about the removal of monuments, diversity and inclusion, and white supremacy. I’ve been thinking a lot about why we value certain places or objects over others, especially when that value is derived largely from its association with a famous person or event, regardless of what these people or events represent. With the current conversations focused on statues and commemoration I think there’s another conversation the heritage sector needs to have about designating sites based on associative values.

I did find the answer to my sister’s question. A walking tour made by the local historical society and municipality held the answer: the house was built in the Berlin vernacular style (a unique local style) in 1905. The walking tour also said that “in the years before WWII, former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was a regular summer tenant” which surprised and excited us.[1] A famous Canadian lived here once, or stayed here for a bit! Mackenzie King was born and raised in Kitchener (then called Berlin) and won his first parliamentary seat as the local MP for Waterloo North. His childhood home (Woodside) is now a National Historic Site and museum that is set up to look as though it did during King’s childhood and is run by Parks Canada.

Two years before my sister’s apartment was built an Austrian art historian published an essay called The Modern Cult of the Monument. It has had a huge impact on how heritage is perceived and conserved. In The Modern Cult of the Monument author Alois Riegl emphasized three different values in designating monuments: age value, aesthetic value, and historical value.[2] The historic value is what can make one unassuming structure more historically valuable than comparable structures. In contemporary heritage surveys you will often find a section for association with an important historical figure or event. Two of Parks Canada “Criteria for National Historic Significance” are associative values - either with a person or event of significance. Generations of heritage practitioners have justified heritage through noble aestheticism and edifying relations to significant players in the political history of our state.[3]

A good example of place with strong associative values is Batoche. I stopped at Batoche National Historic Site on a blisteringly hot day last month. Batoche is in part a restoration project (returning buildings to a specific time in the past, often down to a particular year or even day) and it does have associative values, making it similar to a typical house museum. However Batoche is very different because it is part of a community that lives the heritage engrained in that place. At Batoche it was evident that there were traditional heritage values present but the place felt more alive than any pioneer museum or fort or prime minister’s house I have visited because there was a strong connection to place, and sense of living heritage.

Laurajane Smith’s scholarship argues that people, for the most part, engage in heritage experiences to reaffirm their own identity, rather than negotiating the complex emotional work of learning and unlearning in the face of new information.[4] That is to say, we work really hard to avoid thinking about difficult things, and to make our experiences as safe to ourselves as possible. I used to work at a National Historic Site that trafficked heavily in its associations with important Canadians to draw tourists, while ignoring how its existence was a symbol of oppression, imperialism, and white supremacy. When I would bring these ideas up on tours people might nod, but what they wanted was to peer at the bedrooms of famous people.

This is almost certainly true of conservation and designation too. Those with the power to allocate money and decide what is significant do so in ways that reflect themselves. The historic environment that is left to us is not due to entropy and chance. It exists in the image of those who created it.

Which begs the question: what parts of the current built environment are significant to people now? If we ignore Reigl’s values, how does this change our heritage landscape? What buildings, spaces, and places become rich with heritage?

My hunch is that the majority of significant places are bits of the built environment that we mostly overlook: grocery stores; barbershops and hair salons; desire paths; first apartments; the late night fast food joint; a park bench; dollar stores; granny’s old house; steam vents and corners out of the wind; libraries with available computers and desks and natural light; the football field that is covertly used as a cricket pitch; the big old tree in the park; the local garage; and others besides. Places of ordinary everyday modernism in strip malls and suburbs. Places like the two-floor commercial building that served as Regina’s first mosque. One of the dozens of grocery stores that stock the food that tastes like home.[5] This may not be the time to designate Jollibee, but we could be talking about what Jollibee represents.

Despite how uncomfortable associative value can make me, I don’t think we should do away with them altogether. Batoche is significant to our provincial and national history for many reasons, but one is because of its association with (in)famous events. Nor am I saying we should strip every house museum of it’s designation, (there are other solutions to affordable housing that we can look at first, like all those empty office towers). I do question why I was so excited to learn that Mackenzie King once lived in the same building as my sister. And I wonder what story these designations all tell together, who they reflect, and who is not given voice. And I wonder how much work has to be done to rectify this.

But I think I already know.

 

[2] Riegl, Cult of Monuments pg 1

[4] Smith, Laurajane. 2014. “Visitor Emotion, Affect and Registers of Engagement at Museums and Heritage Sites.” Conservation Science in Cultural Heritage Vol 14 (N 2): 125-132 Pages. https://doi.org/10.6092/ISSN.1973-9494/5447. Pg. 129.