Gareth Hoskins: Locating value: assigning significance in the historical built environment, a trans-Atlantic review

All places are valuable but some are more explicitly valuable than others. Who decides which are most precious and most worthy of public esteem, and how do they do it? My ‘locating value’ project investigated US and UK preservation agency practices of listing, landmarking and designation. Visits to Washington DC and Bristol allowed me to examine the development and application of the various criteria and protocols of assessment employed in the evaluation of historic buildings.  My aim was to use historic preservation as a working context through which to test the age old philosophical question: is value found or is it made? I wanted, specifically, to remove some of the mystique that surrounds the assessment of non-economic kinds of value, and to challenge the veneer of academic objectivity that gives such systems their authority.

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In the end I encountered a group of dedicated practitioners in the awkward position of both believing and not believing in the fair and ‘neutral’ valuational frameworks they work to apply on a day to day basis. On the one hand preservation officers could use their system to defend themselves against charges of bias: “We don’t have views, we’re not trying to be arbiters – we feed nominations into the system and see how they measure up”. On the other hand many recognised that influence was often and is still brought to bare in the composition of lists either through external political pressure or internally held personal preferences and priorities.  Less obvious though was the systematic bias coded in to logics of selection that privilege the kinds of histories that are already heavily represented.

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It was a tremendous conceit for the originators of the lists to assume that their own tastes and sensibilities (those of a white male professional class patronised by an economic and cultural elite) could operate as the default setting of value and work on behalf of us all.  Today the skewed nature of the United States National Register of Historic Places, the National Historic Landmarks Program, and the UK’s various statutory lists of buildings, serve to record, amongst other things, political influence. Those populations underserved by preservation agencies in the past are now being specifically targeted with outreach initiatives and an associated effort to expand lists in directions that better reflect social and ethnical diversity.

The research project developed a relational theory of value to question this kind of ‘inclusion via expansion’-based solution.  A relation theory of value asserts that any judgment of value involves the reciprocal removal of value from something else. We are not simply saying therefore that one thing is good, we are unavoidably saying that one thing is better than another, one building should be ranked higher than another, one application for funding is more worthy than another, and so on. Value relies on creating an equivalence. It operates in a zero sum game. Value cannot be self-sufficient and infinitely amassed since every attribution leads also to a disavowal.  By identifying only the very best and showcasing the exclusively positive outcomes of their listing practices preservation agencies in the US and UK ignore value’s limits.  In his essay on the Destiny of Value Baudrillard makes this same point: “Because we no longer know what is true or false, what is good or evil, what has value or does not, we are forced to store everything, record everything, conserve everything, and from this an irrevocable devaluation ensues… all that lives by value will perish by equivalence” (1998, 4).  So if value as a concept is to promote social justice and advance equality then what we require more than anything else is its re-distribution. We can’t simply add more things to a list, we need to take things off the list as well.

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