The Recent Past’s Greatest Challenge: Public and Professional Outreach

by Alan Higgins, Director of Architectural and Cultural History

Unnoticed ModernOver the last several years, I’ve been fortunate to have many opportunities to present on architecture of the Modern era and the Recent Past at local, regional, and national conferences, workshops, and other such events. Some of these have been directed at the public, while others have been directed at kindred practitioners who have to address these resources as part of environmental compliance. With each event, no matter the crowd, an underlying theme becomes again and again apparent – that is, despite strides in recent years, we’re still coping with how to deal with these resources as part of our history, both in terms of how the public views the resources and in terms of how professionals can systematically (and most importantly, appropriately) deal with these resources.

On Monday, we’ll take a look at an architectural styles guide I originally created in 2007 and presented at the National Trust’s “Innovative Survey Strategies for the Recent Past,” which has since been used by some agencies, organizations, and surveyors throughout the country, but first I want to highlight two of the most recent presentations on the recent past.

Professional Outreach

In 2012, I participated in two large events. The first was the National Association for ChallengesEnvironmental Professionals Annual Conference in Portland, Oregon, an event of which cultural resource issues make up just a very small component of a larger agenda. Here, I coordinated a panel presentation on “Addressing Challenges of the Recent Past,” during which a series of presenters introduced the concept to a diverse crowd of environmental practitioners and highlighted the challenges associated with such resources and their intersection with Departments of Transportation, Federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and State Historic Preservation Offices. My introduction to the panel provided an analysis of how we got to the concept of the “Recent Past,” and why it is that we struggle with this topic as a concept. It also presented an analysis of the current documentary framework for Modern and Recent Past resources as reflected in studies that have been completed over the last ten years throughout the country, of which I retain a personal database.

Documenting Post-War Commercial Resources


The second presentation was made at the Penn Byways conference, held in association with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and the Transportation Research Board, at a session entitled “The Shock of the New: The National Register Eligibility and Management Implications of Post-World War II Resources.” My component, The Architecture of Consumerism: Assessing Challenges of the Post-War Era,” addressed the myriad of commercial resources one encounters on the fringes of suburban communities that developed during the period. The presentation briefly highlighted the current documentary record for post-war commercial resources and presented what I considered the five biggest challenges in addressing commercial resources, along with potential solutions for both limiting documentation and ensuring that those truly meaningful places are identified.

Copies of both presentations are included here in the links above, and speaking notes for the slides, if of interest, are available by emailing me at

As a bonus, a copy of the presentation for Unnoticed Modern is also provided.

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