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Choking Off Our Past

by Ed Hooper on Feb 27, 2010

Historical preservation in the United States got hit by a freight train when President Obama recently released his FY2011 budget. The President’s budget eliminates funding for Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America programs and cuts funding for National Heritage Areas by 50 percent. Those are the hardest financial hits historical preservation has taken in more than 20 years.

Historical preservation in the United States depends upon the federal government to monitor it. There is no college, university, think tank or news organization tracking the billions of local, state and federal dollars spent annually on historical preservation. No annual report is issued showing where preservation dollars are going, whether the money is being used wisely and what is being overlooked that needs to be preserved. Overseeing these efforts is essential.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation is one organization that attempts to do some of this. Its goal is to protect critical pieces of the country’s history. It is responsible for preserving national artifacts in addition to maintaining dozens of projects from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City to Acoma Sky City in New Mexico. NTHP activists are gathering in the nation’s capitol this week for their annual lobby day. The release of the President Obama’s budget has turned that day into historic preservation advocacy week. The trust people will need all the intelligence and good fortune they can muster to reverse the budget cuts.
There is only one real unwritten rule of historical preservation, and it’s generally followed. No generation erects a monument to itself. Life requires each one to get a bloody nose or two before judging achievement and erecting monuments to honor the past. And it may take two or three generations before a firm and generally accepted interpretation of an event emerges. It is the only way of ensuring these manmade icons to human history have real meaning and are worthy of a descendant’s resources to preserve them.
No project is more emblematic of historic preservation and why we do it than the current efforts aimed at protecting the Apollo 11 landing site and 106 pieces of equipment left at Tranquility Base on the lunar surface. Enshrining the site where mankind first set foot on the moon goes to the root of the modern argument for protecting the past.
When Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong jettisoned tools and nonessential items on July 20, 1969, to return to the orbiting command module, they didn’t know they were creating humanity’s first recorded off-world archaeology site. That Tranquility Base would be regarded as a monument in the annals of earth history was known from the moment they left the lunar surface.
Their phenomenal achievement took eight years of grueling teamwork by some of the nation’s greatest minds. Aldrin and Armstrong were the first of 12 Americans who set foot on the moon. The United States captured the world’s imagination with the effort, reignited humanity’s innate love of exploration, and established the United States as the dominating space power. The promise of establishing a base on the moon was soon compromised for the shuttle program and a near-earth space station.
The will to capitalize on the experience of the United States and evoke what President Kennedy set forward when he approved “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth” didn’t materialize. This successful effort gave way instead to a series of science projects unrelated to manned exploration. We’re still the spacefaring nation of the world, but just barely.
That’s why preserving the 41-year-old Tranquility Base landing site is a national responsibility. It will protect the landing ground that marked a first in the human experience and commemorate an era of original thinking in the United States. It will also serve as an exploring milestone for succeeding generations to measure their own accomplishments.
Such efforts to create historical monuments are modern equivalents to the preservationists who repaired the American flag flown over Baltimore Harbor that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen “The Star Spangled Banner.” Funding cuts for NTHP now threaten such projects. They also put at risk the maintenance of historic buildings from the Old North Church to the laboratories of the Manhattan Project. These artifacts, monuments and sites guard the baseline of United States history and protect this nation’s incredible story from its founding on earth to the landing on the moon. Their continued preservation is essential. If NTHP activists can’t convince Congress to override this decision, the president’s financial gutting of historical preservation will have far-reaching effects on American culture.

Ed Hooper is an author and journalist from Knoxville, Tenn., and a writer for the History News Service, who specializes in military affairs and historical preservation.