History has become a kind of spectator sport for most Americans. They watch shows about it on television, read about history in books, and applaud the hard work of others who preserve battlefields, fine old homes, and monuments. But First Lady Laura Bush and others are asking average Americans to get personally involved in saving the nation's historical treasures.
Who knows, says Dan Davids, executive vice president of the History Channel, a 10-year-old cable TV service. If the project he and others were announcing to an audience of history teachers and preservationists at the White House ignites the right sparks, a 10-year-old might soon look up from dinner and say, in a surprised voice, 'Hey, history is cool!'
"It's important to teach our children about the past, but equally vital to empower them to learn from history and preserve it going forward. Unless history lives in the present, it has no future," he said.
Mr. Davids announced that a new History Channel campaign called "Save Our History" would join with the White House's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to mobilize schools, communities, and individuals to save and restore even modest landmarks, artifacts, and historic sites. Awards will be given to communities that do an especially good job.
"Preservation has this image of people that want to save things, buildings, battlefields, lands," said businessman John Nau, who chairs the president's historic preservation council. "They're all well-intentioned. But they have more of an image of always having their hand out: 'Give me money so I can go save something.' And I think today's modern preservationists absolutely have to ask themselves the question, 'Why?'"
And the answer, Mr. Nau says, had better include more than the esthetic worth of a rickety old house or school or memorial. It had better have something to do with generating dollars for a community, so business leaders will have a reason to put money into preservation.
Often, Mr. Nau says, that reason is the appeal of revitalized old neighborhoods to the fast-growing legions of what are called heritage tourists and to people who like to do business, and to live, in old-fashioned but spruced-up surroundings. He cites the renovation and reopening of the historic Rice Hotel, once home to legendary Texas oil and land deals, in his hometown of Houston.
"When that happened, there was an explosion of businesses, entertainment, restaurants. That whole area around the market square rebirthed within the space of two years," he said. "There are now more than 3,000 people living in the downtown business district. Ten years ago, it might have been three hundred. Historic preservation is not just about opening another museum and putting another pair of high-button shoes on a shelf."
At the White House ceremony, Mr. Nau lavishly praised the state of Kentucky for projects that used private investment and government tax credits to turn 100 small towns into a heritage trail of places to see and stay. That Mid-South state, he says, knows how to turn preservation into economic development, bringing cash into local shops and motels.
"We've been doing a lot of work with identifying and preserving Rosenwald schools," said David Morgan, executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Council. "[Julius] Rosenwald was chief executive officer of the Sears Department stores and started an educational foundation to build schools for African-American children throughout the South. It's a type of resource that maybe twenty years ago was overlooked, but now is very important, because it's part of the fabric of our culture. East Kentucky coal-mining towns, workers' neighborhoods in Louisville, to farm landscapes in far-western Kentucky. They're something that shows the entire picture of our history.
In today's world, Mr. Morgan says, businesses that use the Internet can locate just about any place they please. And a surprising number are choosing the pleasant surroundings, historic character, and neighborliness of a small town's restored Main Street.
At the White House ceremony, the First Lady introduced a series of television announcements she has recorded, promoting the new preservation initiative. "Every child deserves to discover our heritage. But imagine if our children could no longer see the Liberty Bell, or the Ellis Island immigrant center, or visit the place where their grandparents grew up. It would be like losing the story of who they are," she said.
That's why, Mrs. Bush explained, it's not just wealthy people and history buffs who need to get involved. It's everybody's country and everybody's job to save its architectural gems. "We invite you to help our nation's past become part of our children's future," she said.
For its new Save Our History campaign, the History Channel is producing a manual of lesson plans, interesting places to explore, and programs to watch on television for schoolchildren of all ages. It's hoping such a presentation will be livelier than dusty history textbooks and inspire thousands of young people not just to learn about disappearing historic sites, but also send in a little money or roll up their sleeves and do something about it.