Too Historic To Fail

Have you had an opportunity to read the latest chapter in the depressing Carter’s Grove saga?

Carter’s Grove, for those beyond the Mid-Atlantic, is a mid-18th-century James River plantation house that is also the site of Martin’s Hundred, one of the settlements attacked by the Powhatan in 1622 and discovered and excavated by Ivor Noël Hume. The property was owned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CW) and operated as one of the Foundation’s ticketed sites until 2003, when poor visitation numbers led to its closure.

In 2006, Carter’s Grove was sold by CW to Halsey Minor, an internet technology entrepreneur, for more than $15 million; CW held the note. Minor has since stopped paying the mortgage and declared bankruptcy to avoid foreclosure. The case is now in United States Bankruptcy Court in Norfolk.

Carter’s Grove. Photo via Flickr user roger4336 via Creative Commons License.

The Washington Post recently ran a story about the situation. The comments are fascinating (as only comments in the digital age can be). Most people mock Halsey Minor, mercilessly so, blaming him for what is happening to Carter’s Grove and looking forward to his pending comeuppance from the bankruptcy court judge.

A fair number, however, blame CW. Jtrice12 wrote that CW “should be ashamed for selling the place to someone with no expertise in historical preservation… They’ll never get another penny of my money.” “Astoundingly poor management,” concurred Doctor_Dru. CW “sold off Carter’s Grove instead of fulfilling [its] core mission,” PBrown448 declared, and so “off with the [CW] trustees[’] heads!”

The Carter’s Grove situation reveals the challenges facing organizations everywhere which manage historic sites. It also reveals how the challenge of sustainability extends beyond historic houses to archaeological properties (like Martin’s Hundred) and to the reconstructions / replicas often built to re-imagine these places on the landscape. Typically, reconstructions and other types of archaeological site interpretation can still require an infrastructure that includes not just visitor amenities but the expertise of archaeologists and educators. These are not inexpensive propositions.

Joan Poor, an environmental economist, has convinced me that cultural economics is an under-utilized tool for informed decision-making about the investment in and sustainability of historic properties. Cultural economics is concerned with the application of economic analysis to, among other things, the heritage and cultural industries (Towse 2010; see also the Journal of Cultural Economics). Poor believes that a public archaeology would not only benefit from a perspective rooted in cultural economics, but demands it.

Poor’s research in southern Maryland focuses on the analysis of historic sites as public goods, and just how much people are willing to pay to support them. Using the methods of cultural and natural resources economics, Poor works to establish values for historic and preservation attributes which cannot be measured in the private market. She has found that most people are indeed willing to support historic sites through tax dollars as well as through visitation (Poor and Smith 2004).

This willingness, however, has its limits. Poor suggests that site managers can find these limits through economic analysis and then develop realistic plans for the management of historic properties, including, if necessary, the conversion of a public good into a private good, such as selling a historic house.

Poor also argues that willingness-to-pay is not some forever fixed number, and that knowing the public’s limits can lead to the development of longer-term strategies for educating the public and, ultimately, increasing willingness-to-pay.

Unlike standing structures, archaeological sites don’t often need new roofs, paint jobs, or insurance. Still, there are real infrastructural costs for their preservation, accessibility, and interpretation. Cultural economics may provide yet another measure for determining the sustainability of various strategies for managing archaeological sites.

I have been thinking about Poor’s comments a lot lately because I am getting the sense that the rotten economy is masking a larger transformation in the public’s attitudes and support of historic preservation, especially archaeological sites. On the one hand, many surveys suggest that the public has never been more aware of and supportive of archaeology (see, for example, Ramos and Duganne 2000); on the other, a number of archaeology programs are on the chopping block, from museums to universities to government (none more draconian than what has been proposed for Parks Canada [read the SHA response to these cuts]). It’s not clear whether these proposed cuts reflect cost-saving measures or something else altogether. An analysis based in cultural economics might help tease out issues of a recession-induced inability to pay versus a declining willingness-to-pay.

Are there lessons we can take away from the Carter’s Grove debacle? Are we entering a new phase in the public support of archaeology? How can archaeological projects (a term used here broadly) be sustainable projects?

I am grateful to Dr. Joan Poor, Provost, Truman State University, for introducing me to the importance of cultural economics and inviting my participation in her project at Point Lookout State Park near Scotland, Maryland.

  • Ramos, Maria, and David Duganne
  • Poor, P. Joan, and Jamie Smith
    • 2004  Travel Cost Analysis of a Cultural Heritage Site: The Case of Historic St. Mary’s City.  Journal of Cultural Economics 28:217-229.
  • Towse, Ruth
    • 2010   A Textbook of Cultural Economics. Cambridge University Press.

[Image courtesy of Flickr user roger4336 via Creative Commons License]