Cultural Resource Management: Protecting a Country's Heritage

CRM is a Political Process that Balances National and State Requirements

Bywater Section of New Orleans, on the National Register of Historic Places
Section of St. Claude Avenue, Bywater section of New Orleans, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

 Infrogmation

Cultural Resource Management is, essentially, a process by which the protection and management of the multitudinous but scarce elements of cultural heritage are given some consideration in a modern world with an expanding population and changing needs. Often equated with archaeology, CRM in fact should and does include a range of types of properties: “cultural landscapes, archaeological sites, historical records, social institutions, expressive cultures, old buildings, religious beliefs and practices, industrial heritage, folklife, artifacts [and] spiritual places” (T. King 2002 :p 1).

Cultural Resource Management: Key Takeaways

  • Cultural Resource Management (CRM) is a process that people use to manage and make decisions about scarce cultural resources in an equitable manner. 
  • CRM (also known as Heritage Management) includes cultural landscapes, archaeological sites, historical records, and spiritual places, among other things. 
  • The process must balance a variety of needs: safety, environmental protection, and transportation and construction needs of an expanding community, with the honor and protection of that past. 
  • People who make those decisions are state agencies, politicians, construction engineers, members of the indigenous and local community, oral historians, archaeologists, city leaders, and other interested parties. 

Cultural Resources in the Real World

These resources do not exist in a vacuum, of course. Instead, they are situated in an environment where people live, work, have children, build new buildings and new roads, require sanitary landfills and parks, and need safe and protected environments. On frequent occasions, the expansion or modification of cities and towns and rural areas impact or threaten to impact the cultural resources: for example, new roads need to be built or the old ones widened into areas that have not been surveyed for cultural resources which may include archaeological sites and historic buildings. In these circumstances, decisions must be made to strike a balance between the various interests: that balance should attempt to allow practical growth for the living inhabitants while taking the protection of the cultural resources into consideration. 

So, who is it that manages these properties, who makes those decisions? There are all kinds of people who take part in what is a political process balancing the trade-offs between growth and preservation: state agencies such as Departments of Transportation or State Historic Preservation Officers, politicians, construction engineers, members of the indigenous community, archaeological or historical consultants, oral historians, historical society members, city leaders: in fact the list of interested parties varies with the project and cultural resources involved.

The Political Process of CRM

Much of what practitioners call Cultural Resource Management in the United States really deals with only those resources that are (a) physical places and things like archaeological sites and buildings, and that are (b) known or thought to be eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. When a project or activity that a federal agency is involved in may affect such a property, a specific set of legal requirements, set forth in regulations under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, comes into play. The Section 106 regulations lay out a system of steps by which historic places are identified, effects on them are predicted, and ways are worked out to somehow resolve effects that are adverse. All this is done through consultation with the federal agency, the State Historic Preservation Officer, and other interested parties.

Section 106 does not protect cultural resources that are not historic properties--for example, relatively recent places of cultural importance, and non-physical cultural features like music, dance, and religious practices. Nor does it affect projects in which the federal government is not involved—that is, private, state, and local projects requiring no federal funds or permits. Nevertheless, it is the process of Section 106 review that most archaeologists mean when they say "CRM."

CRM: The Process

Although the CRM process described above reflects the way heritage management works in the United States, discussion of such issues in most countries in the modern world includes a number of interested parties and almost always results in a compromise between competing interests of historic preservation, but also safety, commercial interests, and continuing fluctuation of political strength about what is appropriate to be preserved and what is not.

Thanks to Tom King for his contributions to this definition.

Recent CRM Books

  • King, Thomas F. A Companion to Cultural Resource Management. Walden, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.
  • Hardesty, Donald L., and Barbara J. LIttle. Assessing Site Significance: A Guide for Archaeologists and Historians. Second ed. Lanham, Massachusetts: Altamira Press, 2009. Print.
  • Hurley, Andrew. Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities. Philadelphia: Temple Univeristy Press, 2010.
  • King, Thomas F., ed. A Companion to Cultural Resource Management. Walden, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.
  • Siegel, Peter E., and Elizabeth Righter, eds. Protecting Heritage in the Caribbean. Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 2011, Print.
  • Taberner, Aimée L. Cultural Property Acquisitions: Navigating the Shifting Landscape. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press, 2012. Print.
  • Taylor, Ken, and Jane L. Lennon, eds. Managing Cultural Landscapes. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.