Rachel Hopkin

Folklorist and Radio Producer

Traditional Cultural Properties and the National Register of Historic Places

24 December, 2013

Earlier this year I was asked to become part of an American Folklore Society (AFS) Task Force on Historic Preservation. One of the aims of this Task Force is to look into ways to expand the use of the special “Traditional Cultural Property” designation within the National Register of Historic Places nomination process.

The National Register of Historic Places was set up in 1966 as part of the National Historic Preservation Act (which put into place, for the first time, a comprehensive federal policy on preservation). The Register was to be the means whereby a record of America’s significant properties and sites could be maintained. Said properties and sites did not necessarily have to be grand affairs and in fact, in the years since the Register was first established, it has become increasingly common to find humble vernacular structures listed alongside ornate and prepossessing ones.

Being on the National Register has an honorific value but besides that, getting things listed usually involves a fair amount of primary research, along with the gathering and compilation of much documentation, and these can be of great scholarly value. In addition, the Register can afford places some measure of protection against possible future development. This is all well and good. However, an area where some consider that the Register has proved less useful is in its capacity to recognize the intangible cultural heritage that may be bound up in a particular place.

In 1990, a step forward was taken in this regard when Bulletin 38 was issued. Written by Thomas King and Patricia Parker, it set forth guidelines for nominating “Traditional Cultural Properties” (hereafter called TCPs) to the Register. As outlined in the Bulletin, TCPs are places associated with the cultural practices or beliefs of a living community that are rooted in that community’s history and which are important in maintaining the continuing cultural identity of said community. As a result, when properties are nominated as TCPs, stress is laid on the intangible cultural heritage associated with place.

Bulletin 38