PEOPLE IN PRESERVATION
INTERVIEW WITH BECCA BERTRAND
Becca graduated from Salve Regina University where she majored in Cultural and Historic Preservation. After earning a masters from the University of Delaware's Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and working for a variety of nonprofits in Rhode Island, she became the Executive Director of newportFILM and then the Executive Director of the New York Yacht Club Foundation for Historic Preservation before joining the Society in January 2023. Becca has also been on the board of Preserve RI since 2019.
As someone who has been involved for years in Newport's history and culture, we'd love to learn more about your perspective on the opportunities and challenges you see ahead.
What are you most excited about in your role as Executive Director of the Newport Historical Society?
The Newport Historical Society is the proud steward of six historic properties ranging in age from 1697 to 1915 and tens of thousands of collection objects. The NHS is uniquely poised to interpret Newport's history with a national lens and I'm thrilled to bring new audiences to our collections, properties and library resources. There's also a tremendous responsibility leading an organization that has existed since 1854 - it's an honor to serve as Executive Director and I'm full of energy bringing a new generation of leadership to the NHS.
What achievement from your past work are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the joy I find collaborating with other nonprofits. Aquidneck Island, and all of Rhode Island, are such a treasure trove of incredible nonprofit organizations. In my time at newportFILM, nothing brought me more pleasure than shining a spotlight on organizations that deserved their time in the sunshine. At the Newport Historical Society, I plan to bring our collections, properties and resources together with other organizations in unique and creative ways.
The Society has played an important role in advocating for historic preservation policies in Newport. What role do you envision the Society playing moving forward?
The Newport Historical Society has been integral in the history of Newport's historic preservation movement. I think our strongest role in preservation is through education and the rich resources in our collection. We have incredible opportunities to educate the public through our popular walking tour program. We provide Newport homeowners house histories and we have rich visual resources that document Newport's built environment in our photographic collection. I think these are the unsung heroes of Newport's preservation story.
How can the preservation community help you to be successful?
I'd love the preservation community to access the resources of the Newport Historical Society more - learn about our collections on newporthistory.org, visit our Resource Center & Library, become a member and get involved!
INTERVIEW WITH JEFF EMIDY
1. What are you most excited about in your role as Executive Director of the HPHC?
I am excited about new directions. Since our establishment in 1968, we, like much of the preservation field nationwide, have focused our attention on the oldest and most prominent; the early houses, biggest ethnic groups, most obvious historical themes, and most famous architects. We are at a time in Rhode Island where the appreciation for newer, smaller, and less-known has really grown, and at the HPHC, we want to explore these areas. It will require new initiatives and procedures that we are just beginning to really think about, and it will, hopefully, inspire us all and bring out a lot of new information and respect for things that have been ignored or unknown to us.
2. What achievement from your work at the HPHC are you most proud of?
I am proud of the collective body of small accomplishments that I have been responsible for over the years. These have mostly been efforts to suggest modifications to project plans to better preserve historic resources, like camouflaging cell phone antennas, design changes for alterations to historic houses, and repairing historic bridges, rather than replacing them. I’m also proud of some work that I have played a part in, but which is not complete, including a state preservation Geographic Information System (GIS) and building and expanding our relationship with the R.I. Emergency Management Agency. Our team efforts have resulted in the biggest accomplishments that we’ve had in my years at the HPHC, though, and the ones that I value the most.
3. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing historic preservation in Rhode Island in the next 5 years?
Climate change will affect historic properties, and adapting to address climate change is a significant challenge for preservation. People’s reactions to and planning for sea level rise, severe weather events, and hotter temperatures all have effects on historic properties and we’re at the early stages of figuring out how preservation can be a part of the initiatives, but the initiatives are well funded and moving faster right now.
Maintaining public support for preservation is always an issue, particularly when other, seemingly conflicting issues draw more attention. The challenge for us in these situations is promoting the ability of preservation to coexist with these other concerns.
There have been efforts at the national level over the past few years to intentionally reduce preservation’s reach through changes to the National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Preservation Act’s Section 106 (to streamline preservation out of reviews of large, nationwide initiatives). These would have significant impacts on preservation in Rhode Island. We need to ensure that these efforts are squashed early on.
4. If you had a magic wand to fix one thing, what would you wish for?
I would wish for more staff in the office to allow us to take on more initiatives.
Preservation is about telling everyone’s history. Nationwide, preservation is working to acknowledge underrepresented communities, and we need to, as well. That means better understanding the histories and cultures of groups that have not been the subject of our focus over the years; reaching out to people in those communities, learning about them, and getting that information into the record, through additions to our town surveys, National Register nominations, and National Historic Landmark documents. In Rhode Island, this dovetails with growing our heritage program. There is a natural overlap there that we need to exploit to bring heritage into the preservation program in new ways that enhance both programs.
We have a very good survey of historic properties that were constructed up to the 1930s, but since that work was conducted in the 1980s, we have not done a systematic survey or studied statewide contexts. Buildings from the early 1970s are now 50 years old. We need to develop a better understanding about which 20th century buildings should be considered historic and why.
We need to expand our outreach to the cities and towns, through more historic district commission training, more interaction to find out where their preservation concerns lie, and building our network of allies.
My predecessor initiated an effort to develop a relationship with URI to expand our terrestrial and underwater archaeology programs. Some interesting ideas have been discussed, but we need to put more effort into that relationship.
There are more… we could come up with a lot if we had that magic wand.
5. How can the preservation community help you to be successful?
I will only be successful if our office is successful. At its simplest, I am the director of a state regulatory agency. We administer programs and enforce regulations that have been set down in state and federal law. While we are also here to help, our mandates are not lobbying for preservation or organizing local efforts. We need the preservation community to coalesce and advocate for preservation from Burrillville to Little Compton and everywhere in between. We need local historical societies, heritage groups, and historic district commissions to be the on-the-ground groups promoting preservation in their towns, talking to their local officials and their neighbors, and helping those who are not familiar with the benefits of preservation to understand how important preservation is to the sense of place that we feel in Rhode Island that makes us love living here. Local efforts bubble upward, through the town officials to the General Assembly, to the Governor’s office, and to Congress, and they can all provide support for us if we reach them.