Developing Historic Context Statements

As stated in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Guidelines for Archeology and Historic Preservation , “the development of historic contexts is the foundation for decisions about the identification, evaluation, registration, and treatment of historic properties, and surveys.” A historic context statement provides the basis for evaluating significance and integrity. The historic context statement groups information about historic properties that have a common theme, place, and time. It focuses on describing those historical development patterns and trends within which the significance of a resource can be understood.

Historic context statements are a specialized form of historical writing with specific goals and requirements. Historic context statements are intended to provide a framework for identifying and evaluating resources by focusing on and explaining what aspect of geography, history and culture significantly shaped the physical development of a community or regions land use patterns and built environment over time, what important property types were associated with those developments, why they are important, and what characteristics they need to have to be considered an important representation of their type and context.

A context statement should not be considered a final document, and is continually evolving. A good context will provide a template for identifying, evaluating and developing plans for the treatment of historical resources.

“so what?”

Information included in the historic context statement needs to pass the “so what?” test. When researching and writing you should ask, “So what information does this sentence, paragraph, or section provide to help explain how land use patterns developed or why the built environment looks the way it does today?” Mining strikes, arrival of rail-road lines, wars, natural disasters, and other such events generally serve as historical markers. But unless a connection is made between information about what happened in the past and how it shaped today’s built environment, then “so what?” Only when you make an explicit connection between the history and the extant land use patterns or built environment will the historic context pass the “so what?” test and be a useful tool for integrating historic preservation into land-use planning.