Thought Leadership Forum II: Recap

Final Report

On Monday, July 20, AAF’s Center for Design and Cultural Heritage held its second Thought Leadership Forum, “Storytelling, Design, and Cultural Heritage in the 21st Century,” in Washington, DC. During the forum, preservationists, policy-makers, and other cultural heritage stakeholders discussed storytelling’s role in greater preservation advocacy.

The forum drew on AAF’s current partnership with the National Park Service and Save America’s Treasures. Over 20 attendees brought a variety of perspectives to storytelling’s role and impact in preservation, and discussed how audience, technology, narrative and advocacy can be used tactically to broaden preservation’s reach and ensure its livelihood in years to come.

To best position preservation as a thriving field in the 21st century, participants agreed that utilizing new media technologies was key to grow interest.  These technological mediums allow users the opportunity to engage directly with stories. For example, contemporary preservation narratives often utilize a call to action for readers to make donation to help preserve a local cultural site. Users may also utilize self-guided walking tour smartphone apps that enable them to actively situate themselves into these stories and their historical and cultural contexts and futures.

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While social media is often touted as the universal answer for greater exposure, its usage must be used strategically depending on an organization’s purpose and audience.  Julia Rocchi, Director of Digital Content for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, shared of her organization’s experience using Pinterest, “Our social media team finally did the metrics on it, and even with regular posting, there is no added traffic. Having that data has been really important to determine which social media channels to use.”  Indeed, determining which platforms a target audience uses – and then telling the story using that platform – can yield a broader impact, but quality narratives are necessary to generate interest from the audience.

The narratives that are used to uplift preservation’s efforts can also shape the impact and reach of the stories being told. Using Monticello as an example, one participant explained that as Thomas Jefferson’s legacy has become complicated by his relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman owned by Jefferson, the stories promoted by his estate have changed to accommodate these details. Expanding the stories being told to include a broader range of perspectives broadens the potential for new interest in the field.

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Participants also agreed that expanding preservation’s meaning can further preservation advocacy in the coming decades. While “historic preservation” for many connotes strictly preserving the past rather than also looking to the future, attendees agreed that contextualizing preservation’s role in place-making and sustainable urbanism can solidify its relevance in the 21st century.

A full report summarizing the forum’s proceedings will be available in the coming weeks. For more information on the Thought Leadership Forum Series or on the Center for Design & Cultural Heritage, please contact CDCH Director Thom Minner at

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Posted in: Center for Design & Cultural Heritage, Print, Thought Leadership Forums

The American Architectural Foundation has been dedicated to advancing the role of architecture and design in American society since its founding in 1943 by the American Institute of Architects.

In its 75 years in existence the Foundation’s work has taken many forms — from educational programming and exhibitions in its early years to large-scale design initiatives and programs —all of which serve to create a rich legacy.

As the managing partner of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design for twenty years, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Conference of Mayors, the Foundation helped move the needle on design and cities. And, through its other signature programs like Save America’s Treasures in partnership with National Parks Service, the Sustainable Cities Design Academy, and Design for Learning, the Foundation has provided critical design leadership training and technical assistance to hundreds of elected officials, education leaders, business leaders, and other key decision makers in the design process.

In recent years, cities and civic leaders have embraced design and design thinking in a way that could not have been imagined when the Foundation begin its work back in 1943 — and AAF’s role in this transformation is a source of great pride for the Foundation. With this increased interest in the role of design in shaping our cities came a proliferation of new organizations to support and facilitate this cultural shift. These advances in the role of design in American society and changes in the nonprofit design sector, coupled with the departure of the organization’s longest-serving CEO, prompted the Foundation’s Board to embark on an intensive and lengthy process to examine the ongoing role and work of the Foundation.

As the Board of Regents reflected on the positive changes of the cultural value of design, the accomplishments of the Foundation, and how the legacy of the Foundation’s work is being carried out by its former staff in new roles and organizations across the country, they reached the conclusion that the American Architectural Foundation had accomplished what it set out to do. As a result, the Foundation began to complete its remaining programs and wind down its operations in the Summer of 2018 and the organization’s endowments have been distributed to allied organizations. The Foundation’s research and reports will remain available on its website as a resource to the field.

The Foundation’s work would not have been possible without the incredible talents of its many staff over the decades, the generous support of its funders, and the tireless dedication of its civic & design partners across the country. The Board remains deeply proud of the significant contributions Foundation has made in its 75-year history and would like to acknowledge that this would not have been possible without the efforts, dedication, and support from so many of you.