The National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) is the nation’s primary mechanism for identifying and designating historic places that are significant and worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the program is managed by the National Park Service and administered by each state and territory through its State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Despite its nearly 100,000 listings, however, the NRHP is consistently misunderstood by its biggest constituency: the American public. Most of the misunderstandings are centered around the expectation that listing in the NRHP offers protection and regulation, when in reality, it was designed to encourage preservation by recognition and commemoration.
Not only is the NRHP misunderstood, but it has also not been widely used to recognize places of importance to many Americans whose history, sites, buildings, neighborhoods and cultural touch points may have been for generations intentionally or unintentionally overlooked or not considered. Likewise, as a tool for preserving the sacred places of sovereign indigenous tribes and organizations, the NRHP has not always been wholly successful at fostering preservation because recognition may bring attention to sensitive sites with few actual protections. In recent years, there has been increasing attention related to equity, inclusion, and access concerns within the preservation field, with particular criticism directed at the NRHP and the designation process. As a result, many have started to examine how and whether the listings in the NRHP tell and represent our nation’s full story, and if not, what obstacles prevent it from doing so.
This report is the product of an effort by the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO) to examine how we recognize our historic places, with particular attention to the NRHP. The NCSHPO established a National Historic Designation Advisory Committee (NHDAC) in 2021 to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the NRHP’s original established goals, how well those goals are being met, what opportunities to improve overall access and inclusion might exist, and whether new programs may be part of the solution.