In 1984 the Tennessee General Assembly and Governor Lamar Alexander, as part of a comprehensive statewide education reform program, proposed a special project to recognize Tennessee’s national leadership in higher education through a competition to create specialized research centers involving the flagship academic programs in Tennessee’s public universities and colleges. One of the first created was the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University in 1984, a designation which acknowledged the international reputation of the MTSU Historic Preservation program (founded 1973) and its affiliated Mid-South Humanities Project (1978-83, a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded project emphasizing the use of heritage resources in K-12 schoolrooms).
The center is a leading catalyst for promoting tourism and other economic development through a planned use of local heritage resources. Since its founding, the center has developed a regional strategic plan for the broader Mid-South region and assisted many property owners and local governments to preserve historic buildings and neighborhoods.
In addition, the center has taken a lead position in the documentation and interpretation of Tennessee history. In 1987 it published (with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture) a book on the almost eight hundred Tennessee families who have lived on and worked the family farm for at least a century. A continuing Century Farms program looks toward a second publication. In the last ten years center staff members have written books on the domestic architecture of Rutherford County and Tennessee’s historic landscapes, edited an anthology of new interpretations of Tennessee history, and prepared the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Its partnership with the Tennessee Historical Society yielded the last two books, while the center has edited the Tennessee Historical Quarterly since 1993. In the new century the center has continued its scholarly contributions with recent studies of rural African American churches in Tennessee and the state’s New Deal Landscape. In collaboration with the Tennessee Arts Commission and the Tennessee Historical Society, the center will publish the first major study of the history of the arts in Tennessee in 2003.
The success of the earlier Mid-South Humanities Project continues with research on Heritage Education. In 1996 the center undertook a national survey for the National Park Service on the status of heritage education in the United States. The report was published in fall 1997 and has led to the development of a pilot national database on heritage education materials and practices accessible through the center’s Web site. This has since developed into the Heritage Education Network.
In the technical area, the center has undertaken work on a national scale with research focused on historic paint analysis and a standard nomenclature and policies for architectural artifact collection.
In 1997 the center prepared to embark on its largest project to date after Congress approved a program in 1996 for five new national heritage areas including one proposed by the center on the Civil War in Tennessee. The approved project, the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, will work to improve the visitor experience in Tennessee through new programs to evaluate and explain the total Civil War and Reconstruction era experience in Tennessee. The project officially began with a signing of its governing compact by Governor Don Sundquist in February 2001.