Heritage in the Age of Virtual Reconstruction

October 27, 2015 Global Heritage, Technology Comments (1) 299

Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria.  BEFORE.

I was going to write this blog on Saturday when I heard the legendary Harold Kalman speak at the National Trust for Canada conference in Calgary.  I had the honor of being the opening keynote speaker on Thursday night, and Harold won at least two awards on Friday night, including one for lifetime achievement.  Notwithstanding his elder statesman role, he had some keen insights into where heritage is in 2015, and the keenest came when he answered the inevitable question.

I got this question a lot during my years at Global Heritage Fund:  What can we do about the destruction of monuments by Daesh (ISIS) as recently happened in Palmyra?  Hal Kalman had an interesting answer distinguished by its lack of urgency.  Monuments get damaged and destroyed.  The Parthenon was pretty well blown to bits in the 17th century.  That Roman bridge I saw in the Ossola Valley got blown up in World War II, and yet there it is.

roman-bridge

Kalman’s response was neither cavalier nor a call for reconstruction.  Indeed, the preceding discussion had focused on the 21st century approach to heritage – which was of course my topic Thursday night – which is an approach that has shifted from the preservation of physical materials to VALUES and ASSOCIATIONS.  This is the basis of reforms I have proposed in the U.S. and elsewhere.  Since the 1999 Burra Charter and the 2003 ICOMOS statement on intangible heritage, we have evolved to a new understading of What. We. Are. Trying. To. Preserve.

bamiyan-slideshow-3-1

From VOA TV Ashna via Twitter and Lionsroar.

Yesterday we saw these stunning images of 3-D holographic projections of the famed Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.  Undertaken by a wealthy Chinese couple, the virtual reconstruction of the Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in February 2001 has garnered a ton of attention.  Have you heard of the Bamiyan Buddhas?  Of course you have.  And has their destruction by the Taliban erased them from your memory?  Have they been erased from our collective patrimoinie?  Au contraire.

I posted this on Facebook this morning and a friend commented “Would love to see this site someday.”  Think about that for a minute.  Didn’t the Taliban destroy it despite the protestations of millions around the world?  Isn’t it GONE?

No.  We want to see it and now we have the technology to do so.  We have been using technology to supplement and animate heritage sites for decades and the technology keeps getting better.  Heck, even in the 1960s you could go to Rome and by a book showing ancient Roman sites as they are with acetate pages that flipped onto the surviving elements and allowed you a vision of what the site looked like 2000 years before.

basil maxe now

Basilica of Maxentius NOW

basil maxe then

Basilica of Maxentius THEN

Hal Kalman quoted several recent scholars, including Australia’s Laurajane Smith and my friend Ned Kaufman who have focused on the preservation of values and associations.  The values and associations of the Bamiyan Buddhas have not gone away – you could argue that their physical destruction has even intensified those values and associations.

Now of course there are still the fragments, the niches in the walls, the valley context, so in many ways they are currently in a physical state not unlike the Basilica of Maxentius.  Unlike Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange, they have not been replaced by a careless hulk that not only erases but replaces their context.

csepcard

might make a nice hologram…

This is not to say we don’t want authenticity.  Indeed, the entire heritage enterprise is about authenticity and that is key to my call for the reform of historic preservation practice in the United States.  Authenticity is not found only in buildings or fragments of buildings.  As the Nara Document on Authenticity (1994) stated:

“authenticity judgements may be linked to the worth of a great variety of sources of information. Aspects of the sources may include form and design, materials and substance, use and function, traditions and techniques, location and setting, and spirit and feeling, and other internal and external factors.”

ise-naiku-shinto-shrine2s

Shinto temple, Ise, Japan.  A thousand years old and rebuilt every generation. Authentically.

Heritage is not a luxury, it is a fundamental social value that differentiates us from beasts.  The whole world is poised right now – as they have been since the start of the Syrian civil war – to run in and do something about all of this world heritage as soon as they are able.  Daesh (ISIS) has mobilized concern for sites of outstanding universal value just as the Taliban did before them, and contrary to their supposed motivations, they are increasing the value and association of these sites.

hotw_syria_damage1

Warsaw was rebuilt after World War II because it had to be and because we had incredibly good, precise documentation of what it looked like.  The Parthenon has been partly and may someday be entirely put back together despite the vandalous use of it as an ammunition depot by the Ottomans and the even more vandalous Venetian volleys that pelted it with a thousand shells during the siege of 1687.  The temple had survived incredibly intact until that point.

parthenon-back-pediment

But at least we have Nashville….

If we understand heritage in a mature way, and we welcome it as a future enterprise in an age of virtual reconstruction, the infantile destroyers will never be able to take it away from us.  It is like travel itself, not only a wonderful investment in your education and understanding, but an investment that cannot be stolen from you while you breathe.  You can take away a stone or knock down an arch or blow up a statue but you cannot take away our memories, our thoughts, our values, and our social conscience.

One Response to :
Heritage in the Age of Virtual Reconstruction

  1. Mark Miller says:

    As well these scars on our enduring monuments left by momentary flaring dysfunctions of our lizard brains serve as reminders. If you over fix the past, it becomes the present.

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