Conservation Forensics

December 18, 2016 Blog, Chicago Buildings, Interpretation, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (3) 2911

Heritage conservation is forensic – that doesn’t just mean “crime scene,” it means an argument based on evidence. Continue Reading

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Context, Culture, and the Authenticity Fetish

March 4, 2013 Global Heritage, History, Interpretation Comments (3) 1691

Pheakday Ngounphon at Banteay Chhmar

One of the themes that I have repeated in this blog over the years: that preservation is a process, not a set of rules, is being born out daily in my work as Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund (join here!). That is because we deal with a great variety of cultures and contexts across the world, from Asia to the Middle East, from South to North America, and from remote archaeological sites to vernacular villages and cities.

The process of historic preservation/heritage conservation is actually quite consistent: Identification, Evaluation, Registration, and Treatment. My old friend Ted Hild of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency used to label it as “hunt ’em, catch ’em, cook ’em and eat ’em,” which is a fun analogy. Fun aside, the point is the process, and what the Burra Charter famously recognized back in 1999 was that while the process can be consistent across continents and cultures, there are really not universal standards for identification, evaluation, registration, and treatment. What a particular culture in a particular context IDENTIFIES as significant may differ – in terms of tangible versus intangible heritage; in terms of social history versus design history: in terms of the stories it deems indelible to the transmission of cultural heritage. The Burra Charter and subsequent protocols have urged us to heed this cultural input at each step of the process: WHAT do you think is important; HOW do you evaluate that importance; WHAT do you do legally or politically to enforce this; and HOW do you treat the resource you have identified, evaluated and registered? Continue Reading

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The emotional logic of Authenticity

April 21, 2012 History, Interpretation Comments (4) 1297

I & M Canal at Lockport. Figure in the distance is one of the results of our Wayfinding project, a Cor-Ten steel silhouette of a historic figure, in this case Wild Bill Hickok.

I teach courses on Interpretation, a topic I was involved in in the mid-1990s when I was tasked with setting up a Wayfinding system for the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor. The challenge there was prodigious, trying to make visible the geological and historical connections between 100 miles of industrial towns and parks in a diverse modern landscape.
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Do We Really Want Authenticity?

March 10, 2011 History, House Museums, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (2) 1352

Shoso-in, 8th century temple pavilion at Nara, photographed 2004.

“Authenticity” is a word we keep coming back to in the world of cultural heritage conservation. The concept of authenticity lies at the centerpiece of the international charters that have defined preservation practice since the 1930s, and especially since the shift toward “intangible cultural heritage” that began with the Nara document in 1994.

Authenticity is a key aspect of how visitors encounter and experience historic sites. In our work in the Weishan Heritage Valley in China, we stress the value to the heritage tourist of authenticity. This is an argument for maintaining local businesses along the Southern Silk Road in Weishan, rather than removing them for tourist shops, as has been done in Lijiang, a World Heritage Site that experienced catastrophic tourist development and became an economic monoculture. Continue Reading

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Style and Authenticity (versus Sustainability)

August 21, 2009 Vision and Style Comments (1) 983

“Retro” describes the design of a hipster’s bicycle, and “Old World” describes the interior design of a lawyer’s new suburban house. The past, or rather, the FORMS of the past, are popular and thus marketable. They carry connotations that are coveted in 2009. Continue Reading

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books authenticity movies

January 6, 2009 Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (2) 1157

I finished “Who Owns Native Culture?” by Michael Brown an investigation of the legal and political status of indigenous peoples, read a history of soccer, got through half of Bill Bryson’s History of Everything, and swallowed Yuhl’s cultural history of Charleston’s early 20th century image-making. I am topping off this literary feast with Levinas’ seminal 1948 essay on aesthetics, all within a six-day trip to Mexico so of course I am thinking about authenticity.

No sooner had we arrived in Mismaloya than we were confronted by large protest signs painted on sheets accusing the government of robbing the people of Mismaloya of their “unique patrimony,” a neat echo of the various case studies in Brown’s book, although in this case less the specialized sovereignty rights associated with specifically indigenous peoples but rather the rights of a localized people. The protest was authentic: grass roots, geographically localized – and it was claiming heritage, so in a broad sense it was indigenous. Indigenous tends to mean specifically the pre-settlement peoples of “settler” nations like the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia and Brazil, although in most of those places the majority of indigenous peoples live somewhat inauthentically in major cities. Continue Reading

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