Conserving our Heritage

The 1964 Venice Charter states in its opening paragraph that, “it is our duty to hand them (historic monuments) on in the full richness of their authenticity (Jerome 2008, 3).”  In 1972 UNESCO adopted the Charter, stating that “in order to be designated cultural properties, they must meet the test of authenticity in design, materials, workmanship and setting (Jerome 2008, 3).” To further complicate the issue, additional attributes to measure ‘authenticity’ have been applied, such as use, function, tradition, language, spirit and feeling (Jerome 2008, 3).  However what is authenticity?  Is it merely the basic definition of the word which means the quality of being genuine, or is it something far more intrinsic or esoteric? Opinions around the world differ, and it is the intention of this essay to illustrate not only these differences, but also where similarities lie.

The consideration of how to ensure this almost intangible quality of authenticity is taken further by the Venice Charter, which states that when dealing with cultural monuments of particular significance, anastylosis is the only form of intervention that can be conducted, with further works carried out only if deemed absolutely necessary, and as long as the new materials are clearly distinguishable from the old (Jerome 2008, 3).  The idea here is that the formation of a palimpsest is far more attractive than losing any authenticity and is of significant value itself (Jerome 2008, 3).  However, as Judith Hill rightly states in her article on The Conservation of Irish Houses 1984 – 2004, it is not as simple as that, particularly when one has to consider not only the monument in question, but its history, material culture and the social narrative associated with it (Hill 2004, 78).  For example, in 1980, Warsaw was designated a World Heritage site, however it was completely reconstructed after its destruction in World War II (Jerome 2008, 4).  How then is this authentic?  Surely by the very Charter which UNESCO have ascribed themselves to, it would not qualify let alone be considered.  However, UNESCO has stated that it “possesses authenticity in relation to its temporal context (Jerome 2008, 4).”  Is this merely a clever way of circumventing the Convention, or has UNESCO recognised that it was important to acknowledge the significance of recovering from such a loss on that scale?  Perhaps it has been considered to be a palimpsest of unimaginable scale.  Whatever the reason, it cannot be denied that it calls upon the authenticity of memory, feeling and spirit of place and deserves its designation.

In this sense, interiors are no different.  In Museum Period Rooms for the 21st Century: Salvaging Ambition, Julius Bryant states that, in the twenty-first century the traditional aesthetic or historical priorities of the period room, that lucid choice between presenting either period style or actual lifestyle, for the visiting connoisseur or the social historian, need no longer apply (Bryant 2009, 81).  Modern curators are not so bound by convention in the display of their interiors, allowing for themes that not only represent a past owner or a bygone era, but also regional and aesthetic influences (Bryant 2009, 75 – 80).  However the criticism of these interiors harkens to their authenticity, with many interiors constructed as a symbolic representation, rather than a literal top-down as-is time capsule or a functional living space which still sees regular use (Bryant 2009, 77 – 81).  Additionally, the long-term sustainability of the objects contained within an interior as well as the very fabric of the interior itself requires constant maintenance and protection (Powter 2005, 6 – 7).  Through clever a clever mix of restoration and preservation techniques it is possible to promote strategies which allow for minimal-intervention without impacting the authenticity of a space (Powter, 8).

A further challenge is in keeping these properties relevant and accessible to our increasingly multicultural world that has fundamentally changed how these spaces are perceived and enjoyed (Bryant 2009, 83).  While this raises the question of the value of an authentic exploration of social, historic and geographic interpretations, it is this very thing, the imperceptible quantity associated with cultural and national identity that these tourists are buying into (Johnson 1996, 551 – 552).  By securing these memories of the past within the historical context being conveyed in these interiors and their respective properties ensure they engage with visitors on an intrinsic level which they will gain from no other experience.  Bryant states that the ability to promote the belief in elitism for all through philanthropy and public access is the final key element required to make these spaces so successful (Bryant 2009, 82).  This is the inherent challenge with any form of heritage conservation, as opinions will differ by discipline, be it architectural history, buildings archaeologist, or even an art historian.  Each will place a different value set on each site, viewing them with their own biases and making judgements based on what is typically not the whole picture.  It is only through the marriage of these and other disciplines that it is possible to begin to understand these sites and conserve them effectively.

The Fantoft Stave Church in Fortun Norway was constructed in approximately 1150, however in 1992 it was raised to the ground in an arson attack perpetrated by Satanists (Jerome 2008, 4).  This church was painstakingly reconstructed in 1995, however while an amazing level of detail was replicated from the original church, the exterior merely resembles the original which had been relocated from Fortun to Bergen in 1882, raising the question of authenticity both in its design as well as its location (Jerome 2008, 4).  Unlike Warsaw and the palimpsest that was created by its rebuilding, the reconstruction of Fantoft is a rendition of a Stave Church with features of the original Fantoft contained within its structure, and while extraordinary, it is more of a museum piece than a heritage conservation site.  Conversely, in Japan the maintenance required for their wooden temples actually requires the dismantling and rebuilding of any materials which have deteriorated (Jerome 2008, 4).  This process involves the use of the original construction technology and methods to ensure that continuity remains and stands as an example as Jerome states, of authenticity through tradition as well as authenticity as a cultural construct (Jerome 2008, 4).  In The Lives of Spaces (Weadick et al, 2008) spirit of place is acknowledged as “the immediate presence of the building, which leads to an understanding of architecture as an intimate, conversational art form that enters into dialogue with history, politics, culture and the individual on a deeper level (Weadic et al 2008, 3).  With that in mind, is it not possible that the Fantoft Stave Church actually does maintain its authenticity as it draws upon culture and tradition to evoke the spirit of place within the final construct?

In the United States, the conservation of the only remaining structures that were once some of the very first communities in Brooklyn, New York to house free African Americans sees a combination of restoration and reconstruction which demonstrate the changing attitudes towards authenticity over a 20-year period (Jerome 2008, 5).  Discovered in the 1960s, the Hunterfly Road Houses were a group of four vernacular, wood-frame, clapboard cottages which were restored and interpreted as house museums of African-American history (Jerome 2008, 5).

However, one of the houses was destroyed in an arson attack in the 1980s before restoration was completed (Jerome 2008, 5).  Instead of attempting a restoration of the damaged building, it was rebuilt instead, replicating the exterior, but leaving the interior as an open space used for teaching and marking the original layout marked-out on the floor for all to see (Jerome 2008, 5).  In doing so, they did not find themselves in the same dilemma as faced the newly reconstructed Fantoft.  Here was a building that was not trying to be anything more than it was, nor was it an obvious attempt to grab at a past in order to attract the tourists.  However, when the site was in need of further restoration twenty years later, the site’s preservation society, WASA (Wank Adams Slavin Associates LLP), wanted to explore an authentic historical narrative of the site (Jerome 2008, 5).

This form of cooperative conservation created a proactive, comprehensive and dynamic approach which allowed for wider strategies to be implemented across the full spectrum of the heritage discipline (Klinger et al 2008, 99).  This was clearly evident as WASA took a chronological approach with the buildings, having each represent a different period within its history, i.e. the 1870s, 1900s, 1930s, and 1960s (Jerome 2008, 5). Gone now was the classroom, only to be replaced with a 1930s interior reconstructed from photos of the property at that time and many of the previously removed design elements had to be recreated in order to complete the restoration (Jerome 2008, 5).  Further work was conducted through the use of documented sources (Jerome 2008, 5).  This raises the question of why these sources weren’t consulted to their fullest extent when the original restorations were carried out.

In 1987, Strokestown Park House, located in Strokestown, County Roscommon, Ireland, was opened to the public (Johnson 1996, 558).  Distinct from most heritage sites that are developed by heritage organisations such as the National Trust, or are influenced by the socio-political motivations of the day, Strokestown developed independently, and it is perhaps this freedom in the details which allowed the creation of such a unique visitor experience for its time (Johnson 1996, 558 – 559).

In Williams et al’s Peopling the age of Elegance (2004), the idea is stated that a number of historic house professionals are starting to develop accurate, thoughtful interpretations that are less celebratory and less object centred than has been in the past (Williams et al 2004, 47 – 48 ).   This suggests that perhaps the curators at Strokestown were ahead of their time in their presentation of the past, concerning themselves more with the social narrative of the house and its occupants than the items, portraits and architecture on display throughout, which were treated more as a backdrop to the overall exhibition of the property. Throughout the 45 minute tour which draws upon local and family histories, the spirit of place invoked by the costumed interpretations and the presentation of the interiors allows the tourist to cut through the often radical and vitriolic perspective on the past and make their own value judgements on the history as it unfolds (Johnson 1996, 558 – 564).  Additionally, the lack of barriers to stop tourists from interacting with the environment creates an organic experience rarely invoked in heritage properties, only serving to further immerse the visitor in the atmosphere of the past (Johnson 1996, 564).

Unlike the houses at Hunterfly Road, the extensively detailed records available on Strokestown were thoroughly researched from the outset and referenced within not only the visuals of the interior presentation, but also in the tour narrative in the form of the past experiences of the house staff brought to life by costumed performers (Johnson 1996, 561). However as Kate Clark states in her article, Informed by Conservation: The Place of Research and Documentation in Preservation states, that while the process of analysing and making sense of a building is essential to making decisions about it, there are many reasons why it doesn’t happen (Clark 2010, 9).  Time and again, documentary research is approached differently by various heritage disciplines, however universally it is treated as something which not only requires frequently rare skills, but also is clearly treated as a luxury which often cannot be afforded (Clark 2010, 9 – 10).  Yet as illustrated by Strokestown Park House and the Hunterfly houses, as well as the paradigm shift towards exploring social narratives throughout the global heritage community, authenticity demands that documentary evidence should not be treated as a luxury, but as a necessary tool to further understanding historic buildings and preserving their cultural heritage for future generations.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre stated that “if you seek authenticity for authenticity’s sake, then you are no longer authentic.” However, authenticity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder; something that despite conventional definition, cannot not defined by them.  Could this be indicative of our fickle human nature, influenced as it is by the material culture of the world in which we live, or is it more to do with the detachment from that very same world due to all the technological advances we have made in the last century?  Is it more to do with a search for a connection with our past, and a need for that past to be as honest and truthful as possible, or simply a desire to be recognised for accuracy within the various heritage disciplines?  Whatever the case may be, it cannot be denied that more than ever, authenticity is key to what is considered excellence in heritage because without it, a site or property seems to be diminished somehow, never able to live up to the expectations placed upon it by an increasingly savvy public.  Furthermore, it is obvious from the reading that this elusive quality of authenticity is all things to all people, crossing over a myriad of disciplines and sources to approximate a grasp at its interpretation.  With this in mind, there can only be a single answer to all the questions raised by this value of authenticity, and that is yes.

Works Cited

  • Bryant, J (2009) ‘Museum period rooms for the twenty-first century:
  • salvaging ambition,’ Museum Management and Curatorship 24:1, 73-84
  • Clark, K (2010) ‘Informed Conservation: The Place of Research & Documentation in Preservation,’ Association for Preservation Technology International (APT) 41:4, 5 – 10
  • Hill, J (2004) ‘The Conservation of Irish Houses 1984 – 2004,’ Irish Arts Review 21:3, 78 – 81
  • Klinger, T et al (2007) ‘The Promise and the Challenge of Cooperative Conservation,’ Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 5:2, 97 – 103
  • Jerome, P (2008) ‘An Introduction to Authenticity in Preservation,’ Association for Preservation Technology International (APT) 39:2/3, 3 – 7
  • Johnson, N (1996) ‘Where Geography and History Meet: Heritage Tourism and the Big House in Ireland,’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers 86:3, 551 – 566
  • Powter, A & S (2005) ‘Integrating Environmental and Cultural Sustainability for Heritage Properties,’ Association for Preservation Technology International (APT) 36:4, 5 – 11
  • Weadick et al (2008) ‘The Lives of Spaces,’ Irish Arts Review 25, 3 – 5
  • Williams et al (2004) ‘Peopling the Age of Elegance,’ The Public Historian 26:3, 27 – 48

About The Archaeological Anarchist

I am an Archaeologist from jolly old England, a father, Renaissance man, blogger & Indiana Jones wannabe. View all posts by The Archaeological Anarchist

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