Why don’t we care about the public’s understanding of authenticity?

AuthenticThe argument that historic preservation (or, if you’re outside of the United States, architectural conservation or built heritage conservation) is or is not a unique discipline still comes up on occasion in print and in conferences, which is surprising considering that the first degree programs (Columbia University or the University of York, depending on your sources) for the profession are now 40 years old. As I have argued previously, historic preservation has a unique ontological orientation and epistemological basis that differentiates its practice from other built environment disciplines, which are two pieces of evidence that are usually sufficient to support a bona fide discipline.

So what is different about the practice of historic preservation? I we go back to those preservation degree programs, the National Council for Preservation Education emphasizes that all preservation students must be educated in the following areas:

  1. Documentation of buildings and places (e.g., measured drawings, photography, archival research/local history)
  2. History of the built environment (i.e., how buildings and places developed over time)
  3. Theory and philosophy of historic preservation

There isn’t anything particularly unique about documenting buildings and places. Architectural historians do this all the time as do cultural geographers. Public historians do this too. No, that’s not unique to historic preservation practice.

Historians of all kinds have researched how buildings and places developed over time; many other disciplines (e.g., landscape architecture) are particularly interested in this as well. No, that’s not unique either.

What about the third item — the theory and philosophy of historic preservation? What do students learn in courses that address this topic? Typically, the curriculum for these kinds of courses includes an historical survey of the history of thought on conservation/preservation doctrine, usually beginning with John Ruskin and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and often ending with more contemporary, critical approaches from authors such as David Lowenthal. And what makes this conservation/preservation doctrine different is its emphasis on authenticity which is absent from other built environment disciplines.

Ah, touché, you may say, architecture certainly deals with authenticity, and indeed it does, with a focus on creating buildings that are not “artificial”, or in another sense, creating buildings that are “honest”, among many other possible permutations. This is, of course, an oversimplification and many treatises have been written on the topic, but I bring it up here simply to acknowledge its existence. As opposed to architecture, historic preservation is concerned about a very narrow definition of authenticity rooted in the past. (To my archaeological friends, I would add that public archaeology also has similar interests in this definition of authenticity.) Conventionally, this definition centers on the survival of as much fabric from the past (or certain periods of the past) as possible into the present; it is acceptable if, in this past, the fabric was created or highly modified by people, but at some point in time, as we get closer to the present, manipulation by humans of this fabric is undesirable and destroys this authenticity. Interestingly, as long as it is not too extreme, changes made by nature over time (even recent time) to the fabric of buildings and places is generally acceptable or can even enhance this sense of authenticity, as long as factors such as readability are not radically affected.

In the past thirty years or so, there has been an increasing interest in moving the focus of the definition of authenticity from the tangible, measurable qualities of fabric to how people interpret and experience authenticity. In this sense, we are asking if old buildings and places “feel” genuinely old to people. The answer can often be troubling because it may have little relation to objective characteristics, such as the actual/verifiable age of buildings and places. Many preservation/conservation professionals are deeply uncomfortable with a public that likes an historical recreation as much as the “authentic” or genuine artifact.

So, if we accept that what makes the practice of historic preservation unique is this focus on historical authenticity, it might be more accurate to call its practitioners “authenticity managers” to differentiate what they do versus, for instance, an architectural historian. And, indeed, if we focus on some of the most common doctrines that influence historic preservation practice in the United States and around the world, there is a central focus on authenticity, which is sometimes referred to as “integrity”. Examples of these doctrines include World Heritage criteria, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, and the National Register of Historic Places criteria.

Across the globe, historic preservation/built heritage conservation is justified as a practice that is in the public good. Indeed, large amounts of taxpayer dollars go into funding heritage conservation projects, including those that benefit private property owners. If we conceptualize the people who conserve the historic environment as authenticity mangers, then they’re actually not very good at their work because they fail to ask this fundamental question: do these historic buildings and places feel real to the public? The next step would be to use the answer to this question to inform how conservation decisions are performed. This scenario doesn’t happen, however, to any significant extent.

Cornelius Holtorf and Tim Schadla-Hall (1999) ask this question about authenticity in their eponymous article on the practice of public archaeology, which I think has very important ramifications for practice that addresses the conservation of the historic environment. They make the argument that public archaeologists should understand how people experience authenticity and then use this knowledge to influence the outcome of interventions:

If one of the tasks of public archaeology lies in supplying our societies with authentic experiences of the archaeological past, we must learn, and make use of, the particular skills it takes to do this, rather than simply amass materials in showcases complemented by reconstruction models and textual explanations. It is important to understand ‘age-value’ and ‘pastness’ as a whole, their aesthetic properties, their social roles and functions, their means of construction and the cultural patterns of their experience. In other words, before we employ archaeology to any social end, we have to contextualize our aims and means: can we deliver what we set out to do? This includes questioning the material basis of an archaeological project and carefully evaluating what we can achieve with it. To do this, we shall have to foreground the aesthetics of archaeological sites and artefacts, observe how they ‘work’ in practice, and find ways to make them work for us. (p. 243)

The enterprise that Holtorf and Schadla-Hall advocate is based on a social science understanding of the nature of authenticity. What if historic preservationists were trained in the public’s understanding of the experience of authenticity and actually use this information in their work, complemented by traditional, fabric-based definitions of authenticity? In other words, historic preservationists would make sure places felt authentic to people by understanding how people experience authenticity in specific contexts. This information would then complement traditional, fabric-based definitions of authenticity. The ramifications of this change would be to make the work of people who conserve the historic environment more understandable and relatable to the public. Sounds like a pretty good idea to me, especially when we need the support of the public in our work.

At this point, I hear someone our there crying, “Foul! We do consider the public in decisions concerning the authenticity of built heritage and cultural landscapes.” And to this, I say, indeed, this is absolutely true. My argument isn’t that non-fabric based connotations of authenticity aren’t considered, for instance, when interpreting an historic site, but rather that these decisions aren’t typically based on empirical evidence. It’s one thing to say, “we need to make our exhibit feel more authentic for our visitors by doing X, Y, and Z” and quite another to say, “based on the research we’ve performed, the average visitor to our historic site says that they want X, Y, and Z to make this place feel more authentic.” In the former case, we are just making assumptions, while in the latter case we are using empirical evidence. (Incidentally, the latter case is exceptionally rare in practice.) Ideally this evidence would be based on an actual study performed on the site in question, but it could at least reference studies that support an understanding of the visitor’s experience of authenticity in similar contexts. But this requires that historic preservation/built heritage conservation experts understand social science perspectives, which is not the case.

Unfortunately, we don’t train people who work in heritage conservation to consider the social sciences in practice, nor do we support historic preservation/built heritage conservation professionals who want to use social science perspectives. The argument often is that the particular rule/regulation/policy doesn’t require this perspective, so there’s little justification to spend the time, resources, or effort in doing something “extra”. My argument here is that this social science perspective on authenticity isn’t something extra that we tack onto our existing efforts to conserve the historic environment; rather, it should form the central core of training and practice as much as traditional, fabric-based approaches do.  Again, if our efforts as heritage conservationists are to benefit the public, we need to acknowledge, understand, and utilize the public’s perspective in our efforts to conserve their heritage. To do otherwise seems dismissive and disrespectful to those who our efforts are supposed to benefit.

Work cited:

Cornelius Holtorf and Tim Schadla-Hall. (1999). Age as artefact: On archaeological authenticity. European Journal of Archaeology, 2(2), 229-247.

2 thoughts on “Why don’t we care about the public’s understanding of authenticity?

  1. Tom King

    Good heavens! Do academics really worry about such stuff as whether “historic preservation” (sic) is a real discipline? How variegated ARE the contours of the academic navel?

    Seems to me that the last thing we — we people who think culture is worth having, history worth remembering — is a bunch of self-satisfied little disciplines congratulating themselves on their uniqueness. We ought to set aside questions(?) of what’s historic prez versus what’s arkology versus what’s anthropology versus what’s architecture versus what’s sociology and figure out ways we can all interact and communicate and work together and make ourselves understandable to the public that you so rightly say we ought to be serving. I’m essentially agreeing with your conclusion but am alarmed by your starting place.

    • Jeremy Wells

      Interesting — I can see how this can look a bit like navel gazing. When this question of “is HP a discipline” comes up, it’s usually in the context of what students are supposed to be held accountable for in terms of curriculum development. Although I doubt if any room full of academics from the same discipline (of any type) would ever agree on all aspects of a common curriculum, it’s a particularly large issue in HP/built heritage conservation programs here in the US and abroad. When I organized an international conference on historic preservation education back in 2012, no one could agree on many fundamental aspects of how we should be training students. We can’t agree on what it is we’re supposed to be doing (i.e., lack of a common idea of what the HP discipline is supposed to be, lack of a common vocabulary to describe the same things); there is a lack of a focus on the relationship between skills and employment in the field (in other words, professional feedback into defining what the HP discipline is supposed to be); there are significant problems in communicating with other built environment disciplines because HP appears to be inconsistent in how it represents its work; and there is no clear understanding of curriculum design (again, this relates to what “HP” is supposed to be from a disciplinary standpoint). For instance, some academics think that a student should receive an education as an architect or an historian first and then specialize (e.g., a certificate) in HP later. As you might imagine, you’ll get a rather wide variety of emphasized skill sets from this perspective. My purpose in using the “HP is a discipline” device is to try and focus on what it is that makes people who practice in the historic environment different than other built environment disciplines. The one thing that we seem to be able to agree on is that what makes HP unique is a focus on historical authenticity.

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