Conservation today


Heritage wars comic-smKey takeaways:
Approximately thirty years ago, the field of “heritage studies” arose which defines itself through the use of social science research methodologies that seek the understanding of the relationship that people have with heritage and the historic environment.
Heritage studies defines a value system (heterodox theory and practice) that is critical of the dominant system of expert rule and top-down processes (orthodox theory and practice) that identify and treat the historic environment.
Orthodox and heterodox approaches to theory and practice have fundamental differences due to foci on fabric versus people and top-down versus bottom-up approaches, respectively.
Heritage studies scholarship seems to have had little practical impact on the actual conservation of the historic environment and no impact at all on the regulatory environment.


The orthodox and heterodox divide in conservation theory and practice

Is there a problem with the theory and practice of conserving the historic environment today? After all, the laws and policies that have been put into place over the past several decades have saved countless buildings, economically revitalized communities, and contributed to pride and identity. Why change a system that clearly works?

Or does it? The answer to this question is based on the obvious claim: conservation should benefit people as much as it does buildings and places. Yet, conventional, or orthodox, conservation theory fails to acknowledge this basic premise. Instead, orthodox theory directs that the primary beneficiary of the conservation process is the object of conservation—buildings, objects, landscapes—not people.

But, this is theory. What about the way conservation is mostly practiced today? (I will refer to this as “orthodox practice”.) In most developed countries, including the United States, orthodox theory has become law. In other words, the use of theory is required by a rule. Practitioners who fail to follow the rules expose themselves to legal liability. So, we have a system in which rules enforce values that cannot acknowledge, much less understand, people. And these rules have not changed since being implemented decades ago, and as such, fail to accommodate diversity and plurality in meanings associated with the contemporary sociocultural values that people have for historic places.

To make the issues inherent in orthodox theory and practice more real, let me provide a personal example. When I worked as a heritage conservation planner for a major city in the United States, local Latino community leaders asked us to officially recognize the significance of their built heritage that was associated with the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. I was very sympathetic to their request, but had to explain that the official criteria for listing either a building or an historic district on the local historical register would not allow us to recognize their heritage as valid. The properties under question had changed too much since the 1960s, and, additionally, there were no high style architectural values that could also be used to officially justify significance according to the municipality’s ordinance. Similarly, Thomas King (2009) has numerous examples of the failure of orthodox conservation theory and practice to recognize and protect the heritage of Native Americans. Heritage studies literature is full of such examples (see the reading list, below).

Defining the dichotomy

Orthodox conservation theory has deep and well-respected roots, but women, minorities, and people from non-Western countries and lower economic classes—in other words, diverse perspectives—were never involved in its creation (for more details, see my article, “The plurality of truth in culture, context, and heritage” in City and Time). These are documents written by middle to upper class white men of mostly European ancestry. Orthodox theory seeks continuity of the physical fabric associated with buildings, structures, places, and landscapes and is associated with well-accepted doctrines that have mostly remained unchanged since the middle of the twentieth century such as the Venice Charter (international),Secretary of the Interior’s Standards (US), the National Register of Historic Places criteria (US), and Principles of Repair (UK). Heritage conservation experts are required by policy and/or by law to put orthodox theory into practice when working in the historic environment. As such, orthodox conservation practice is a “top-down” process that, while often involving stakeholder input, is controlled by experts; or to put it in a different sense, experts control the meanings associated with heritage.

Heterodox conservation theory arose in the 1980s in reaction against this control of meanings by experts and the dominance of the fabric-centered perspective of conservation. It seeks the continuity of meanings associated with the historic environment. As such, essential concepts of heritage conservation practice, such as authenticity and significance, can exist independently of physical fabric. Heterodox conservation practice is a “bottom-up” approach that engages stakeholders in ways that empower communities where experts become facilitators. Heterodox theory does not seek the replacement of one value system with another, or the elimination of experts, but rather seeks a way of incorporating a wider range of stakeholder values through the lens of communities of practice.

Heterodox theory implies that there must be a heterodox conservation practice, and this is true, but mostly in the fields of archaeology and museum studies. Built heritage conservation practice has mostly ignored developments in heterodox theory. Perhaps a better description of the situation is that in order for heritage conservation practice to accommodate heterodox theory, laws and rules would need to change. This political process would not be easy. If fact, no one knows if heterodox theory can reliably be turned in built heritage conservation practice, especially in a regulatory framework. Few heterodox theorists offer pragmatic tools that professionals can use in day-to-day practice, especially in environments that would require radical changes in policy and law.

At this point, the differences between orthodox and heterodox theory are probably rather vague, but there are a number of discrete differences that are easy to articulate. I use the following lists as a way to introduce this dichotomy to my students:

Orthodox theory can be understood through the following characteristics:

  1. Its value system is defined through preservation doctrine
  2. Law is used to enforce this preservation doctrine
  3. Heritage is rare and unique
  4. The identification and treatment of heritage is the domain of experts
  5. Its ontological/epistemological orientation is empiricist-positivist
  6. Historical significance is based on a positivistic view of history
  7. Significance lies in the past, not the present
  8. Reason, rather than evidence, is used to substantiate practice
  9. Historical authenticity is dependent on the tangible presence of fabric that has “experienced” past events and people
  10. The treatment of built heritage seeks to reveal the “true nature or condition” of a building or place by avoiding a “false sense of history”
  11. Heritage values are assumed to be immutable and are fixed through the use of lists

Heterodox theory can be understood through the following characteristics:

  1. Its value system is based on the contemporary social, cultural, and personal beliefs, perceptions, and feelings of a wide range of stakeholders
  2. Social science research methods are used to understand these values
  3. Heritage can be found everywhere
  4. Everyone is a heritage expert
  5. Heritage bridges natural and cultural divides
  6. Its ontological/epistemological orientation is informed by post-colonial, post-structuralist, and post-modern theory
  7. Significance is multidimensional and consists of cultural practices, person-place relationships, and emotional bonds with place
  8. Significance lies in the present, not the past
  9. It has had little effect on the actual practice of built heritage conservation, but emphasizes that evidence should used to substantiate changes to practice
  10. Authenticity is pluralistic, not controlled by any one entity, and defined by social, cultural, or personal values and may have no direct relationship to physical fabric; ideas can be “authentic”
  11. Heritage values are not fixed, and are best understood as processes that are in constant flux

For references that describe the concepts in these lists, refer to the heritage studies literature at the end of this article.

Development of heterodox theory

While the development of orthodox conservation theory has been covered in great detail elsewhere, there is a lack of a similar history in terms of the development of heterodox theory. The following discussion may be helpful for readers new to this literature and heritage studies literature, in general. It is not meant to be all-inclusive and just covers the surface of the literature, with an emphasis on some of the more important works.

When David Lowenthal published The Past is a Foreign Country in 1985, it challenged many assumptions in international built heritage conservation practice. By the early 1980s, legislation had been passed in most developed countries to protect built heritage and rules created to regulate design in the name of authenticity. By most measures, the heritage conservation movement was finally achieving success—historic downtowns were being revitalized, historic house museums were flourishing, and, especially in the United States, we were still basking in the golden glow of the bicentennial celebration of American Independence. Yet, Lowenthal was anything but congratulatory toward the movement, instead focusing on the shortcomings of how practice impacts people rather than physical fabric. His novel anthropological (or, perhaps more correctly, humanistic-geographical) approach helped formed the basis of a new field of study now known as “heritage studies” (Carman and Sørensen, 2009). Lowenthal helped us understand that whether it is explicitly stated or not, conservation policy and practice are based on cultural and personal values instead of objective or “scientific” values often found in conservation doctrine before the 1990s.

While the ideas in The Past is a Foreign Country were unconventional from the perspective of built heritage conservation, similar concepts had been extant in post-processual archaeology at least a decade before the book’s publication. Like Lowenthal’s emphasis on the subjective nature of the past, which can never be known objectively, post-processual theory also deemphasizes the objective, scientific method of conventional (or processual) archaeology, instead framing archaeological practice as a series of acts that are fundamentally interpretive in nature (for more information, see Hodder and Hutson [2003], pp. 206-235). In fact, most academic fields in the 1970s were undergoing the “post-modern” turn in rejecting the possibility of completely objective knowledge and emphasizing the way in which reality is constructed from meanings. Historic preservation and built heritage conservation were largely absent from this post-modern debate, and arguably, still are today.

While the archaeological field (and the allied field of museum studies) continued to advance post-processual and allied theories in the 1980s and 1990s, very little was published from a similar perspective in built heritage conservation during this time. In the United States, some may argue that Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place (1995) contributed to the development of heterodox theory, but I would argue that its emphasis on public history and objective facts, albeit often as part of oral history, actually helped reinforce orthodox theory and practice. Hayden’s book was quite important, however, in increasing the awareness of the social history of minority communities and vernacular landscapes, which have historically been undervalued in conservation practice. Ned Kaufman’s (2009) Place, Race, and Story: Essays on the Past and Future of Historic Preservation builds on Hayden’s earlier work in developing the concept of “storyscapes” which are “sites that collect interesting stories, meaningful memories, or intense feelings of attachment” (p. 3). What differentiates Kaufman’s work from Hayden’s however, is that Place, Race, and Story acknowledges the validity of subjective meanings associated with built heritage that are not built on objective historical facts. As such, Kaufman’s work clearly helps develop heterodox theory.

The turn of the last century marked the emergence of a substantial body of literature that began to cement the field of heritage studies and what would become heterodox theory. Although not often cited, I would argue that Howard Green’s (1998) critique of the “social construction of historical significance” marks a shift in the literature on built heritage conservation from reinforcing to rejecting orthodox theory, at least from a North American perspective. (Again, this debate had already been happening for several decades in the museum studies field, especially in Europe, but had not yet entered the debate in built heritage, especially in the United States.) Green’s article is noteworthy because it reveals the depth to which positivism pervades conservation practice and the attendant over-reliance on historians to determine what is and is not historically significant. As a practitioner, Green laments how orthodox conservation practice tends to ignore what most stakeholders find to be important about historic places, right now, in the present.

In the early 2000s, the Getty published Values and Heritage Conservation (Avrami, Mason, & Torre, 2000) and Assessing the Values of Heritage Conservation (Torre 2002), which, because they are freely downloadable in unabridged form via the Getty’s web site, have been particularly influential on heritage conservation theory, especially in the United States. Both publications explain the need for a “values-based” approach, which can include sociocultural values as well as the more conventional scientific values of heritage experts, versus a “fabric-based” approach, which only considers the values of experts in heritage conservation processes. These publications readily acknowledge the difficulty, however, in trying to determine which values matter more than others and are more theoretical than applied; with the exception of Setha Low’s (2002) rapid ethnographic assessment procedure, no specific methodological tools are provided for use by practitioners.

Along with the Getty publications, Laurajane Smith’s (2006) Uses of Heritage has, arguably, been one of the most influential works in the heritage studies field. As of July 2015, it has been cited more than 1,000 times according to Google Scholar. Smith introduced the concept of the “Authorized Heritage Discourse” (AHD) in which “the proper care of heritage, and its associated values, lies with the experts, as it is only they who have the abilities, knowledge and understanding to identify the innate value and knowledge contained at and within historically important sites and places” (pp. 29, 30). Moreover, Smith makes the claim that the AHD has been used to “sideline” the values of most stakeholders (p. 106). Since its publication, Uses of Heritage has become, along with The Past is a Foreign Country, one of the foundational texts for heritage studies and heterodox conservation theory.

Although not usually included in the canon of heritage studies by other scholars, Salvador Muñoz Viñas’ Contemporary Theory of Conservation (2005) is relevant to the discussion of the meanings and values of heritage by critiquing the positivism of prominent twentieth-century orthodox conservation theorists, such as Paul Philoppot, Giovanni Carbonara, and Cesare Brandi. The message in Contemporary Theory of Conservation is that in the twentieth century, conservation matured into a positivist-driven science mired in the cult of “material fetishism”. The primary goal of this “material theory of conservation” is to “preserve or restore the true nature of objects”. Conservation, therefore, is traditionally held to be a “truth enforcement” operation which emphasizes the singularity in which the object should be presented. Muñoz Viñas offers to replace this traditional certainty with a new, “contemporary” perspective that recognizes multiple truths based in semiotics and not in fabric: “[C]onservation is a means, and not an end in itself. It is a way of maintaining and reinforcing the meanings in an object; it is even a means through which the appreciation for what an object symbolizes is expressed” (p. 213). Muñoz Viñas’ scholarship would be very much at home in most heritage studies literature, but has probably not been more widely recognized because his disciplinary perspective is rooted is in the hard sciences (materials conservation/object conservation) rather than the social-science perspective of heritage studies. His book should be standard reading in any heritage studies course. (An amusing aside is the Google Books puts Contemporary Theory of Conservation in the category of “collectibles and antiques“; perhaps we can chalk this up to the flawed implementation of machine learning and its inability to understand nuances.)

In the past decade there has been a substantial increase in publications that critique orthodox conservation theory and practice. The leading journal that has emerged in the field is the International Journal of Heritage Studies. Particular works that stand out include Valuing Historic Environments (Gibson and Pendlebury, 2009), Who Needs Experts? (Schofield, 2014), and Heritage: Critical Approaches (Harrison, 2013). These works incorporate the concepts of Smith’s AHD and further elucidate the dichotomy between top-down, expert driven and bottom-up, stakeholder-engaged approaches to heritage conservation. The latter perspective is presented as the desirable outcome for most heritage conservation projects, but with the exception of a few case studies, no author has put forth a pragmatic, applied method that can be easily used by practitioners to address the AHD. Because the regulatory environment mandates the AHD, in many cases the law itself would need to be changed to empower stakeholders in bottom-up approaches. This scenario is yet to be addressed in the literature.

It is interesting to note that the call to change built heritage conservation theory and practice is almost entirely driven by academics. In the past decade, some NGOs, such as English Heritage, have been advocating for increased stakeholder involvement (for instance, see Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance). The National Park Service, the acknowledged nationwide leader in built heritage conservation practice in the United States, has not addressed calls to change conservation practice, including revisiting/revising the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards or theNational Register of Historic Places criteria to address issues inherent in the AHD. Also largely absent is any call for change from practitioners, although the newly formed Latinos in Heritage Conservation (US) organization is advocating the need to “redraw criteria focused on a Euro-American aesthetic and in structures designed by trained architects.”

Where to go from here?

This narrative has only touched on the surface of the orthodox/heterodox heritage divide, but the concepts here are critical to understand the direction in which the heritage conservation field is moving. No one has any easy answers for how to bridge the divide or if heterodox ideas can actually be put into practice effectively. For instance, there is little understanding as to whether or not heterodox approaches can actually work in critical areas currently controlled by orthodox theory, such as historic district design review.

What practitioners need are pragmatic tools to actualize heterodox theory that do not currently exist. If hard science is the friend of orthodox conservation theory, then it would seem as if the social sciences are a natural ally in terms of implementing heterodox theory. As many of the authors of heterodox theory are themselves social scientists, this lends further credence to the idea that built heritage conservation practice needs to incorporate the social sciences. But how? This last question is something that the Environmental Design Research Association’s Historic Environment Network, which I co-chair, is trying to address.

– Jeremy C. Wells

Acknowledgements: I am indebted to Lucas Lixinski for introducing me to the nomenclature of “orthodox” and “heterodox” theory and practice in heritage conservation.

Next: What could built heritage conservation look like in the future?


For further reading:

Alanen, A. R., & Melnick, R. Z. (2000). Why cultural landscape preservation? In R. Melnick (Ed.), Preserving cultural landscapes in America (pp. 1-21). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Avrami, E., Mason, R., & de Torre, M. L. (2000). Values and heritage conservation. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute.

Bagnall, G. (2003). Performance and performativity at heritage sites. Museum and Society, 1(2), 87-103.

Basso, K. H. (1996). Wisdom sits in places: Notes on a western Apache landscape. In S. Feld (Ed.), Senses of place (pp. 53-90). Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Cane, S. (2009). Why do we conserve? Developing understanding of conservation as a cultural construct. In A. Richmond & A. Bracker (Eds.),Conservation: Principles, dilemmas and uncomfortable truths (pp. 163-176). Amsterdam; Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Carman, J., & Sørensen, M. L. S. (2009). Heritage studies: An outline. In M. L. S. Sørensen & J. Carman (Eds.), Heritage studies: Methods and approaches (pp. 11-28). Routledge.

Dyer, A. (2007). Inspiration, enchantment and a sense of wonder … can a new paradigm in education bring nature and culture together again? InNatural heritage: At the interface of nature and culture (pp. 86-97). London.

Filippucci, P. (2009). Heritage and methodology: A view from social anthropology. In M. L. S. Sørensen & J. Carman (Eds.), Heritage studies: Methods and approaches (pp. 319-325). Routledge.

Gibson, L. & Pendlebury, J. (Eds.), (2009). Valuing historic environments. Surry and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing.

Green, H. L. (1998). The social construction of historical significance. In M. A. Tomlan (Ed.), Preservation of what, for whom? A critical look at historical significance (pp. 85-94). Ithaca, NY: National Council for Preservation Education.

Hayden, D. (1995). The power of place. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

Harrison, R. (2013). Heritage: Critical approaches. New York: Routledge.

Hodder, I. & Hutson, S. (2003). Reading the past: Current approaches to interpretation in archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kaufman, N. (2009). Place, race, and story: Essays on the past and future of historic preservation. New York: Routledge.

Kidd, J. (2011). Performing the knowing archive: Heritage performance and authenticity. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 17(1), 22-35.

King, T. F. (2003). Places that count: Traditional cultural properties in cultural resource management. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

King, T. F. (2009). Our unprotected heritage: Whitewashing the destruction of our cultural and natural resources. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Lixinski, L. (2015). Between orthodoxy and heterodoxy: The troubled relationships between heritage studies and heritage law. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 21(3), 203-214.

Low, S. M. (1994). Cultural conservation of place. In M. Hufford (Ed.), Conserving culture: A new discourse on heritage (pp. 66-77). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Low, S. M. (2002). Anthropological-ethnographic methods for the assessment of cultural values in heritage conservation. In M. L. de Torre (Ed.),Assessing the values of cultural heritage (pp. 31-49). Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute.

Mason, R. (2003). Fixing historic preservation: A constructive critique of “significance”. Places, 16(1), 64-71.

McCullagh, C. B. (2004). The logic of history: Putting postmodernism in perspective. New York: Routledge.

Muñoz Viñas, S. (2005). Contemporary theory of conservation. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Schofield, J. (2009). Being autocentric: Towards symmetry in heritage management practices. In L. Gibson & J. Pendlebury (Eds.), Valuing historic environments (pp. 93-113). Surry and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing.

Schofield, J. (2014). Who needs experts? Counter-mapping cultural heritage. Farnham: Ashgate.

Silva, K. D., & Chapagain, N. K. (2013). Asian heritage management: Contexts, concerns, and prospects. New York: Routledge.

Smith, L. (2006). Uses of heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

Tainter, J. A., & Lucas, G. J. (1983). Epistemology of the significance concept. American Antiquity, 48(4), 707-719.

Torre, M. (Ed.) (2002), Assessing the values of cultural heritage. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Trust.

Waterton, E. & Smith, L. (2010). The recognition and misrecognition of community heritage. International Journal of Heritage Studies 16 (1), 4-15.

Waterton, E., Smith, L., & Campbell, G. (2006). The utility of discourse analysis to heritage studies: The Burra Charter and social inclusion.International Journal of Heritage Studies, 12(4), 339–355.

Wells, J. C. (2007). The plurality of truth in culture, context, and heritage: A (mostly) post-structuralist analysis of urban conservation charters. City and Time, 3(2:1), 1-13.

Wells, J. C. (2010). Authenticity in more than one dimension: Reevaluating a core premise of historic preservation. Forum Journal, 24(3), 36-40.

Wells, J. C., & Baldwin, E. D. (2012). Historic preservation, significance, and age value: A comparative phenomenology of historic Charleston and the nearby new-urbanist community of I’On. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32, 384-400.

Winter, T. (2013). Clarifying the critical in critical heritage studies. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 19(6), 532-545.

Zancheti, S. M., & Rosane, P. L. (2012). Dynamic integrity: A new concept to approach the conservation of historic urban landscape (HUL). In Textos para discussão no. 53 (pp. 1-11). Olinda, Brazil: Centro de Estudos Avançados da Conservação Integrada.

4 thoughts on “Conservation today

  1. Interesting point of view; nowadays, I’m totally agree with the heterodox theory of conservation. Barbara Appelbaum (2007) show throw her research how stakeholders and the inmaterial aspect of the “object” should be the real focus point in our profession. Also, she present some interesting tools: lifetime of the objects or values analysis (cultural and individuals).

    • Jeremy Wells

      Yes, I agree that Appelbaum’s Conservation Treatment Methodology is an under-appreciated resource as is Salvador Muñoz Viñas’ Contemporary Theory of Conservation. I’ve used both texts in the built heritage conservation courses I teach even though Appelbaum and Muñoz Viñas are actually from the object conservation field. I’ve yet to come across similar, pragmatic texts that address the historic environment. Regardless, the applied theories of these two people are quite applicable to immovable as well as movable heritage. Actually, it was Appelbaum that lamented on p. 157 that “Few conservators are trained in the methods of the social sciences that aid in the evaluation of non-material data.” Indeed!

      • And in your opinion, is there any institution in the Anglo Saxon space that has an academic guidance on these issues? Last month I gave a look to the doctoral program Sustainable Heritage (UCL) and is pretty interesting. Thanks for your time.

        • Jeremy Wells

          Yes and no — the answer is not so simple. I believe that for an academic program to properly address the areas that I’ve identified, and is specific to the conservation of the historic environment, these three areas need to be addressed:

          1. The curriculum addresses critical heritage studies theory (i.e., a social science approach to person-place relationships in the historic environment).
          2. One or more applied social science research methodologies (e.g., ethnography, grounded theory, survey research/statistics, participatory action research, photo elicitation) are specifically named, described, and taught in the curriculum.
          3. The built environment and/or cultural landscapes are a mandated or optional focus of the curriculum.

          There are many programs that address some combination of these criteria, but not all three. I’ve listed the few programs that I’ve found that do meet these criteria here on this web site.

          Most often what I’ve found is that heritage studies programs outside of the United States definitely address critical heritage studies and often incorporate built heritage or cultural landscapes into their curricula. What is missing, however, are specific, taught courses on the theory and application of social science research methods, such as ethnographies/interviews or survey methodologies/statistics. So while students definitely receive the benefit of a social science perspective in their studies, they are unintentionally excluded as active participants (or producers of knowledge) in the process.

          With that being said, at the doctoral level it’s pretty common to be able to assemble your own program in terms of what you want to learn. It’s more important for you to find the faculty with the expertise you seek. What this means is that even if a school’s taught master’s programs don’t have the three areas I mentioned, if the faculty have these three areas of expertise and they’re interesting in working with you on your committee, then you would be in a good place for your studies. Therefore, even though UCL doesn’t require courses in social science research methods in their heritage studies programs, at the doctoral level you could certainly take courses from their other social science degree programs to make sure that this is covered in your studies. UCL’s critical heritage studies focus is well known and there are definitely good faculty there for doctoral studies. Australia has some good programs as well with well-regarded faculty (e.g., Australian National University). If you have an interest in industrial heritage, you may also want to investigate Michigan Tech’s Ph.D. program in Industrial Archaeology.

          Also, a note of caution if you’re looking for “heritage studies” programs in the United States. For some reason, this term has become synonymous with “public history”, which means these programs don’t typically have a social science focus and the faculty are historians, not social scientists.

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