Doctrines: Imperfect instruments for guiding conservation theory and practice

In heritage studies, doctrines are troublesome because they are designed to fix meanings, which often prevents the evolution of ideas, an idea that I’ve explored in depth (see Wells, 2007). This phenomenon becomes even more salient when law subsumes doctrines as they have with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards (US), the National Register of Historic Places criteria (US), the National Heritage Criteria (Australia), or Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places (Canada). An example of particularly long-lived doctrine is the National Register criteria in the U.S., whose essential concepts originated in the Historic American Building Survey program in the 1930s (see Sprinkle, 2014). Perhaps the most extreme example of unchanging meanings is the S.P.A.B. Manifesto from 1877, which still influences practice today.

A core theme of heritage studies literature is the inclusion of as many stakeholder’s voices in the process of identifying, protecting, and treating heritage as feasible, often with the goal of empowering communities. Doctrines, however, are with few (if any?) exceptions, created by a small group of academics and/or professionals as part of a conference or meeting. Public participation is typically absent in these venues. It is with great irony, therefore, that many heritage studies theorists have participated in the creation of international heterodox doctrines without the input or participation of most stakeholders; particularly noteworthy examples are the Nara Document on Authenticity (1994) and the Historic Urban Landscape Approach (2011).

It is important, however, to recognize the value that doctrines offer in representing the current state of meanings on a topic held by particular group of scholars and practitioners in a discipline. While imperfect, doctrines seem to be the best tool that we currently have with obtaining agreements on theory and practice in the historic environment. The problem comes in treating the meanings in doctrines as sacrosanct; it should be just as easy to destroy the meanings in a doctrine as it is to create new ones, given sufficient justification. As with many other heritage studies researchers, my perspective is hypocritical because while I have critiqued the doctrinal process, I also participated in creating a doctrine. Perhaps in the future, with new approaches from digital democracy, the doctrinal creation process can be opened to more voices. (This would be a great topic for future research in heritage studies.)

Arguably, the last international doctrine that represents orthodox built heritage conservation theory and practice is the Venice Charter from 1964. International doctrines since that time have not had a significant impact on orthodox practice, especially those that incorporate alternative definitions of authenticity and deprecate the role of fabric in conservation practice. While most of the doctrines listed below are international, I have included a few national doctrines–especially those that are required by law. The national list is not meant to be all-inclusive, and as such, I welcome suggestions for additions.

Before delving into these doctrinal texts, I direct the reader to some background literature on the nature of orthodox and heterodox conservation theory. A basic working definition is that orthodox theory largely guides built heritage conservation practice today while heterodox theory, based in the field of heritage studies, has minimally affected practice. Orthodox theory is focused on maintaining the continuity of fabric while heterodox theory is focused on maintaining the continuity of meanings associated with heritage.

-Jeremy C. Wells

Orthodox conservation doctrine (i.e., dominant practice/widely accepted)



Heterodox conservation doctrine (i.e., how practice should change/not widely accepted)



For further reading:

Jokilehto, J. (2007). International charters on urban conservation: some thoughts on the principles expressed in current international doctrineCity and Time, 3(3:2), 23-42.

Kulikauskas, P. (2007). International charters on conservation: The lost c(l)ausesCity and Time, 3(3:5), 61-68.

Sprinkle, J. H. (2014). Crafting preservation criteria: The National Register of Historic Places and American historic preservation. New York.

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.

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