Conservation as a process and not an end product — or, where’s the “soul”?

"A city without heritage is a city without a soul." (Excerpted image from Criado-Boado and Barreiro, 2013.)
“A city without heritage is a city without a soul.” (Excerpted image from Criado-Boado and Barreiro, 2013.)

I was reading an article today by Felipe Criado-Boado y David Barreiro, “El patrimonio era otra cosa” (“Heritage Was Something Else”), which emphasizes that the formation of the meanings of cultural heritage is an open process subject to negotiation. What struck my attention was their argument that the conflicts inherent in these meanings should be “normalized”; or, in another sense, we need to recognize that cultural heritage is a process of conflict and rather than deny this characteristic, we should embrace it as part of a normal, everyday process. Criado-Boado and Barreiro suggest that this challenge can be more effectively met by focusing on the heritage object independently of disciplinary boundaries — transdisciplinarity is therefore the rule: “The work plan needs to be designed from the work itself, and not from the disciplines involved in it.” The ramification of this approach is that the “Hegemony within a given project should not originate in the disciplinary perspectives of those involved … but from the object or field.”

A related argument that Criado-Boado and Barreiro make is that most stakeholders are separated from their built heritage by the restoration processes driven by heritage experts and other built environment and archaeological professionals. Barring issues with safely entering an active construction or excavation site, this is especially true with archaeological excavations, which prominently feature signs to exclude the public. Apparently, in Panama City, this type of exclusion resulted a guerrilla heritage campaign against an historic restoration project in Panama City. The sign warning people: “Danger, Men Working, Stay Away” became plastered with stickers that read “ciudad sin patrimonio / ciudad sin alma” (“a city without heritage / a city without a soul”), which was an allusion to the fact that the act of property restoration removed cultural heritage from the public domain. This is an interesting perspective, and one that has come up in many other heritage conservation contexts before: as professionals, we desire to present the end product of conservation far more than the process. But, does it need to be this way? Museums have already recognized the hunger the public has for seeing how conservation works through “visible storage” and placing their object conservators in public view, behind glass. Could a similar template work in built heritage? At a minimum, the way built heritage professionals interpret historic sites could certainly include much more about the process of conservation, which is rarely featured. Perhaps the public just wants to see a bit more “soul” in what heritage conservators do.

For further reading:

Felipe Criado-Boado y David Barreiro. (2013). El patrimonio era otra cosa. Estudios Atacameños, 45, pp. 5-18.

Leave a Reply