The Last Gasp of Traditional Theory in Preservation?

The International Committee on the Theory and Philosophy of Conservation and Restoration (Theophilos) is one of the more active scientific committees in ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites). In the past I was involved the committee’s work, especially in contributing to its 2015 conference proceedings, although I have not been particularly active in the past five years or so. Theophilos is a fascinating holdout in the field of built heritage conservation because many of its participants are unwavering champions for orthodox theory, which is based on the white, European grandfathers of preservation from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, namely John Ruskin, Cesare Brandi, and Umberto Baldini. This perspective is increasingly rare in the twenty-first century; to be sure, Theophilos represents one of the few groups that steadfastly remain true to this rationalistic theory.

This orthodox perspective is clearly evident in the open-access proceedings from Theophilos’s 2018 conference, Conservation Ethics Today: Are Our Conservation-Restoration Theories and Practice Ready for the 21st Century, edited by Ursula Schädler-Saub and Bogusław Szmygin. For those of you who are interested in what a people- and human-centered preservation/ conservation practice is reacting against, this publication provides this needed perspective in a contemporary context. With one exception, the papers in these proceedings reinforce traditional norms of the expert restorer, art historian, and tautological theory and ethics that are beholden to the historical object.

For instance, although Bogusław Szmygin, who has long been a leader in Theophilos, understands how people- and human-centered conservation theory challenges orthodox theory, in his paper, “The Conservator’s Responsibility for the Deterioration of Monuments,” Szmygin (p. 263) unequivocally states the need for the conventional expert to control the discourse in cultural heritage:

It is necessary to strengthen the position of conservator as far as the decisions regarding forms of heritage protection are concerned. The conservator has to have a privileged position among the other stakeholders.

In 2020, Szmygin’s statement reads as authoritarian and dismissive of most stakeholders, local/contextual/situated knowledge, and, generally, the need to consider pluralistic perspectives in built heritage conservation. While the authors in the proceedings are not quite as bold, several themes are quite consistent:

  • Nineteenth and early-twentieth century conservation/preservation theory, which only represents the voices of white, aristocratic, European males, remains fundamentally relevant in a pluralistic, diverse, twenty-first century.
  • Stakeholder engagement is largely irrelevant and a threat to conventional experts.
  • Interventions on historic buildings/monuments is an objective, scientific effort that must primarily benefit the objects of preservation/conservation; the benefits to people are either not considered, or if they are, this perspective is secondary.
  • The “ethical” practice of conservation-restoration is not beholden to people, but rather buildings and monuments.

If there’s a clear theme here, it is the reinforcement of tradition because of a fear that in a pluralistic and diverse society, this tradition is under threat.

To be sure, there is one paper in the proceedings that takes a contemporary perspective on preservation/conservation theory. Hélia Marçal, in “Public Engagement Towards Sustainable Heritage Preservation,” grounds Laurajane Smith’s (2006) Authorized Heritage Discourse and substantiates the need to balance power between conventional and civil experts (my terminology). Marçal argues that preservationists/conservators need to have “social and human skills” as much as they need technical skills.

So, what do we make of Conservation Ethics Today? In the era of Black Lives Matter, it feels like a socially disconnected, dismissive attempt to return the status quo to a mythical past of a conservator-restorer who held great societal power and to whom the public unquestioningly trusted in all decision-making processes. While we will always need experts trained in the natural sciences in this kind of work, the ultimate beneficiaries of built heritage conservation are not the buildings, but the people who use, value, and experience these places. In 2020, these kinds of myopic arguments grounded in a mythical, white past are increasingly untenable. But, the fact that many people are having these discussions about the future of the field and that the perspective in Conservation Ethics Today is increasingly marginal is a sign of hope for the field’s future.

2 thoughts on “The Last Gasp of Traditional Theory in Preservation?

  1. Silvio Zancheti

    Dear Jeremy,
    I subscribe completely your comments. I was in two past events of this committee and found very difficult to engage in a dialog with the people there, specially with the directors. Congratulation for the brave effort to surpass the tradition.

    • Jeremy Wells

      I learned a lot from my interactions with the committee that helped inform my broader understanding of how fabric-centered beliefs and values manifest in American practice. While the discourse of Theophilos is quite a bit more erudite than what you would find in US preservation practice, there is a common reverence for fabric and fear of change because it flattens power structures. The emphasis in Theophilos on European conservation theory is definitely useful because it provides needed historical context that is usually missing from American preservation practice.

      Most American preservationists aren’t formally trained in the theories of Brandi or Baldini or even Boito, but they should be. Not because their theories need to be uncritically accepted, but to provide historical perspective on the field. There’s an attitude in American preservation that, other than Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc, everything was invented by Americans and, as a result, the Italian conservation school is omitted in formal education. This provides a skewed perspective of reality and helps to reinforce the assumed perfection of the American regulatory framework. Many preservationists here in the US fail to realize that the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Register, and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards (our regs and doctrines) are all highly European in derivation. When American preservationists pretend that these regs and doctrine are “American” through-and-through, it’s a kind of patriotic call to not change perfection, akin to our Constitution. But this perspective suffers from a particularly bad case of historical myopia.

      If more American preservationists were to realize that defending our preservation regulatory framework is akin to defending mid-century European architectural conservation ideals, perhaps we’d move on. (And I’d argue that this moving-on process demands a look at what Europe and the rest of the world is doing today in terms of its policy and regulatory frameworks for building and place-based conservation.)

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