Question Reality

klockar hs obls

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

My head is spinning with ideas and I have a lot on my plate. This weekend I had a college reunion, next weekend we have a sympsium on Yunnan at the Art Institute where I will talk again about our work on the Weishan Heritage Valley, and somehow I want to get back to the Preservation Trades Network and the authenticity of this lovely little house on Lake Siljan in Sweden.

So, the last time I spoke about Weishan was at an ICOMOS conference on heritage tourism in San Francisco and I just returned an interesting survey on goals and standards, etc. for interpreting cultural heritage. This is tricky, since for the last decade or so – at least since the Nara principles of 1994 – historic preservation has moved decisively away from normative concepts as it embraces a more global understanding of what heritage is, how it is preserved, and how it is interpreted. The museo-centric, object-oriented approach of the old West is giving way to ideas about “intangible heritage” and cultural contexts that might value process above artifact. A half dozen years ago I proposed a talk about this entitled “The Passion Play or a piece of the True Cross,” referring of course to the two medieval Christic devotion practices, one focused on process and interpretation, the other on artifact/object. In Japan and other Far Eastern countries the ancient crafts (joinery, etc.) are more important than the buildings in some cases, while in the west we happily restore 17th century buildings with nail guns (i.e., staples).

Weishan, as I will say this weekend, is a good example of a place that (so far) is meeting both local and international goals of best practices in preservation. There preservation includes both buildings, cultural landscapes (southern Silk Road, the temple mountain Weibaoshan) and even agricultural landscapes in the surrounding valley. It grew out of efforts by the US China Arts Exchange to preserve minority cultures and folkways, so consequently it has a good bead on intangible heritage. It could still be ruined by tourism as Lijiang has been (World Monuments Fund agrees with me on this) but it hasn’t so far.

So, my comments on interpretation revolved around the fact that our old normative ideas of “authenticity” and “heritage” need to be replaced with dynamic, changing ideas of these concepts, sort of an intramural wiki-reality. Because there aren’t any pieces of the true cross really and because a lot of people believe there are and treat them like they are. You see, the “reality” lies not in the object but in the cultural practices (including preservation) that surround it.

This is also tricky in issues of “contested” heritage – obvious examples being the Dome of the Rock or the Boyne Valley or even Colonial Williamsburg, which have striven mightily to diversify its interpretive history. I encouraged an on-line forum for authenticity and contested heritage and sites of painful memory because these concepts are never going to be normative or definitive. They need wiki-ality because every reality imposed on them is a political agenda whether it has one or not.

Now to tie these ramblings to our Swedish house, which is historic, and reconstructed, and relocated in the tradition started by Sven Markelius in 1891 when he created the first “petting zoo” of historic buildings in Stockholm, Skansen. Preservationists love to diss this stuff because it violates rules of authenticity by being removed from original contexts. But it is the heart of interpretive efforts and when I visited Skansen recently I was struck by how it fit into the city like Navy Pier in Chicago or South Street Seaport in New York, places with some real history but it is heavily altered and its current “reality” is an entertainment and shopping area with museums – which is not a bad thing.

Academics can be stuffy and prissy (hell, that’s why I got into it – it’s fun) so it is good to hear from others, and this finally brings us back to the house pictured above. Because we were in Tällberg to hear from the trades – the people who really restore houses and preserve old crafts and old tools and old buildings. In so many cases, they offer something that the academics and architects don’t and can’t really. This house might not be in the “right” place but it has been repurposed like South Street and Navu Pier and Williamsburg, and if people who studied old timber framing, like Rudy Christian, are involved in its restoration, there is an authenticity of process that far exceeds the people working on my house with their nail guns. Yes, that authenticity was created anew as modern people learned ancient crafts, but that is cultural transmission even if it doesn’t follow a medieval apprenticeship model. I have a new appreciation for some of these sites – the art historian in me says they are less authentic, but if I know the tradespeople who worked on them, a more important layer of authenticity has been embodied in these structures – not ancient but modern, yet authentic to a premodern tradition that itself has been repurposed for the modern era.

The original 1891 idea of Skansen was to show urbanized people what their agricultural forebears lived like. That is still the point of modernity and thus the point of preservation, which in its largest sense is the modernity. Authenticity is the struggle for meaning and connection amidst the alienation of modernity – that is it’s dynamic definition as I see it, and I see it now in more places than ever before.

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