Posts Tagged ‘burra charter’

Planning for the Future; not Scrambling for the Past

September 21, 2014

I was re-reading one of my blogs from nine years ago (430 posts now – I guess I am about consistency and endurance whether I like it or not) and was struck (again) by my (consistent) non-ideological approach to heritage conservation. That blog “Heresy and Apostasy” basically took to task the concept that preservation had some kind of ideological purity and that those who didn’t try to save absolutely everything all the time were not “true” preservationists.

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I recalled my youth in the field, when I did come close to that position, but it was never one I was completely comfortable with. First, ideologies sit outside of history and thus fail all tests of time. Second and more to the point, I began my career working on a heritage area – the first in the U.S. – and the goals there were historic preservation, natural area preservation, recreation, and economic development. Preservation was part of planning for the future. Preservation was a wise economic decision, especially in a post-industrial economy.

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Lockport, Illinois

When I worked at Landmarks Illinois, we always tried to save important buildings, sites and structures, and sometimes we couldn’t. It seemed we were always reacting, trying to put out brush fires. It is a hard life being an advocate, because you care passionately and you will suffer many losses.

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And Mullets. And Inspector Gadget trench coats

We tried to plan. We did a lot of work on historic churches in Chicago, on historic boulevards, and other efforts that were pro-active, planning for the future rather than scrambling for the past. These efforts are intrinsically more satisfying, because rather than simply understanding a building, site or structure’s significance, you also understand its condition, context, and possibilities. But we spent a lot of time putting out the brush fires, or trying to.

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Despite the mullet, we did save the building

This is why I am honored to be leading Global Heritage Fund, an organization that focuses its efforts on Planning, Conservation, Partnerships and Community Development. Notice how similar that is to the description of heritage areas? We undertake projects only after a thoughtful review of how we can help a community not simply save a resource, but activate it economically for the future of that community.

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GHF project at Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia

Don’t get me wrong – we deal with threatened heritage. The problem is there is TONS of threatened heritage around the world – no one can save it all. But if you are going to try, you should approach the problem as one that needs to be solved for the future. GHF puts together not simply a plan to say NO to loss, but a plan to say HELLO to the future. How can a site survive not just the threat of destruction or deterioration but become a cherished and useful part of the community for the next generation?

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GHF project at Ciudad Perdida, Colombia

We have learned a lot recently about the importance of making sure the local community is part of the design and implementation of a project. This is a tenet of preservation planning since the Burra Charter amendments of 1999, but it is not always practiced. There are preservation/conservation traditionalists – the puritanical monks (a delightfully mixed metaphor) I referred to in my 2005 blog who actually abjure such practicality. For them, the test is the dedication to the cause, not the success of actually saving something.

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When I was young and impatient, I resisted the impulse to plan. The building had to be saved and we should try everything in our power to do it! No matter what! But that can lead to non-sustainable preservation. There are some buildings I labored to save SEVERAL times before someone came up with a PLAN to really conserve them for the next generation.

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Saved four times in ten years. I kid you not.

I just wrote an article referencing the first house saved in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1922. And again in 1924. And again in 1932. That is not unusual, that is what happens without a plan.

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I guess third time is the charm

The second reason planning is so important is community. The people who live around a world heritage site are its stewards, and if they don’t feel ownership of the project from the initial planning stages, all of your money is wasted. This is our biggest logistical challenge at Global Heritage Fund, but when I see it happen, it is the most rewarding because it means every nickel is being well spent.

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tea and oranges all the way from China

This is not enough for either the puritans or the romantics, who suffer from nostalgia, that 17th century disease that was “dangerous but not always fatal. Leeches, warm hypnotic emulsions, opium and a return to the Alps usually soothed the symptoms.” When I was a twenty-something advocate, I was once accused of nostaglia and I bristled visibly. I don’t save things because I have a disease of the past. I save them because they make the future better.

When you lose world heritage

Better is not just a pure economic term. Wealth alone is meaningless without culture, and heritage sites are repositories of culture, which is what differentiates humans from animals. They are records of culture and roots of new culture, and their value lies not in the permanence of their meaning but in their physical permanence. This is what allows them to keep granting meaning to our communities.

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Weishan, Yunnan

The economic argument is essential because it dictates survival – then once you have a threshold of survival, you can worry about research and interpretation and reinterpretation. And at Global Heritage Fund (join here!) we pride ourselves on bringing the latest scientific conservation techniques and practices to every site. That is the Conservation piece. Then we have the Planning piece, which leads directly into the Community Development piece. Partnerships is the fourth piece of our special GHF puzzle. We collaborate with partners, because we will only be there a few years but someone has to watch over these sites over generations.


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Context, Culture, and the Authenticity Fetish

March 4, 2013

One of the themes that I have repeated in this blog over the years: that preservation is a process, not a set of rules, is being born out daily in my work as Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund (join here!). That is because we deal with a great variety of cultures and contexts across the world, from Asia to the Middle East, from South to North America, and from remote archaeological sites to vernacular villages and cities.
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Pheakday Ngounphon at Banteay Chhmar

The process of historic preservation/heritage conservation is actually quite consistent: Identification, Evaluation, Registration, and Treatment. My old friend Ted Hild of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency used to label it as “hunt ’em, catch ’em, cook ’em and eat ’em,” which is a fun analogy. Fun aside, the point is the process, and what the Burra Charter famously recognized back in 1999 was that while the process can be consistent across continents and cultures, there are really not universal standards for identification, evaluation, registration, and treatment. What a particular culture in a particular context IDENTIFIES as significant may differ – in terms of tangible versus intangible heritage; in terms of social history versus design history: in terms of the stories it deems indelible to the transmission of cultural heritage. The Burra Charter and subsequent protocols have urged us to heed this cultural input at each step of the process: WHAT do you think is important; HOW do you evaluate that importance; WHAT do you do legally or politically to enforce this; and HOW do you treat the resource you have identified, evaluated and registered?
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Calligraphy is the highest art form and the most important to preserve, for example

Many cultures prize historic trades and techniques much more that the fabric, the materials of the resource, which we tend to prize in the West. The Japanese Shinto temples are a thousand years old but they are rebuilt each generation using the original tools and techniques of a thousand years ago. We prize the patina and finish of the building that Washington slept in but we see no contradiction in putting it back together with epoxy and nail guns.
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Today I visited this Japanese building completed in 1991 in Hakone Gardens in Saratoga. It is an “authentic reproduction of a 19th century Kyoto tea merchants’ house and shop.” Timbers for the building were cut with traditional tools and techniques in Japan and it was assembled in the U.S. by Japanese carpenters. No nails. It has no “age value” as fabric or material, but then again those materials have been assembled using ancient methods.
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The basic cultural context issue described here is the question of authenticity. Where does authenticity reside? In the U.S. we avoided that term and used instead “integrity” because it was easier. But “integrity” also fed into our architectural bias, a bias that has both fed our fetishization of architectural authenticity and at the same time EXCLUDED many of our own minority traditions from the process of preservation. We have codified a series of treatments for architecture that, unlike the process, are not consistent across times and cultures.
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The failing we have had in the U.S. in the 46 years since the creation of the National Register of Historic Places is our tendency to focus on architectural significance. Indeed, arguably our culture has defaulted in the direction of design history, in part because it is easier to SEE and thus identify, but also in part due to our particular preservation history, which has been heavily inflected by architecture and design since the early decades of the 20th century.
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you make your bed you sleep in it
We are struggling with this issue on the Diversity Task Force at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (join here!). As Vice Chair, I have tried to bring this international perspective – that the contemporary PROCESS of cultural heritage preservation is a way to reclaim the full breadth of our historic cultures – to the Task Force’s work. The implications for outcomes are substantial: we may well call for revision of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Identification, Evaluation, Registration and Treatment. More incisively, we could request that the Secretary of the Interior adopt “authenticity” instead of the less politically challenging “integrity.” One of the reasons that we have focused on architectural design in American preservation is that it is a safe harbor, a politically neutral space, and during the rise of the preservation movement in the 1960s, a call for a Civil Rights Trail as a national heritage area (which we are doing now) would have been extremely contentious.

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This is the first McDonald’s (the one in LA is the Ur-McDonald’s), preserving an element of shared culture.
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This is an installation in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in Maywood, Illinois, commemorating a long-lost station on the Underground Railroad.

The definition of fetish is the attribution of religious or mystical qualities to inanimate objects. In the western and American tradition, we tend to fetishize the object as opposed to the process. Arguably, one can fetishize the process as well, and indeed the desire to preserve is at base a desire to retain some spiritual qualities of a thing or an act. Our challenge today with our historic process of identification, evaluation, registration and treatment is to determine more precisely how this process can capture the most salient spiritual elements of our cultural inheritance. This is much more than architecture, certainly it is much more than architectural design. If these walls could talk…..
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