Monday, August 01, 2005

Lowenthal on Heritage Sites

I’ve been thinking about David Lowenthal’s chapter in Giving Preservation a History, “The Heritage Crusade and its Contradictions.” I find the chapter to be a little incendiary, considering that Lowenthal is writing to an audience of preservationists, and he himself has been working with heritage sites, most recently with ICOMOS. Still, a little professional unease is good--it means that we’re thinking critically about our work.

He was, I think, on the mark to say that the American obsession with heritage is a little out of control—and he means heritage in the broadest sense, from founding fathers and battlegrounds to baseball cards and lunch boxes. Heritage has grown to encompass all that is past, trivial or grandiose.

Interestingly, he notes that this kind of heritage--heritage as a physical manifestation--is particular to Western countries. He talks a little about Asia, and specifically China, in illustration of this. I was interested in this, in light of the Historic Preservation Department’s recent trip to China, and I wonder if this ever came up in discussion, either during the trip, or afterwards. Citing Wang Gungwu and Pierre Ryckmans (and others), Lowenthal writes that heritage in Asia is best understood through living tradition--creative skills, art, letters, memory—and not through remains or monuments. This does fit with my impressions of the intellectual history of China in the past century and a half, and while monuments and sites may be destroyed there (and they have) it is less easy to erase traditional thought and practice. In the end, this may have been looked to for its essential Chineseness.

But it seems that the Western notion of heritage is spreading too, since the proliferation of monuments and heritage sites is occurring abroad as well as at home.

There is something to the heritage movement, in all its forms, that makes sense to me (besides its creation of work for me to do). Durkheim once wrote that socialism was “a cry of pain,” rather than a political movement. Heritage, too, perhaps. While heritage is not a directly opposite reaction to rampant capitalism and the discomfort it causes, neither can it be seen as in line with capitalism, philosophically. I can easily see how heritage could be an emotional response to a real threat--to anything that doesn’t constitute the highest and best use of your little chunk of property.

It is one thing to say that we don’t need a glut of old material (be it buildings, excess paper at archives, or a never-ending supply of collector’s items) and that there ought to be room for innovation. It is another to ask that we take losses in the way of historical remains, and get neither innovation nor beauty in return--but things which were not intended to last and which do not make us very happy.

Lowenthal suggests, all too briefly, that we might turn our efforts to preserving our traditional creative skills, our cultural and intellectual tradition, and of course, memory. All of this is fine, of course, but none of these things serves well as currency, and as a result, they aren’t always valued. Real estate does, and is.

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