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excerpts from David Lowenthal’s discussion of preservation and its increasing prominence

Lowenthal, D. ‘The Past is a Foreign Country’, Cambridge University Press, 1985

excerpt one

The crusade for cultural amnesia coincided with the rise of nostalgic time travel and the manipulation of history as a commodity; all three trends converge in the impulse to preserve. But the modern passion for preservation reflects a half millennium of changing attitudes and artifacts. This section surveys the current state of preservation, explains why it became prominent, summarises its supposed benefits and alleged risks, and reviews its broader implications.

Preserving material objects is not the only way to conserve a heritage. The great Ise Shinto temple in Japan is dismantled every twenty years and replaced by a faithful replica built of similar materials exactly as before. Physical continuity signifies less to the Japanese than perpetuating the techniques and rituals of re-creation; craftsmen trained in the old skills are themselves designated 'Living National Treasures' – prized exemplars of cultural heritage.

The Japanese thus avoid the dilemma inherent in conserving objects – its ultimate impossibility. Everything we think of as 'preserved' is more or less altered; it is really the form that endures, not the substance. And most things are identified on that basis. A barrel whose original hoops and staves have all been replaced remains for us the same old barrel. Chemistry ceaselessly transforms the constituents of all artifacts, yet we go on seeing them as originals until their final dissolution: a building or a pair of shoes remains that building and those shoes from the moment of their making until the building falls into rubble, the shoes into rubbish.

Living things likewise keep their identity despite obvious physical replacement. Trees annually lose and grow new leaves, are reshaped by growth and decay, and may be transplanted elsewhere; yet they remain recogniseable entities. We too retain identities over a lifetime, experiencing remembered and present selves, however altered, as the same individual. The concept of conservation thus goes far beyond the acts of material preservation on which Western societies concentrate their efforts.

Only in this generation has saving the tangible past become a major global enterprise. Vestiges of the past, whole, dismembered, or discernable only in traces, lie everywhere around us, yet throughout history men have mainly overlooked most of these remnants. Taking their collective material inheritance much for granted, they have allowed antiquity to survive, to decay, or to disappear as the laws of nature and the whims of their fellow men dictated.

Instances of preservation can be documented from time immemorial, to be sure, and certain remnants – interred mortal remains, relics of religious faith, tangible icons of power – are habitually treasured. But to retain a substantial portion of the past is signally a latter-day goal. Only with the nineteenth century did European nations closely identify themselves with their material heritage, and only in the twentieth have they launched major programmes to protect it. And concerted efforts to secure relics against destruction and decay have come mainly in the past few decades.

Preservation is now a ubiquitous crusade; virtually every state strives to safeguard its historic monuments. Attachments are manifest where antiquities are ancient and abundant as well as where they are rare and largely recent, under communist or capitalist regimes, by former imperial powers along with newly liberated colonies. A proliferation of agencies – the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and the Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Architectural Works (IIC), the World Heritage Convention – attest the global character of concern for tangible heritage.

The growth of preservation has been most spectacular in the realm of old buildings. Groups devoted to the architectural legacy multiplied many times over during the 1960s and 1970s. In the United States, preservation in 1960 was still the hobby of a small well-to-do elite; by 1980 more than half of American construction work involved rehabilitation, and in fiscal year 1983 more than two billion dollars' worth of such projects received preservation tax credits. Almost two-thirds of a recent Harvard College alumni class were engaged in restoring old houses – an avocation that the previous generation of graduates had deemed highly eccentric. In Britain the demand for old houses is intense: half the population seems to be seeking converted old barns, watermills, or oast houses. The number of historic structures potentially protected by listing exceeded 300 000 in 1984 and is scheduled to reach half a million by 1987, 4 per cent of Britain's building stock. Eastern Europe exhibits similar trends: Prague spent over six times as much on historic preservation in 1980 as in 1964.

Buildings deemed worth saving have become more various as well as more numerous. The conserved past now includes structures as recent as the 1960s, representative together with archetypal features, homes of the humble along with mansions of the mighty, landmarks cherished for local familiarity in addition to monuments of universal renown. And preservation reaches beyond individual structures to embrace neighbourhoods and entire towns. Landscapes too rank as precious relics: Egdon Heath in Dorset, its unique flora and its association with Thomas Hardy both threatened by nuclear power, is termed 'as irreplaceable as a Gothic cathedral'.

What warrants preservation expands with what is thought historically significant. Unsung figures and events gain fresh stature; entire aspects of the past become newly worth saving. The homes of presidents and patriots, battle sites and frontier forts used to be America's major shrines; preservation priorities now focus on industry, the arts, and hitherto neglected minorities. Tourists at antebellum plantation houses throng restored slave huts once shunted aside as historically embarrassing; servants' quarters at National Trust houses attract British visitors whose parents, a generation ago, had eyes only for the sumptuous and the aristocratic.

Preservation efforts formerly reserved for features of renown and widely venerated monuments are now extended to everyday neighbourhoods of purely local import. 'The locality where we belong . . . is a centre of reassurance [identifiable] more by the tenacity of its users than by its architecture', writes Lionel Brett. 'It may even be ugly, will generally be shabby, will invariably be overcrowded . . . Civic societies passionately defend its every cobblestone', but they defend 'more than bricks and mortar; it is the need for what Simone Weil called I'Enracinement, rootedness. Many communities wish to save structures and scenes that would never qualify as 'aesthetic' or 'historic', perhaps not even as pleasant or comfortable. Preservation in this spirit extends to the industrial landscape, embracing not just factories but entire working-class towns. 'Our identity lies in this urban industrial past', says the originator of America's first urban historic park, Lowell, Massachusetts; Lowell's revival secures the collective heritage of the city's inhabitants as a 'confirmation of their past'.

Yet congeniality remains a prime motive for preserving; most survivals are treasured for their beauty or harmony. Attractiveness, variety, and historical assocations were the main reasons people in Guildford wanted old buildings conserved. Historic buildings offer 'a richer source of environmental well-being than contemporary architecture', concludes a large-scale study of English preferences. Three out of four first-time British buyers wanted older houses than they had, a recent building society survey shows; fewer than one in four who sought Victorian houses could get them.

Surviving older buildings are found gracious and liveable for good reasons: because the materials used in their construction usually exceed closely calculated modern minimum requirements, they are often stronger, roomier, warmer in winter, cooler in summer, and better insulated against noise and vibration than new buildings. 'The average minimum standard mid-20th-century house', concludes the American National Trust, 'is certainly no match in general soundness to the average 19th-century house', and shoddy post-war housing in Britain likewise deteriorates much faster than what remains from Victorian times.

Not every relic is seemly or desirable, to be sure. Like the past in general, inherited property is a mixed blessing; along with 'the Old Master over the carved surround of the saloon fireplace, each perhaps with a high intrinsic merit', the old family mansion contains 'the peeling wallpaper in the servant's bedroom'. Survivals may be simultaneously adored and detested. Picking his way through cabbages, diesel six-wheelers, and theatre props in old Covent Garden, Tom Baistow conceived 'a preservationist's passion for this tight-packed, smelly, rakishly scruffy and vital corner of London that was only equalled by a deep conviction . . . that the whole bloody lot ought to be bulldozed'. A writer who termed Lancashire quixotic in 'clinging to its vast, old industrial monuments' none the less urged their retention, for 'in fighting to remove the greyness of its economy, it would be a pity to tamper with its soul'. Even the soul may perish in north-of-England weather, however; Mancunian rain so depressed one lover of the past that she sympathised with 'the perverse mentality of the dyed-in-the-wood Labour councillor who advocated removing all evidence of Victorian and Edwardian times from the town'.

Buildings are the chief catalyst of collective historical identity because they seem intrinsic to their surroundings and outlast most other relics. But preservation interest also embraces manuscripts and motor cars, silent films and steam engines; many if not most household objects are cherished for the sense of heritage, of antiquity, of continuity their presence confers. The valued past ranges from the greatest monuments to the most trifling memorabilia, and from the most enduring remains to the merest shadows of what things once were. Virtually any old thing which twenty years ago would have been junked today finds a place both in popular history and in collectors' hearts. We are well on the way to salvaging every kind of survival either for functional reuse or as souvenirs.

Different motives, to be sure, animate lovers of architectural relics, archaeological sites, ancient landscapes, antiques and collectables of various kinds. But whatever the specific focus, their aims have much in common. Relics saved enhance our sense of history, link us with our own and other people's pasts, and shed glory on nations, neighbourhoods, and individuals. Amidst bewildering novelty, historic sites and antique objects spell security, ancient bricks and mortar offer tangible assurances of stability. From photo-enshrined mantels and antiques-laden parlours to conserved Pompeii and restored Williamsburg, preservation provides havens imbued with the peace or the thrill, the majesty or the intimacy, of some past. To halt demolition and stave off erosion approaches a precious permanence, a virtual immortality that defies the tooth of time.


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