I borrow the title of this post from Francis Fukuyama, who famously (if rather prematurely) declared the “End of History” some 20 years ago. While I’m not going to make such bold proclamations here, I do want to be a little provocative and ask: has the heritage ‘industry’ planted the seeds of its own demise?
First a little background: at the Museums Australia conference a couple of weeks ago, several presentations reinforced the notion that heritage is both a process of preservation and of creation. However, it strikes me that the former is sometimes privileged at the expense of the latter. Indeed, we can become so preoccupied with preserving the cultural legacy of our forebears that we forget that we too have the opportunity (perhaps even duty) to create our own legacy as well.
One of the conference keynote speakers, Victor Steffenson (from Mulong Productions) spoke of his work using film-making to document Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices. In a later panel discussion, he talked about how he wants to dispel assumptions that Indigenous culture is a static relic of the past. He described working with Aboriginal youth who said that they could no longer perform corroborees because their traditional dances had been lost. To which Victor’s reply was: “why not make new ones?” In other words, while preservation of traditional Indigenous culture is important (and an important part of Victor’s film work), it should not subsume the ongoing evolution of that culture as a creative process.
This got me thinking about the balance of preservation and creation in heritage more broadly. Look at any ancient city or old building and what you see is a palimpsest – the ongoing destruction, creation and restoration is what gives these sites their historical richness. However, this overwriting of one layer of history by another is often put to a stop in the name of ‘heritage’ – no more layers will be added to the palimpsest.
One of the first heritage sites I worked on was a Grade I listed building in Lincolnshire, which had been constructed in the latter part of the 14th century. Over the course of the building’s history it had served as the headquarters of a Hanseatic guild, a town hall, a court house, a council chamber and finally a local museum. A point about that last incarnation: over the years I’ve observed that ‘turn it into a museum’ is the fate of many heritage buildings – sometimes because it is a logical adaptive re-use, but too often because there is no other viable use for the building in its present state, and given its heritage listing it can’t be adapted for anything else, so ‘turning it into a museum’ becomes the default (and sometimes uncomfortable) compromise. But how many heritage buildings can realistically be preserved as museums?
From my (admittedly non-expert) perspective, it appears our shift to a focus on preservation is a consequence of events of the mid 20th century. In Europe, two world wars had wreacked destruction on an unprecedented scale. The reconstruction (and in Australia, post-war boom) of the 1950s and 1960s was then heavily influenced by the harsh, minimalist aesthetic of modernism. Modernism didn’t quite work out as planned: designs intended to make built spaces work like efficient machines ended up being hostile environments that invited crime. Furthermore, it didn’t age well, and many buildings from this era are reviled as eyesores. At some point, it seems we collectively proclaimed ‘never again’ to such follies and decided we had to be much more careful about using the bulldozer in future. This is not necessarily a bad thing. That is, unless preservation becomes paralysis.
I see this paralysis in action (if that’s not an oxymoron!) in my home town of Adelaide on a regular basis. In the Australian context, Adelaide is distinctive in that it was a planned settlement from the outset. The city plan as set out by chief surveyor Colonel William Light is considered one of our most significant cultural assets. And it is. However I get frustrated by those who seem to be more preoccupied by the letter, rather than the spirit, of Light’s plan. Light and his counterparts were progressives of their era; they were adapting new philosophies and approaches to urban planning and design. In contrast, new developments in 21st century Adelaide are often passionately resisted by preservation lobbies. Proposals frequently spend protracted periods in planning limbo (for as long as decades in some instances). Meanwhile, empty sites become dustbowls and heritage buildings lay empty as they cannot be adapted for contemporary use. This ‘heritage for heritage’s sake’ approach does not seem to serve anyone, and taken to its logical conclusion would turn the city into a museum of itself. And this is what I mean by the ‘end of heritage’. It is when the desire to preserve tips over to become the fear of creation.
I see signs of the pendulum swinging back, and perhaps a more pragmatic approach to adaptive re-use of heritage buildings (after all, their preservation is only sustainable if an economically-viable use for them can be found). There is also potential for a greater role for interpretation here too (but that’s a whole different subject).
Yes we should preserve and restore. But let’s not forget that we can adapt and create as well.