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Experimental preservation: challenging what we keep and why

the conversion alan derbyshire architectural review V and A

Critical experimentation is vital to recognise and safeguard canonical objects and enhance our understanding of the past, present and future

The words experimental and preservation have, until recently, been kept safely distant from each other. Experiment suggests the dangerous possibility of failure, something to avoid when working on valuable historical and cultural objects. To experiment on such objects is to risk altering the very qualities that make them valuable, and the failures are often publicly denounced. Art scholar James Beck criticised the team that restored Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling between 1980 and 1994 for over-cleaning and forever damaging the celebrated frescos, and art historian John Richardson charged conservators from the Museum of Modern Art in New York with adding varnishes that effectively destroyed Cubist paintings by Picasso, Juan Gris and others. In these famous cases, preservationists were accused of committing ‘crimes’ against culture, a serious indictment suggesting transgression of the laws and conventions that protect cultural heritage. The stakes are high for experimentation when even slightly altering the microscopic surface of an object can be tantamount to ruining it.

The word preservation has come to be associated with a sort of deference to the past over the needs of the present that subjugates contemporary action, normalising and confining it via legal regulations and thwarting alternatives to the status quo. Experimental preservationists question the long-standing identity of preservation with the governmental protection of cultural objects, and the largely unquestioned narrative that preservation bureaucracies always act for the common good.

‘Choosing objects not considered worthy of traditional preservation raises the question of whether the old intellectual frames will be fit to analyse these unconventional objects’ 

The objects of experimental preservation are often markedly different from those of governmental projects. Cultural historian Laurajane Smith describes the usual official choices and the ideology that supports them: ‘The Authorized Heritage Discourse focuses attention on aesthetically pleasing material objects, sites, places and/or landscapes that current generations “must” care for, protect and revere so that they might be passed to nebulous future generations for their education, and to forge a sense of common identity based on the past’. In contrast, experimental preservationists guard their freedom to choose objects that might be considered ugly or unsavoury, or unworthy of preservation, objects that might have been ignored or excluded by official narratives, perhaps because they embody the material, social and environmental costs of development which governments and corporations seldom account for.

alan lowe architectural review

alan lowe architectural review

Source: Factum Arte / Alicia Guirao

Restorer Alan Lowe and his team erect a Tomb of Tutankhamun replica in the Valley of the Kings in the hope that a facsimile will divert visitors and help to preserve the original. 

For instance, in recent projects the architects Reinhard Kropf and Siv Helene Stangeland have chosen to preserve waste – something that appears to have no value but in fact has great social potential to make communities more visible to themselves. In this line of thinking they are influenced by Michel Serres’s notion of the quasi-object, famously illustrated with the example of a football: Serres described how the ball participates in and co-produces the human interaction we call football. It is simple to visualise: without the ball there is no game. But the ramifications of this understanding of objects are profound. Quasi-objects can interfere with how we play the ‘game’ we call society, how we structure our interactions, collect ourselves into groups, distinguish ourselves from others, identify our culture. Without quasi-objects there is no social game, no cultural difference, no shared experience.

Choosing objects not considered worthy of traditional preservation raises the question of whether the old intellectual frames – the criteria used to assess the value of historic resources – will be fit to analyse these unconventional objects. Some criteria, such as ‘historical significance’, were established in the late 19th century in an era when much of what defines our contemporary environment hadn’t been developed or didn’t even exist: electrification, cars, films, computers, digital codes, plastics, wearable technology, smartphones, smart buildings, robots, satellites, and so on. 

Arman architectural review

Arman architectural review

Source: ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019, Photo (Detail) ©Tate

In the Condition of Woman 1 of 1960, Arman chooses everyday objects from his first wife’s bathroom raised on a pedestal, casting light on questions of value.

We can understand experimental preservationists as players in the game of cultural production whose position is to produce new quasi-heritage objects, each with the potential to change the game. One of the chief misunderstandings of preservation is that heritage objects are already out there in the world, awaiting the recognition of experts. In fact preservationists have always played an active role in choosing – even co-creating – heritage objects. But their role is often unacknowledged, sometimes deliberately concealed.

Experimental preservationists recognise an inherent potential, new latencies, within canonical objects. Their choices – which, again, can be proved or disproved only by the larger public – are wagers that others will see reality as they do. To choose an object is to take it, to appropriate it not only physically but also mentally; to alter its physical appearance and to modify its conceptual meaning. By the 1980s, historians began to notice the role of preservationists in choosing heritage. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s now classic The Invention of Tradition (1983) initiated a critical genre in which preservation was depicted as the deceitful manipulation of the past, artifice posing as truth in the service of sinister interests ranging from corporate profiteers to authoritarian governments. What was new here was the historicising of the discipline and the critique of its institutionalisation; what was not new was the charge of deceitfulness. ‘The thing is a Lie from beginning to end’, declared John Ruskin in 1849. In the Modernist intellectual tradition that spans from Ruskin to Hobsbawm, the preservationist is condemned as deceitful if she does not visually express the manipulation of the historic object and leave a mark on it; for without this obvious trace the future historian might be misled and draw inaccurate conclusions.

Ecce homo architectural review cecilia gimenez

Ecce homo architectural review cecilia gimenez

Source: ABACA / ABACA / PA Images

The unsolicited and disastrous 2012 restoration of Elías García Martínez’s c1930 Ecce Homo by Cecilia Giménez might be deemed unworthy of preservation. Yet an interpretation centre dedicated to the artwork opened in Borja in 2016, cashing in on the huge boom in the local economy from curious visitors. 

Consider that historic districts did not exist before preservationists conceptualised them as a new type of worthy object. This was not easy. It required the efforts of many preservationists experimenting with new theories and practices, over decades, to establish these now commonplace districts. It required such late 19th-century intellectual advances as Aloïs Riegl’s notion of the unintentional monument, which put cultural significance on a par with artistic achievement; Camillo Sitte’s theory that surrounding buildings are integral to monuments; and Reinhard Baumeister’s invention of zoning.

In practice, the incorporation of modern infrastructure into old cities, combined with late-19th-century nationalist revivals, led to historic beautification projects in cities including Brussels, Barcelona and Bologna – to pick only those starting with the letter B. These projects allowed architects to operate at the larger metropolitan scale and to view the city as a collection of urban ensembles. There was of course great resistance from building owners who saw historic districts – and the rules that followed – as a form of illegitimate control over property. All of which is to say that the now widely accepted notion of a historic district was once a radical hypothesis about a new type of expanded heritage object. View sheds and national parks are other examples of quasi-objects first chosen by preservationists and later picked up by a collective of cultural players. Experimental preservation is contemporary, but it is rooted in earlier attempts to put new cultural and historic objects into our collective consciousness.  

‘Heritage is now commonly described as a human right, a pillar of intergenerational equity, the basis of a more just society’

‘Replacements of missing parts’, states article 12 of UNESCO’s 1964 Venice Charter ‘must integrate harmoniously with the whole, but at the same time must be distinguishable from the original so that restoration does not falsify the artistic or historic evidence.’ That documents like the Venice Charter are habitually and without irony referred to as ‘dogmatic’ suggests the degree to which preservation discourse has relied on the top-down authority of governmental and inter-governmental bureaucracies. They also suggest an uncomfortable analogy with dogmatic theology, which arose as a way for the church to protect itself against heretical teachings. Indeed, Christian ethics undergird preservation theories about the right (virtuous, truthful, authentic) and wrong (sinful, deceitful, corrupt) treatments of objects. The Venice Charter obliges preservationists (the lay practitioners of this dogma) to visually confess to historians (the scholarly theoretical clergy) when they transgress the bodily sanctity of the object. 

Experimental preservation future world heritage site

Experimental preservation future world heritage site

Source: Beatriz Ramo

The Future Monument: Preserving Ideas to Ensure their Implementation, by Beatriz Ramo, STAR strategies + architecture, takes a wry look at the criteria sanctioned by UNESCO in determining World Heritage Sites.

Today the crucial questions are no longer framed in theological terms, as a meddling with God’s plan; the debate has shifted to biotechnological terms, as we have started to manipulate human DNA, and as our understanding of climate forces has evolved. Especially with the emergence of climate science in the late 19th century, the weather slowly ceased to be seen as an agent of ‘natural’ decay against which we were helpless. We now understand that human-caused pollution is altering planetary weather to such a degree that we have entered a new geological era: the Anthropocene. Cultural production has become a form of natural production. Climatologists warn that environmental degradation is irreversible: even if we were to stop producing pollution, the damage has been done. And for the first time in history, climatologists are now predicting the deep future as well as tomorrow’s weather. Yet between these temporal spans – between a near future of days and weeks and a far future of centuries – lies the future we measure in decades, in life spans and generations. Climatology has relatively little to say about this generational future, and other relevant knowledge seems necessary – specifically the knowledge experimental preservationists bring to bear on the world.

Laurajane Smith has criticised the so-called Authorized Heritage Discourse produced by organizations like UNESCO in order to establish top-down criteria for choosing objects according to ‘universal values’. Smith argues that such criteria preclude the possibility of these values evolving over time, and therefore also preclude the possibility of people freely choosing their own objects, a situation further aggravated in the case of disenfranchised people.

Azra aksamija architectural review

Azra aksamija architectural review

Source: Azra Akšamija, Future Heritage Collection #2, 2014, Photos: Velija Hasanbegović © Azra Akšamija

In Future Heritage Collection, Azra Akšamija asked Sarajevo residents, ‘to become collectors of their own cultural heritage’. Their choices, representative of a nostalgia for old Yugoslavia, were in stark contrast to the official state narrative of a clean political break with the past, which skewed reality and shaped understanding and memory. 

Is it possible to reify the present – to choose our objects – more directly by developing a more critical discourse that will help us to freely grasp our human experience? To what degree can the experimental preservationist’s choice of objects be considered free from institutional and state mediation? The Bosnian artist and historian Azra Akšamija is exploring these issues in projects that blend preservation, art and ethnography. How, she asks, do people use cultural objects to reify the present in places like the former Yugoslavia, where states have either vanished or abdicated their duty to care for cultural heritage? Akšamija belongs to the generation that came of age as the communist world was breaking down in the late ’80s and early ’90s. For her recent project, Future Heritage Collection, Akšamija asked the residents of Sarajevo, ‘to become collectors of their own cultural heritage’ – to gather and bring to her objects meaningful to them. Respondents showed up with the mascot of the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, a Soviet photo camera, a map of old Yugoslavia and the Balkans, and other artefacts associated with Soviet times. These choices cut against the grain of the official state narrative – the narrative of clean political rupture with the past. From the perspective of Bosnia and Herzegovina, these Yugoslavian objects do not exist; and more, the obligation to account for them belonged to a nation that no longer exists. Ultimately Akšamija’s project argues that the state’s failure to account for these objects – for its heritage – will shape how our present is understood and remembered. Our reality will look different because of the disconnection between the objects Bosnians are choosing and those being chosen by the state.

 ‘By insisting on the illusory nature of all heritage objects, experimental preservationists are opening up new and vital questions about the reality of heritage as an open-ended process of social negotiation’

Future Heritage Collection adds further nuance to the question of what it means to choose an object; the project underscores that a choice is a spatial appropriation (we intervene in the object, we take it over) and also that it is temporal (we care for an object over time). Most often the timescale is brief: our personal choices will likely die with us unless somehow they resonate with the future choices of younger generations. But how does one generation’s object get passed on to another, unborn generation? One possibility is through so-called intangible heritage, living traditions, of which faith-based traditions are the most powerful. The Shinto shrine in Ise, Japan, is surely the most hackneyed example of intangible heritage providing continuity over centuries. Every 20 years, roughly every generation, builder-monks rebuild the famous shrine and all its paraphernalia, from tools to kimonos. Ise has thus become a quasi-object that allows the monks to organise and transmit their culture. Its Western reception has been skewed through the lens of a sublimated Arts and Crafts discourse that perceives the durable tradition as the basis of a good Shinto society organised around independent guilds and beyond the grasp of modern social organisations like nation-states. Ise is touted as an example of the continuity of a craft-centric society, an intangible heritage (this is code for ‘authentic culture’) enabled by the ritual demolition and reconstruction of the tangible object. 

What this approving discourse downplays is that Shinto is Japan’s state religion, and that the high annual costs (approximately 55 billion yen, or half a billion dollars) of rebuilding Ise are paid mostly by taxes (either directly or through incentives). In fact, without state financing, the intergenerational endurance of the quasi-object called intangible heritage would be hard to imagine. In this light the argument of Akšamija’s one-woman pseudo-preservation bureaucracy is sharper than ever. Without state investment our choices are inevitably precarious; the present we might want to reify will not have the staying capacity to be carried over to unborn generations. Her work challenges the hypothesis that our ‘normal’ experience of choosing heritage objects can ever be free from state mediation. In another project, Culture Shutdown/Solidarity Day, she called on museums around the world to ban access to one of their works in order to shame the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina into reopening the National Museum, in Sarajevo, which was closed in 2012 due to lack of funding. Akšamija wants the state to acknowledge its obligation to care for the cultural heritage that its citizens value. To her, the silence of the state is maddening.

Humbolt forum architectural review

Humbolt forum architectural review

Source: Professor Ludwig

The Humboldt Forum, Berlin, under construction on the site of the Palast der Republik, the former East German Parliament torn down after German reunification to many East Germans’ dismay. It will open in a facsimile of the Hohenzollern-dynasty Berliner Schloss. The decision to rebuild this has been seen by some as an effort to gloss over Germany’s egregious 20th-century history.

Preservation institutions are now ubiquitous. From a handful of countries in the 19th century, most nation-states and municipal governments have by now established effective bureaucracies for the preservation of cultural heritage. A well-organised system of international nonprofits can fill the void when a nation-state lacks capacity. Many private sector institutions have also been organised around the protection of particular objects, from neon signs to Modernist buildings. Many aboriginal and native groups have created their own independent organisations. Heritage is now commonly described as a human right, a pillar of intergenerational equity, the basis of a more just society. 

In recent years this institutionalisation has sparked justifiable criticism, especially in academic circles, where some go as far as portraying heritage as a religion, and preservationists as ‘true believers’. But these critiques have not challenged the very idea of belief: the illusion that societies cannot live, that cultures cannot continue to exist, without ‘their’ heritage objects, or with ‘other’ heritage objects. But as psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott showed, a successful social environment enables us not only to safely experience an illusory belief but also to gently frustrate it, to critique it. And here is where too many preservation organisations fall short; in their devotion to traditional practices and their over-protectiveness of objects, they cut short the process of critical experimentation and, worse still, co-opt the capacity of preservationists to make legitimate claims on the larger social reality.

For this reason experimental preservation now plays a crucial role in contemporary culture. Experimental preservationists gently frustrate and subvert illusory belief by choosing objects as heritage that appear too imaginary, too fantastic, too subjective to be understood as ‘real’ heritage in the eyes of institutions. By insisting on the illusory nature of all heritage objects, experimental preservationists are opening up new and vital questions about the reality of heritage as an open-ended process of social negotiation.

This is the powerful potential of experimental preservation projects: to return heritage to its experimental sources, to the work of gathering objects that question our illusions and thus sharpen our understanding of our inherited past, contemporary present and collective future.

This piece is an edited and abridged version of ‘Experimental Preservation: The Potential of Not-Me Creations’ in Experimental Preservation edited by Jorge Otero-Pailos, Erik Fenstad Langdalen and Thordis Arrhenius, and published by Lars Müller Publisher

Lead image: Conservation specialist Alan Derbyshire’s exhaustive 1994 condition report of the Raphael tapestry cartoon The Conversion of the Proconsul (1515-16). Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This piece is featured in the AR December 2019/January 2020 issue on New into Old and Preservation – click here to purchase your copy today