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Posts Tagged ‘authenticity’

At the end of August, I participated in the fantastic Association of Critical Heritage Studies’ 2020 Futures online conference. There were many interesting papers but the one that really stuck with me was on Reconstruction, Spatial Reclamation and Restorative Justice by Prof. Erica Avrami of Columbia University.

Prof. Avrami referred to the 2018 Warsaw Recommendation on Recovery and Reconstruction of Cultural Heritage. The recommendation is primarily concerned with war contexts in which heritage has been destroyed. It argues for its speedy reconstruction ‘as a means [for affected communities] to reaffirm their identity, restore their dignity and lay the conditions for a sustainable social and economic recovery’ (p. 3).

Prof. Avrami’s point was the recognition in the recommendation that reconstruction can play an important role in re-establishing the spaces in and through which recognition of a community and its experiences happens, in other words: in delivering justice.

However, here also lies the crux: Prof. Avrami highlighted that the recommendation requires, as a prerequisite to reconstruction, ‘Proper documentation and inventories, including documentation of building methods…’ (p. 7). This prerequisite is also enshrined in the World Heritage Convention. The Operational Guidelines of 2019 clearly state that, ‘Reconstruction is acceptable only on the basis of complete and detailed documentation and to no extent on conjecture’ (p. 27, paragraph 86).

Prof. Avrami then proceeded very poignantly to highlight the many historic circumstances in which people were prevented from leaving behind built structures, never mind documentation: those excluded from owning property, those excluded from the decisions made about the built environment (so their own villages, for example, were removed), those forced to live in environments where for example floods destroyed the physical traces of their existence. And so on.

On one hand, this is simply another illustration of the structural exclusion exerted by definitions of heritage as (still) primarily material. It discriminates against the heritage of those who were prevented from leaving behind material traces in the first place.

Prof. Avrami turned the spotlight on the fact that in preventing reconstructions on the basis of the argument of (a lack of) documentation in effect continues this discrimination. She suggested that reconstructing buildings once important to these excluded sections of society would mean to enable a physical, spatial encounter with their experiences, and thus with their heritage. It would make them visible where before they were kept in the shadows. In other words, reconstruction could be an act of restorative justice.

I found this line of argument immensely powerful. Who can deny that some people were, and still are, excluded from the processes that will enable them to leave behind lasting material traces? In tying definitions of heritage, and thus approaches to reconstruction, so narrowly to material attributes and their documentenation, we perpetuate these exclusionary and discriminatory practices. Not only that: we distort the truth of the past, hiding many people’s very existence, all the while claiming that we are doing so in service of authenticity and science.

Toward the end of her presentation, Prof. Avrami asked a question which perfectly summed it up (referring to debates about the reconstruction of slave quarters at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home):

‘What is less authentic: slave dwellings reconstructed based on limited dcoumentation and some degree of conjecture, or an 18th century Southern plantation that does not include an encounter with the spatial experience of enslaved people?’ 

What indeed.

 

 

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I am currently coordinating two working groups, one on authenticity and one on inclusivity, for ICOMOS ICIP [1] and Interpret Europe [2]. To be truthful, I thought I would most enjoy the discussion on inclusivity. As it turns out, it is the conversations that we are having around the concept of authenticity that I personally find most stimulating.

 

It is not that we are discussing anything dramatically revoluntionary. The Nara Document on Authenticity of 1994 already acknowledged that authenticity is more than a material attribute to be determined by the relevant science. It highlighted that what matters are the ‘values attributed to the heritage’ (paragraph 9) and that this naturally leads to ‘judgments about values’ (paragraph 11). And while the text is still heavy on traditional terms such as ‘conservation’ and ‘protection’ – a red flag to all weary of the Authorized Heritage Discourse [3] – it does also make clear that the ‘judgments about values’ cannot be based on ‘fixed criteria’ but ‘must be considered and judged within the cultural contexts to which they belong’ (paragraph 11). This is really quite progressive, even if, let’s be honest, this is not how authenticity is generally treated and managed in everyday professional heritage practice [4].

 

What excites me about the conversation in the working group is that we are approaching authenticity from quite different perspectives, yet they coalesce around similar ideas. We have historians in the group, archaeologists, a philologist, people from heritage studies, and interpreters, but most discuss authenticity in terms of different aspects, or layers, or perceptions of authenticity. Thinking of authenticity as a multitude of possible components to me radically makes clear what was rather more moderately suggested in the Nara Document: that authenticity is not invested per se in the material, or fixed on any other level of traditional science. The working group also quickly agreed that authenticity is socially constructed, and as such has a strong experiential element which transcends the material, or, if you will, combines the tangible with the intangible into a new whole (the ‘authentic’?).  I find it fascinating that a conversation about authenticity led me to deconstruct experiences in a different way.

 

The parallels to contemporary thinking about what (who) makes heritage and about the need for interpretation to make visible more than just one perspective or theme are also really intriguing to me. In some ways this makes perfect sense of course, and almost seems self-evident now that I write this down. But I don’t think it is self-evident, at least I’m not conscious of having read anything that really mashes up the discourses of heritage and authenticity in this way. However, authenticity as it emerges in the conversations within the working group, is really a great indicator for heritage. It captures that essence of an experience of what we may call ‘truth’, albeit in an understanding of truth that is constructed, socially within a group, but also in an ‘experiential’ (see above) exchange with the tangible. The group also floated the notion of ‘authentic’ as meaning ‘trusted’, which opens up further dimensions beyond ‘truth’. Because it is constructed and experiential, however, this trust is not about age, purity or continuity as assessed by science; it is inherently social, with all its cultural and political complexities.

 

At the beginning of this process, I was fully prepared to challenge a material framing of authenticity, and I probably expected the discussion to centre on this. Now I feel truly inspired to explore authenticity far more widely and creatively in the context of heritage and heritage making, as well as interpretation. The group is still in full swing and I am personally at the very beginning of this journey into the exciting universe of authenticity. But this is something I’m really looking forward to now: it promises to fundamentally influence my thinking about interpretation, and I’m sure my own practice can only benefit [5].

 

 

Notes

[1] ICIP is short for the ‘International Scientific Committee for the Interpretation and Presentation of Cultural Heritage Sites’. Sadly, the committee does not receive any financial support, which means the current website is hopelessly outdated and unhelpful. I therefore won’t even link you to it.

[2] I do so in my capacity as ICIP’s Vice President for Policy and following a survey about the ICOMOS Charter on Interpretation, which identified that authenticity and inclusivity were two concepts in need of furter explanation and guidance. The working groups are working on producing policy statements and guidance notes.

[3] Smith, L., 2006. The Uses of Heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

[4] This may be so because people don’t know how to practically approach authenticity other than in a material way. That is a central aspect of what the working group is trying to establish and outline in the guidance notes.

[5] In closing, thanks are due to the members of the working group. I’m looking forward to our final document.

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