By Mahasti Afshar
What is the rationale for conservation in a world driven by change, by an astronomical energy to produce, consume, and develop, then destroy the old to make room for the new? What is the value of place and permanence to an increasingly mobile citizenry with mixed ethnic and cultural identities and cross-historical memories? Should conservation move from being object or site-specific to being human-sensitive? Should it shift its mental grammar from the past to the present? And how should it manage change—preserving the past while helping to create the future?
The Landmarks Campaign of the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) is a search for answers to these questions and an experiment in thinking about the future of conservation through different voices and fresh perspectives. Born from a Los Angeles community-based GCI project and publication named Picture L.A.: Landmarks of a New Generation (see Conservation, vol. 9, no. 2, 1994), the campaign has grown into a grassroots initiative conducted in Cape Town, Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Mexico City, and Paris. In each project the Institute has asked youths of diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds aged 10 to 18 to photograph personal landmarks as well as designated heritage sites and to comment on the landmarks' relevance to their own and other people's lives. Each project culminates in a local exhibition, accompanied by a book and a short video. One project is currently on the Internet (www.picturemumbai.com).
The campaign's underlying premise is that if people come face-to-face with their landmarks and if they see the built landscape as an extension of their cultural history and its outstanding features as an embodiment of their personal and social identities, they will develop a sense of caring for it. These feelings, in turn, will help prevent landmarks from being neglected or abused.
From Picture Cape Town.
"A landmark is something I recognize myself by," said an 18-year-old Mumbaite, Nicole D'Souza, endorsing that premise by making a direct connection between people and places. Vinit Chauhan, a 17-year-old runaway orphan from Baroda living in a Mumbai shelter, voiced a similar sentiment, with an added pathos: "A landmark is something you perhaps are not even aware of, until suddenly one day it isn't there—then you feel a personal loss." Such sensitivity to the quality of place is not hard to transfer to the legacy of past generations. "When you destroy a landmark, you destroy some of other people's history," said Sabrina Paschal, 14 years old and living in the Watts area of Los Angeles at the time of Picture L.A. In Mumbai, 17-year-old Anitha Balachandran's statement summed up a people-centered rationale for preservation: "A landmark tells me that I am not lost." The message is clear: preserving landmarks is an act of self-preservation.
Preservationists by and large treat present time as if it is isolated from the past. Relatively little thought is given to the fact that what is created today will become "heritage" for future generations. Each of the projects in the campaign has vividly demonstrated that a place need not be old to be a landmark—indeed, a landmark need not even be a place. "Landmarks can be markers on the road of life," said Yvette Kruger, "places, people, images which mean something to us . . . things that help us find our way." For most, history is a part of the same narrative. "Old buildings store old stories," says Vinit Chauhan. "If we break these buildings, the stories are finished." Marwaan Manual from Cape Town expresses the relation in a constructive way: "There are still a lot of original buildings in Bo-Kaap. I don't think these should be knocked down . . . [but] renovated up. They are our history."
With only 8 to 10 youths selected from each city, the projects are only randomly representative of their communities. Still, one can observe certain characteristic traits in each. L.A., for instance, was raw energy—simple, tense, impromptu, uninhibited, and emotionally somewhat reserved. Cape Town surprised everyone for being strikingly serene, with a gentle, mature, optimistic, quiet, and intellectual tone. Mumbai was intense—there is no other word for it. And profoundly philosophical.
Whatever their differences, the youths shared one experience in common. Eighteen-year-old Nivedita Magar summed it up at the Picture Mumbai exhibit opening, in a speech that earned her a standing ovation from the governor of Maharashtra. Describing Picture Mumbai as an experience just like "going through the looking glass . . . where innocuous objects seemed infused with a newly awakened life force," she said: "We are here today to look at the landmarks we have chosen to record. In the process, we have come to recognize our potential, an inherent human creativity, which in turn has generated a belief and faith in ourselves. . . . Picture Mumbai has been a collective effort. The project, I believe, will act as a landmark for the generation to come and guide them toward a better future."
From Picture Mumbai.
A parallel ambition guided Gavin Younge, field director for Picture Cape Town, who welcomed the project as relevant to reunification efforts in South Africa. A professor of fine arts, a sculptor, and a social activist, he involved more than 150 schools to help select the youths at the start. His efforts paid off, for he helped a team of 10 individuals previously isolated by apartheid to "cross into each other's territories for the first time," discover new cultural landscapes together, and become better equipped to build a future in their own image. President Nelson Mandela added his voice to the campaign with a message that was read by Miguel Angel Corzo, director of the GCI, before the 400 guests at the exhibit opening in November 1996 (see "GCI News"). Hosted at the Good Hope Gallery in the Cape Town Castle, the exhibit was seen by nearly 11,000 people from 25 countries before it traveled to Johannesburg. The campaign's relevance to other places in need of healing is not lost on visitors. An entry in the guest book reads, "I will take the idea of this exhibition home to Northern Ireland."
People seem to take ownership of this campaign and add new dimensions to it with a captivating and contagious energy. The Picture Mumbai Web site was a case in point. Created by Ketak Bhat and Kenny Joseph under David de Souza's guidance at the 11th hour, it received over 4,000 visitors in its first week and a half in January 1997. David's e-mail of January 31 to the GCI reads: "I have been uplifted. I feel I have been cleansed in the Ganga. I can go back and do the bad things I do in advertising. No, I could not go back there! It will be like descending to the plains after having been on the mountaintop with the burning bush all around." Now he dreams of repeating the photography project with another 100 students. Anil Rao, project manager and patron (see "Profile"), plans to establish a trust fund and "to involve other members of corporate India in spreading the message to schools across the country." Perhaps David will get his wish.
At the Institute, we are engaged in several activities to bring the campaign full circle: Internet sites are planned for each project, and a collective exhibition is being developed for the Getty Center for the fall of 1998. In addition, we are designing educational materials that teachers can use to generate a critical dialogue about heritage through classroom discussions, photography, drawings, essays, or other means. Also in development is a handbook for those who want to duplicate the projects. Some such efforts have already begun. Picture Delaware, a statewide initiative, is presently under way.
The Landmarks Campaign is friendly, fun, nonjudgmental, and inclusive. It teaches youth how to relate to heritage in an instinctive way by asking them to see, to think, and to value, both as individuals and as members of a society. The method workschiefly because it is relevant, democratic, self-directed, and open-ended. Above all, it works because by empowering the young, it turns the seemingly insignificant into the monumental, both in the eyes and minds of the young and in ourselves, who witness them think hard, see well, produce good work, and start to build a legacy worth preserving.
Mahasti Afshar is program research associate for the GCI and the project director of the Landmarks Campaign.