By Timothy P. Whalen
As the 20th century comes to a close, we are dedicating two issues of our newsletter to glance, Janus-like, at the field and profession of conservation. In doing this, the GCI joins the fin-de-siècle examination that reflects on where we have been and on what may lie ahead.
For this issue and the next, we invited a distinguished group of colleagues to share their thoughts on a number of subjects that currently seem to be on the minds of conservation professionals. For example, we asked two of our writers to consider the concepts of "authenticity" and "the scientist in conservation"; in return, we received essays on these subjects that gave us a wonderful perspective on the past while articulating the challenges that will occupy us in the years to come.
The topics covered in these pages are vast and varied, while the length of each essay is, of necessity, short. The writers have focused on subjects in line with their interests, and in some instances, they have offered very personal perspectives. Yet, as we consider the essays collectively, we find some common threads.
While a few decades ago, a similar undertaking might have resulted in an anthology focused on scientific and technological issues, all our authors emphasize that conservation is fundamentally a social and cultural activity. The emphasis on understanding the value that we attribute to cultural heritage reflects the search for meaningful ways to integrate the past into the present and the recognition that how we value heritage affects—perhaps more than technical matters—how we conserve it.
Our authors highlight the imperative of conserving the values and the history of the object, as well as the recognition that cultural heritage is much more than its constituent materials. Sherban Cantacuzino and Caroline King speak of the contexts of the monuments, which give them their social meaning. Giorgio Torraca assures us that the exactness of science, made impossible by accretions that history attaches on the materials, is only an illusion. Jukka Jokilehto, in considering historic architecture, sees the need for broader public and private involvement in efforts to balance cultural values with economic and social arguments.
As heritage becomes a central preoccupation of different groups in society, these groups insist that the values they see in heritage be preserved, alongside the aesthetic and historic ones that have traditionally guided conservation decisions. Some of these values, as pointed out by Sharon Sullivan and Carolyn Rose, require that we reconsider our professional assumptions.
This need to view conservation from different perspectives is reflected by several authors, who assert that some certainties that might have comforted an earlier generation of conservation professionals are no longer available to us. Mounir Bouchenaki writes about how international organizations tried to codify some principles that would give us these certainties. Yet the same organizations now realize that differences in cultural values make these principles difficult to apply globally and that heritage conservation must be approached differently.
Authenticity, a 20th-century preoccupation, has been in the forefront of the cultural field in recent years. David Lowenthal traces the evolution and change of this concept over time and assures us that this process will continue. Future generations, he observes, will certainly question our current views of authenticity.
It is our hope that these essays will not only prompt discussion and reflection but also cause us to consider and acknowledge the many creative men and women who, in the era that is coming to a close, chose conservation as their profession. Their extraordinary contributions have made possible the great strides in the field during the 20th century. That same level of creativity can be found in our own time, and it will carry us forward into the next century, in a way that increasingly respects the diverse values we have come to embrace. Indeed, preserving those diverse valuesand the places and things that embody themis what conservation is ultimately all about.
Tim Whalen is director of the Getty Conservation Institute.