By Timothy P. Whalen
In this second special issue of Conservation, we continue to look at topics that preoccupy the conservation field as a new century begins. In particular, we look broadly at ethics and education, the related subjects of archaeological conservation and the looting of archaeological sites, the impact of technology on conservation, and, finally, cultural tourism. As in the previous issue, the essays contributed by our invited authors focus on the complexity of conservation and the challenges that face us.
Recently the field has begun to move away from the notion of conservation as a neutral activity. Today it is more generally accepted that the act of conserving transforms heritage—and that contemporary values and beliefs dictate actions. "All conservation is a critical act, one of interpretation," states Frank Matero in his essay on ethics. This view should not be feared or construed as negative, for if the heritage from the past is to remain relevant, we must pursue its connections to the present. "Conservation," says Matero, "seeks to establish continuity through controlled change."
But how much change is desirable—or even ethical? Perhaps the most obvious transformation of heritage is seen in places that are conserved and interpreted for tourism purposes—what Dean MacCannell in his essay calls the change "from a mere place to a tourist destination." While MacCannell does not directly address the question of how tourism influences the practice of conservation, he pinpoints an interrelationship that for several decades has engaged the conservation field—and that will continue to do so.
The evolution of heritage conservation as an increasingly complex process is underscored in several essays. Frank Matero approaches this complexity from two different perspectives. He asks us to contemplate how we can best conserve a heritage whose definition is rapidly changing and expanding. Further on, he suggests that the internal complexity of conservation practice—with its interaction of science, technology, and the humanities—must lead us to reexamine our approaches and the ways we relate to emerging stakeholders.
The relationship among groups concerned with heritage is also considered by Karen Vitelli, as she ponders how archaeologists, collectors, and authorities can better protect from looting and theft the artifacts that have come down to us from earlier generations. In her view, legal interdictions and international conventions are failing to achieve their objectives. Other solutions should now be tried. These solutions, she tells us, should create a new sense of stewardship over materials from the past, and should involve more groups in discussion and action. In his essay on conserving the archaeological record, William Lipe also concludes that broadening the base of people involved with conservation is critical in preserving sites and artifacts. "The conservation of the archaeological record," he writes, "is not something that can just be left to the professionals."
The shared responsibility among conservation professionals for the development of education is the central theme of Sharon Cather's essay. Conservation's evolving complexity is reflected in educational and training practices. The most common response to complexity has been to add more subjects to the curricula and to expect more varied competencies from students. But education, Cather reminds us, does not stop with the diploma. In conservation, it's a lifelong endeavor.
The examination and debate advocated by many of the authors might be facilitated by technology. As Walter Henry observes, electronic communications have increased dissemination of conservation ideas as more information gets published online (the essays here, for example, will quickly become available to the world on the GCI's Web site). Exchanges among conservation professionals are no longer limited to those occasions when we gather in one place. Discussions and worldwide conservation debates happen daily in cyberspace.
The main challenge for us as professionals and as members of society is learning how to balance different values, the interests of varied stakeholders (including tourists), technical and scientific matters, professional ethics, and accepted practices in the pursuit of conservation. The authors here point to ways to meet this challenge—through respect for the past and its meaning, inclusion of those concerned with the heritage, reexamination of our professional views and practices, and reevaluation of education.
It is a reflection of conservation's growing maturity as a discipline that these ideas have entered its consciousness, signaling the profession's growing readiness to participate in the larger debate about the role of culture in society. This broadening vision suggests that perhaps one hundred years from now, conservation will be as much a manner of thinking and living as it is a professional occupation.
Tim Whalen is director of the Getty Conservation Institute.