By Erica Avrami

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The protected cultural heritage is vast and diverse—archaeological relics and sites, cultural and vernacular landscapes, historic urban districts, industrial and technological artifacts, war battlefields, individual monuments and structures, works of art, and more. These sites, objects, and buildings have acquired significance as cultural heritage because of the values ascribed to them by disciplines or professional fields, ethnic or religious groups, local communities, or other individuals and groups.

 

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In the cultural heritage field, we speak of historical value, aesthetic value, and social value—values that contribute to the meaning of these material remains. These values exemplify why we, as individuals and societies, believe that these remains should be stewarded for future generations. They are the driving force behind the very definition of these things as "heritage," influencing their interpretation and physical conservation. Though material heritage is imbued with certain universal, enduring qualities because of its potential to tell us something about the past, the values ascribed to it may change as physical elements age, as meanings accumulate, and as uses evolve.

To ensure that conservation interventions are attentive to social as well as physical conditions, values need to be understood as part of any conservation planning process and revisited as conditions change. Analyzing values through a participatory process—one that involves the various interest groups with a stake in a place or object—promotes the sustainability of conservation efforts by engaging communities in the care and preservation of their heritage. If the conservation field is to be successful in securing already limited resources for the arts and cultural heritage, our work must be recognized as an important social function. The greater the relevance and sustainability of conservation efforts and the more they serve to foster community building and civic dialogue, the more cultural heritage conservation is embraced by society as a "public good."

Developments in the conservation field over the past 20 years have produced a growing awareness of the need to undertake an assessment of values—often referred to as a "cultural significance assessment"—as an integral part of conservation projects and as a significant means of advancing the field. These efforts aim to ensure that interventions are responsive to a broad context of perceived meanings, issues, and communities and that they do not rely solely on art historical canons and technical traditions. Policy documents such as Australia's Burra Charter and the Nara Document on Authenticity, as well as organizations such as Parks Canada, English Heritage, and the U.S. National Park Service, have advocated a more inclusive, multidisciplinary approach to heritage conservation and have promoted the integration of cultural significance assessments into conservation planning for historic sites, buildings, and landscapes.

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To ensure that conservation interventions are attentive to social as well as physical conditions, values need to be understood as part of any conservation planning process and revisited as conditions change. Analyzing values through a participatory process—one that involves the various interest groups with a stake in a place or object—promotes the sustainability of conservation efforts by engaging communities in the care and preservation of their heritage. If the conservation field is to be successful in securing already limited resources for the arts and cultural heritage, our work must be recognized as an important social function. The greater the relevance and sustainability of conservation efforts and the more they serve to foster community building and civic dialogue, the more cultural heritage conservation is embraced by society as a "public good."

Conservation image
 

Developments in the conservation field over the past 20 years have produced a growing awareness of the need to undertake an assessment of values—often referred to as a "cultural significance assessment"—as an integral part of conservation projects and as a significant means of advancing the field. These efforts aim to ensure that interventions are responsive to a broad context of perceived meanings, issues, and communities and that they do not rely solely on art historical canons and technical traditions. Policy documents such as Australia's Burra Charter and the Nara Document on Authenticity, as well as organizations such as Parks Canada, English Heritage, and the U.S. National Park Service, have advocated a more inclusive, multidisciplinary approach to heritage conservation and have promoted the integration of cultural significance assessments into conservation planning for historic sites, buildings, and landscapes.

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These advances in thinking and policy certainly have influenced the work of conservation. Most notably, consultation among conservation professionals, community members, developers, politicians, and others is becoming a more common practice. However, the methods for assessing the values ascribed by these various interest groups remain rather experimental and are not well documented, making it difficult to evaluate their success and to promote the further integration of such assessments in conservation projects. With little information available as to the options for and efficacy of assessment approaches, cultural significance is all too often deliberated by a small group of specialists, such as historians or archaeologists, rather than elucidated through transdisciplinary analysis and community consultation as part of conservation planning.

Since the late 1980s, the Getty Conservation Institute has been promoting integrated planning for the conservation of archaeological sites and other heritage resources. Through conferences, courses, and field projects, the GCI has advocated value-driven methodologies for conservation. The challenge in organizing many of these activities has been the lack of theoretical texts and reference cases that illustrate integrated planning processes and, in particular, demonstrate the role cultural significance assessments play in these processes and explain the methods for undertaking them. Though a substantive body of literature has developed in conservation with regard to recording, understanding, and evaluating material conditions, a commensurate body of knowledge has yet to evolve with respect to analyzing values and related contextual factors.

In response to this situation, in late 1997 the GCI initiated a program of research to explore the role of values in cultural heritage conservation, with the long-term aim of identifying, developing, and disseminating methods for and information about assessing cultural significance as part of conservation planning. A 1998 meeting of professionals from the conservation field and allied disciplines launched an ongoing dialogue about the ways in which values are ascribed to heritage, the universal and contextual nature of heritage values, and the influential role conservation professionals play in changing, as well as in preserving, values. The outcomes of this dialogue and associated research have been compiled in a recent GCI report, Values and Heritage Conservation, which also includes a series of commissioned essays and an annotated bibliography.

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Parallel to the values research, the GCI initiated an economics project to explore the tools and methods of valuing that are developed and employed by the economics field—in particular by cultural and environmental economists—and their potential for adaptation and application to heritage. The GCI report, Economics and Heritage Conservation, summarizes initial research in the area, as well as the results of a meeting of economists, anthropologists, conservators, historians, and related specialists held in December 1998. A subsequent meeting held at the Getty in March 2000 continued this effort by exploring ways in which economic valuation methods and assessment tools of the cultural fields could be integrated to meet the specific needs of conservation (see GCI News: Workshop on Valuing Cultural Heritage). The results of this meeting will be disseminated later this year.

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As connected and complementary efforts, the values and economics research, along with GCI field and training activities, have brought to light a number of common issues that have a significant impact on conservation planning and outcomes. Particular issues include the level of participation—by different disciplines, community groups, governmental agencies, and others—in the assessment of values and in planning generally; the power relationships that exist between these various stakeholders; and the role played by conservation professionals in the planning process. These factors, combined with the types of tools and methods employed for assessing cultural significance, strongly influence the effectiveness and responsiveness of heritage conservation work.

As part of the next phase of GCI efforts in this area, the findings of the values and economics projects will be applied to more empirical research that involves the integration of these ideas and issues in actual conservation projects. The goals will be to test and document methods for identifying interest groups, for assessing cultural significance, and for integrating assessment results with other factors—such as physical conditions, administrative concerns, and so on—in decision-making processes about conservation policies and interventions. The outcomes of these empirical case studies will also be disseminated.

In the long term, this type of information will help build a body of knowledge about assessing cultural significance in the context of conservation. In addition, it will serve to expand and improve the options of tools and methods that exist for conservation professionals, helping them readily integrate values issues into conservation work.

Erica Avrami is a project specialist with the Getty Conservation Institute.