By Denis Byrne
These first years of the 21st century may be an opportune moment for those of us in the field of heritage conservation to reflect on our modernity. Heritage conservation was born in and grew up in the decades surrounding the turn of the 19th century, when science and rationality had been elevated to a semireligious status. It can be seen as being part of the larger package of Western modernity—identified by industrial capitalism, the nation-state, rapid economic development, and a sense of human mastery over the natural world.
A critique of heritage conservation in its modernist form might begin with the observation that many, perhaps even most, people in the world do not approach heritage objects and places in a rational manner. They consider them to be part of a universe that is energized and animated by various forms of divine or supernatural power. Heritage conservation seems never to have been comfortable with this reality. Yet the time has come and gone when we could hope that the nonrational view would quietly expire. It is now time to ask what heritage conservation might look like after modernity.
The Path to Modernity
International heritage charters emerged from a European continent that had experienced the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and the Enlightenment. Science and rationality had displaced belief in the supernatural. The presence of the divine in objects and places, so much a feature of medieval Christianity, was replaced with a Christianity in which God belonged in heaven. The world below came to be understood in terms of geology, history, art history, economics, archaeology, and other branches of modern learning. As Max Weber famously stated, "The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world." The notion that old and ancient monuments and sites are of predominantly historical, archaeological, and aesthetic value emerged from this experience of disenchantment.
In the social sciences, the so-called rationalization thesis has long held sway as a global model of how modernization inevitably leads to secularization. It is now conceded, however, that much of the non-Western world has taken a different path to modernity, one that defies disenchantment. The vision of a world moving steadily in the direction of rationalism and secularism is now seen by social scientists as a variation of the now-discredited 19th-century doctrine of unilinear progress. In terms of this doctrine, all the societies of the world were seen to be at various stages along the ladder leading to modern civilization (defined as the civilization of northwestern Europe). It is difficult not to see the heritage charters, and heritage discourse in general, as firmly ensconced in this old model, harboring the expectation that all cultures will eventually approach heritage objects and places from the rational-secular point of view.
Global Heritage and Asia
If the heritage charters are taken to represent the global end of a global-local spectrum of cultural heritage management, how has the local—and particularly the non-Western local—fared in relation to the charters? The Venice Charter, despite the presence of some non-Westerners at the 1964 congress that adopted it, is an expression of the concerns of European heritage professionals. Although there has been some questioning of its appropriateness in locations where there are existing and long-established traditions of caring for built heritage, most non-Western countries have incorporated the essence of the Venice Charter into their national charters and guidelines (e.g., Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China, 2002).
There have been exceptions, though. For example, during the UNESCO-funded restoration of the ancient settlement of Sukhothai in central Thailand, in the early 1980s, the Thai government bridled at the restrictions imposed by the Venice Charter on its desire to reconstruct some of the Buddhist monuments and sculptures. Its response was the Bangkok Charter of 1985, which provided greater flexibility by making this scale of reconstruction acceptable in the course of restoration. The Thai argument was based largely on the precedent in traditional Buddhist practice for this type of reconstruction.
In countries like China, India, Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia, religious structures and sites compose the majority of heritage properties listed on government inventories. In these places, original built fabric has often been radically altered or replaced in the course of traditional restorations that have been carried out as a means of acquiring spiritual merit or as a way of honoring or propitiating the deities that occupy or "own" particular temples and shrines. In light of this, it may seem surprising that governments in these countries have been so willing to substantially endorse instruments like the Venice Charter. The explanation lies in the extent to which the nation-states established in these countries in the second half of the 20th century (and earlier, in the case of Japan and Thailand) have followed the West in using ancient monuments and sites as iconic emblems of the nation.
Because of their new iconic function, the material integrity of the sites and monuments, from the state's point of view, has come to take precedence over their spirituality. These highly centralized states have regulated or suppressed local popular religious practices, typically condemning them as superstitious and hence as obstacles to modernization and economic development. A striking illustration of this process was seen through most of the 20th century in China, where both the Republicans and later the Communists set themselves against popular religion.
In places like Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand, compromises have generally been worked out whereby institutional forms of religious practice can continue at these places without compromising their physical integrity.
In terms of popular religious belief, in Asia and the non-Western world generally, many old or ancient objects, buildings, and places are held to be enchanted: spirits and deities reside in them and animate their physical fabric with miraculous power. The attempt by the modern Asian states to suppress or curb this type of belief and practice, through antisuperstition campaigns, is now widely conceded to have failed. This failure is attested to by the well-documented surge in popular religion in Thailand, Taiwan, and China in the 1980s and 1990s. The existence of these folk practices, however, receives virtually no acknowledgment by Asian heritage agencies, local heritage practitioners, or Western heritage practitioners working in Asia. If heritage professionals are unable to acknowledge the existence of the "popular supernatural," then they cannot begin to address the implications it has for conservation. Why, for instance, should local people heed an appeal to stop selling fragments of plaster from a shrine, when they know that heritage conservators are unaware that such fragments can heal wounds or purify water? Whether the fragments are miraculous or not is beside the point; what matters is that people believe they are.
The Burra Charter and the Charter for the Protection and Management of the Archaeological Heritage (1990), also known as the Lausanne Charter, both endorse the involvement of indigenous people in the conservation and management of their own heritage. But these provisions seem mainly intended to address the rights of indigenous minorities, such as those in Australia, Canada, and the United States. Presumably the assumption is that in the case of a country like Thailand, the involvement of government heritage agencies in conservation projects adequately covers the indigenous factor. The outcome is that the living religious traditions of arguably the majority of the world's population continue to be marginalized in heritage practice.
The Social Value of Heritage
Stepping back to the more encompassing issue of the social context of heritage, it seems clear that most of the international heritage charters have a quite particular understanding of social value. Embedded in the Athens, Venice, and Lausanne Charters is a belief that the public either desires the conservation of heritage places in the manner advocated by the charters or should be encouraged to do so through education and involvement in conservation work. The charters are thus advocates for the conservation ethic. The assumption is that the public should learn about conservation rather than conservationists learning from the public about the social value and context of places. The failure of the charters to highlight and authorize social value means that they have been sidelined in the fast-emerging values approach to heritage conservation (e.g., the GCI's Research on the Values of Heritage project). This approach, perhaps first articulated in the Burra Charter of Australia ICOMOS, maintains that all aspects of a place's significance (value) should be documented and assessed, and that the conservation approach to any particular place should be a logical outcome of this initial process of understanding.
The Nara Document on Authenticity (1994) was intended to extend the Venice Charter by making provisions for cultural diversity, thereby tempering the Eurocentric nature of the charter. It is significant that the conference that drafted the document was hosted by Japan, a country that has a culturally particular, historically rooted approach to the conservation of buildings—and one that has the international weight and confidence to assert its right to this approach. In contrast to the Venice Charter, the Nara Document asserts that the conservation of cultural heritage is "rooted in the values attributed to [it]" and that we must have adequate information on these values in order to be able to understand them. To this extent, it might be regarded as giving an ICOMOS imprimatur to the "values principle," but in practice the document is rarely cited in this field of work, perhaps because it is seen as concerned chiefly with the issue of authenticity. The document's poor profile may also relate to the abstruse language used to describe authenticity.
Much of the inadequacy of the heritage charters in the area of social value has to do with their tendency to address this issue in presumptuous and naive terms, something that is true in general of heritage discourse at a national and international level. Whole populations of people are presumed to embrace the conservation ethic with little or no evidence produced to support this presumption. The mass of research data in the historical and anthropological literature that details the complex reality of people's interaction with heritage places is almost never consulted or referenced. The debilitating effect of the heritage field's divorce from the social sciences is writ large in the Nara Document, but its effect is felt much more widely. Whereas the physical act of conservation is seen as necessitating rigorous research in the field of conservation science, the social dimension of heritage is more often treated as a realm of common knowledge or common sense.
What is happening in contemporary Asia may provide a window onto what heritage conservation might look like after its modern moment. In the first place, rapid economic development has not led to the displacement of belief in the supernatural. Rather, in striving toward economic success, people have turned in unprecedented numbers to seek assistance and guidance from empowered objects and places—many of them in the heritage category. Far from canceling each other out, economic development and the supernatural (superstition to its detractors) work hand in hand. Heritage conservation may similarly need to work hand in hand with the supernatural. The bottom line is that empowered places are simply not available to heritage management in the old authoritarian manner. They have agency: they act upon us as much as we act upon them. A style of heritage conservation that transcends modernism's limitations would be amenable to the divine and in dialogue with it.
Denis Byrne is manager of the Research Unit, Cultural Heritage Division, Department of Environment and Conservation, New South Wales, Australia. He can be reached at email@example.com .