Thursday, January 22, 2009

Assignment 1: Preservation Philosophy

Michèle Valerie Cloonan, W(H)ITHER Preservation? The Library Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 2 (Apr., 2001), pp. 231-242.

Salvador Muñoz-Viñas, Contemporary Theory of Conservation, (2005) Burlington: Elsevier.

The Notion of Authenticity

Establishing a "philosophy" for the preservation of cultural heritage is a complex undertaking. It requires contemplating why cultures manifest an impulse to preserve, and how. Motivation for preserving documents and monuments range from sentimental nostalgia to nationalist fervor. Where does the preservation professional find his/her place along such a continuum? Although there are rich treatments of the preservation of cultural memory in literature from such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, history, museology, and sociology, discussions specific to library and archival literature have been relatively quiet. Cloonan and Muñoz-Viñas have done much to shape this discourse by exploring themes relevant to preservation professionals.

Recent developments in the field of digital preservation have prompted new examinations of the notion of authenticity for physical objects. When restoration was the prevailing method for intervening with historical objects, concern for the integrity of the object's physical appearance largely dictated its treatment. In other words, attempts were undertaken to restore the object to the condition of its creation. The original condition was considered to be its most "authentic" state, and therefore returning the artifact to that state was desirable.

Crafting a philosophy of preservation begs unraveling the intertwined meanings of originality and authenticity. As Cloonan suggests, "the paradox of preservation is that it is impossible to keep things the same forever. To conserve, preserve, restore is to alter" (235). Muñoz-Viñas prods the question further. Taking issue with the notion authenticity commonly espoused by what he calls "Classical" conservation/preservation philosophies, that objects can have a "true" nature, he points out that the underlying logic of this reasoning is deeply flawed: "Objects cannot exist in a state of falsehood, nor can they have a false nature. If they really exist, they are inherently real. The expected, imagined or preferred is not real unless it coincides with the existing object" (93, emphasis in original). What, on the surface appears to be merely a semantic problem extends much deeper to the core assumptions motivating preservation activities.

Historian David Lowenthal reminds us that "nothing ever made has been left untouched, nothing ever known remains immutable; yet these facts should not distress but emancipate us. It is far better to realize that the past has always been altered than to pretend it has always been the same. Advocates of preservation who adjure us to save things unchanged fight a losing battle, since even to appreciate the past is to transform it. Every relic is a testament not only to its initiator but its inheritors, not only to the spirit of the past but to the perspectives of the present" (Lowenthal 1985, emphasis mine). Just as with Heisenberg's microscope, we cannot examine historical objects without somehow altering their essence, intangibly or otherwise.

I raise this issue not to excuse inaction or shoddy treatments, but instead to suggest an understanding of historical objects that acknowledges their engagement with the present. And although preservation is perhaps inherently anachronistic, it is helpful to recognize this fact, rather than operating on a series of faulty premises.