Friday, September 23, 2016

Book Review: Cultural Heritage and the Challenge of Sustainability

Opening to p. 79 of this 2013 book one reads: "In January 2010, Paris marked the centennial of its Great Flood of 1910." (Exhibits showed photographs of the devastation.) "Along with the photographs came the warning that it could happen again." A week ago, in 2016, we watched it happen again. 

Plastic boxes containing artworks are placed for safe-keeping between sculptures in an exhibition hall at the Musee de Louvre which is closed and tourists being turned away, due to the unusually high water level of the nearby river Seine in Paris, Friday, June 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
For all the historians still questioning the relevance of environmental sustainability, please consider Diane Barthel-Bouchier's important work. In her first chapter, "Culture: Our Second Nature", she makes it quite clear with a quote from historian David Lowenthal: "History 'explores and explains pasts grown ever more opaque over time,' whereas heritage 'clarifies pasts so as to infuse them with present purposes.'"

I believe the ultimate "present purpose" of our field is to reverse the damaging effects of climate change so that together we can protect and celebrate cultural heritage, worldwide, and far, far into an harmonious future with this planet. There are so many ways to do that, and each of us has important ways to protect so much more than even the collections at The Louvre.

Routledge, 2013
Barthel-Bouchier's extensive research and hard-earned perspective provides a far-reaching reference work to challenge and inspire us to get a move on! Her narrative of the development of cultural heritage conservation into a "global organizational field" will make you feel like you've missed more than a few boats if your focus is limited to the U.S. That is not her point, though. She is anxious that the field's growth has stretched beyond communities' and nations' abilities to financially support all the conservation work we've identified; and that to make our case we have begun to forsake humanities for science, and make ourselves appear as expert outsiders. That is changing a bit these days.

As climate events and threats become more obvious to more of the world, the sustainability movement within cultural heritage has gained leverage for attracting support, found security in its reliance on science, and reasserted the moral imperative Barthel-Bouchier believes conservationists have as a driver common in their work.

She warns of the continuing tension between the traditionalists committed to "tasks such as documentation, maintenance, risk assessment, rehabilitation, and restoration," and those interested in "fighting against climate change and working toward sustainability, while engaging in efforts to change..." including to promote tourism and to take more flexible approaches to current preservation regulations (see Unwanted Water" at the Center for the Future of Museums' blog).

So, what do you want the profession to look like?

Barthel-Bouchier writes "Exactly how far out front should cultural heritage conservationists be on this issue? How should they define the tasks of mitigation and adaptation as they apply to both built structures and communities? The choice of scope involves risks for the organizational field....Such risk also represents opportunity for the whole field to make sense of where it has been and to help determine the direction in which it is heading."

For those of us involved in sustainability in cultural heritage, we have these joys in our future:
- "the commitment and activism of" locals (whether in an urban setting, a countryside struggling with desertification, or an island nation watching sea levels rise),  Barthel-Bouchier says is our greatest resource - and she's right; and that the
-  "monuments and rituals" that we work to protect can create or reinforce "social solidarity that allows people to live and work together on common goals" - and that solidarity we need in abundance.

Stretch your view of your self, your work, and your responsibility; let Diane Barthel-Bouchier help you.

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