Culture, Identity, Heritage and Economics:
Creating a Sustainable Future for the Past
March 20, 1999 – Opening Remarks
Pamela W. Hawkes,
Chair of the Symposium Scientific Committee
I would like to begin by sharing some very personal observations on the topic of “Culture, Identity, Heritage and Economics” and outlining our goals and objectives for the symposium. Everyone attending this conference, reading the proceedings and practicing historic preservation comes to them through different paths and for different reasons. My own journey began in a 19th century farmhouse that my grandparents owned in Maine. It was a white clapboard house filled with spinning wheels and other antiques, where we huddled around wood stoves in the winter and ran through fragrant herb gardens in the summer.
My grandmother was a loyal member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Mayflower Society, and we spent many a summer afternoon paddling along riverbanks and pine forests, pretending that we were Pilgrims arriving in the New World. You can imagine my shock, thirty years later, to learn that groups like the D.A.R. had actually formed at the turn of the last century with an explicit agenda-that of maintaining the domination of Anglo Saxon culture. The period had been marked by enormous waves of immigrants from eastern Europe, people who were often illiterate, accustomed to repression and seen as vulnerable to the lure of anarchy. Middle and upper class Americans seized on Mount Vernon and the homes of other colonial patriots as powerful symbols of democracy, as physical textbooks for the uneducated and depicting a time when all citizens supported their country. Thus, in her way, it appears that my romantic grandmother was a right-wing reactionary.
I, on the other hand, have graduate training in historic preservation. I ascribe to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, to the Venice Charter and to a notion that preservation decisions should be based on physical facts and rational inquiry. Nevertheless, the longer that I practice, and the more I learn about other cultures, the more I have come to question how “rational” this approach may be. After having the chance to revisit decisions that I made 20 years ago, I’m aware that the reasons behind our choices are products of our times and our culture just as much as the romantic-and conservative-preservation efforts of my grandmother’s generation.
This really hit home for me two years ago, when I traveled to Russia and the Czech Republic with a dozen other preservation professionals from the U.S, the U.K and Australia. We began one day in a quiet sculpture garden near Moscow’s Gorky Park. Lying on the grass was a shattered granite statue of KGB-founder Felix Dzerzinsky, which had been pulled down by crowds during the heady days of perestroika in 1991. Visible across the river from the sculpture park, and from many other vantage points around the historic center of the city, were the towering construction cranes around the Church of Our Savior. The Church had been a classical revival design, originally constructed in the mid-19th century as a memorial to the victory over Napoleon. It was once the tallest building in the city, but in 1933, the church was demolished to make way for an even grander Palace of the Soviets. When the First Secretary of Moscow pushed the button for the demolition, he is said to have cried: “We will raise the hem of the skirts of Mother Russia!”
The Church of Our Savior was one of more than 400 buildings demolished between 1930 and the outbreak of World War II, when Stalin targeted palaces, churches and other symbols of the Czarist past. Representatives of the All-Russia Society for the Protection of Historic & Cultural Monuments, a popular private organization, and the State Department of Preservation of Historical Monuments, told us that the reconstruction of the Church of Our Savior was “essential to the spiritual reconstruction of the nation.” However, we were rather shocked to learn that the reconstruction is being carried out in modern materials and at a cost of $200 – 300 million-at a time when universities and preservation workshops are without light bulbs, staff paychecks and other basic necessities.
Our hosts’ evocation of “spiritual rebirth” reminded us of the force with which the Russian Orthodox Church has been re-instated as the guardian of the nation’s moral well-being-to the exclusion of other faiths. It also sounds frighteningly close to the propaganda of a group called Pamyat or “Memory,” a former faction of the All-Russia Society for the Protection of Historic & Cultural Monuments which blames Jewish Bolsheviks for the destruction of churches and historic buildings during the Communist era. And it is a reminder that, in this age of global culture, religious fundamentalism and ethnic conflict on all continents continue to escalate.
John Sell, who led our delegation, is president of England’s Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which was founded by John Ruskin. Sell suggested to our Russian hosts that “as professionals motivated by a passion about history, we must preserve our objectivity.” At the time, I was dazzled by his on-the-spot diplomacy. However, the more I have learned about Russian history and culture since that time, the more I wonder whether the Western emphasis on a conservative, rational approach to restoration-which started with Ruskin-is a construct of our own culture. From Peter the Great, who introduced Western technology to the Russian people virtually at gunpoint, to the travails of perestroika, the Russian people have weathered dramatic change and upheaval. For them, might not such bold gestures, such massive reconstructions, be an appropriate expression of heritage, assuming that it does not involve loss of significant fabric?
In our hearts, I suspect that all of us, like the Russians, do believe that there is a spiritual aspect to heritage conservation. Brown Morton introduced last year’s conference on “Questions of Interpretation” with a stirring quotation from Exodus, when God said to Moses “Take off your shoes, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” Each of knows our own piece of “holy ground,” whether it’s the house we first remember, the ballpark we visited with our father as a child or a battlefield where the Civil War came alive in our minds. We all believe in the power of buildings, landscapes and artifacts to help us understand past cultures, and through that understanding, to shape our own lives differently. And we believe that understanding other cultures can help us to live more peacefully together.
However, preservation is an act of faith in more ways than one. In an age of exit polls and focus groups, we have little concrete evidence that preservation actually makes a difference in people’s lives. Preservation costs money and, these days, unfortunately, faith alone is not enough to win support. From corporate board rooms to congressional hearing rooms, preservation groups, museums, dance troupes and orchestras are being asked to justify their existence in the face of tight resources and competition from stark and pressing humanitarian needs. The response has been to justify cultural expenditures as an investment, to document increased property values in historic districts or to calculate the revenues generated by heritage tourism, museums and performing arts organizations. In other words, to try to demonstrate what heritage and culture are worth in terms of their impact on the bottom line.
The justification for investing in the preservation of heritage becomes even more challenging in developing countries. What meaning can culture have for someone who lacks food, clean water, medicine and shelter? Recent programs developed by the World Bank and other governmental and non-governmental organizations attempt to establish culture and cultural heritage as a foundation for social and economic development, and you will hear more about these programs throughout the day.
Ironically, I found some of the most compelling links between heritage and revenue-generation in Cuba, one of the last strongholds of Communism and one of the most desperately struggling economies. In Havana, the 250 blocks that make up the Old City are a study in contrasts, with four-star hotels only blocks from crumbling cuidadelas, former mansions occupied by multiple families, with leaky roofs and substandard utilities. As Gustavo Araoz documented in a recent issue of the US ICOMOS newsletter, the Office of the Historian of the City has been given extraordinary power over development efforts in the Old City, which was named to the World Heritage List in 1982. Since the withdrawal of Soviet funding in the early 1990’s, there is no government funding available, but the City Historian now reaps a portion of the revenues from these ventures and uses them to fund more preservation projects. These have included hotels and restaurants aimed at tourists bearing hard currency, but also training programs in historic crafts and renewal of housing that benefit the local residents.
These and other cultural tourism programs speak eloquently to politicians and businesspeople. However, they also raise a number of questions, which were introduced at last year’s conference. Is heritage tourism a magic solution for funding conservation work? Or is it a new threat to authenticity? When I walked through one of the principal squares of Havana’s Old Town and came face to face with a storefront for Benneton, the ubiquitous Italian sportswear boutique, I began to wonder.
Having mentioned religion and money, I must bring up that third taboo, politics and power and its role in creating monuments. Stalin made a ceremony of demolishing the Church of Our Savior because it made such a clear point about Communist domination over the past. My grandmother’s generation chose to restore the homes of the founding fathers as a way of holding on to middle and upper class power in the U.S. Today, in the newly-formed Eastern European republics, preservation-like teaching native languages-is seen as a way of retrieving national identities which were repressed for generations by the Soviets. Here in the United States, the growth in economic and political power of Native American communities has resulted in attempts to recapture heritage expressed most eloquently in their efforts to repatriate sacred artifacts from museum collections.
These developments raise yet another set of questions. Is it really appropriate to use standards and philosophies developed in England, France, Italy, the U.S. and other Western countries as models for preservation in other cultures? Or does supplying funding with those strings attached imply a sort of cultural colonialism that is as overbearing as 18th and 19th century military interventions? How much of interpretation constitutes research facts, and how much is propaganda? How can international cooperation in heritage conservation be structured to acknowledge different viewpoints?
This conference seeks to illuminate and to answer some of these questions by acknowledging the role of religion, power and money in culture and preservation. In the process, we hope to explore ways of strengthening the links between heritage preservation, economic development and political support. The goal is to find ways of making preservation more readily sustainable, not just in developing countries but here at home.
We have, as you will see, organized the presentations into sessions which focus on three regions and cultures: the eastern Mediterranean and the Arab world; the Americas and the Iberian World; and Central and Eastern Europe. We recognize that large and important segments of the globe have been left out of the discussion, but felt that these provided rich opportunities for beginning a dialogue which I hope will that US ICOMOS and the other organizations here will continue in the future. We have asked the speakers to address a four basic questions:
What are the particular social, political and/or religious attitudes in your country or region regarding the preservation of heritage and culture?
How do these attitudes affect the institutions, funding or implementation of preservation work?
Have preservation projects provided economic benefits to their communities?
Have you found ways to engage local communities in preservation efforts? Has this led to continued funding and support? Has it changed the shape of the project?
I would like to close with several words of thanks. First, to the two co-sponsors of the conference, the National Park Service and our hosts, the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, part of the American Studies Program at George Washington University, and His Excellency the Ambassador of Spain. Second, to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, who generously, and at short notice, provided a grant to cover travel expenses for our foreign guests. Next, to Program Chair Steve Kelly and Gustavo Araoz, Ellen Delage, Svetlana Popovich and the US ICOMOS volunteers and board members, who’ve made this conference possible. And last, but hardly least, to our speakers, who have given so generously of their time and their thoughts in joining us today.