Sunday, May 2, 2010

How “Universal” is Cultural Heritage? How Do We Consume Art? -- Martinek

This week’s articles focus on where the allegiance of a conservator lies with respect to the heritage of cultural objects. The articles suggest that there are three main parties to be considered (the museum, the viewer/public, and the object itself), but focus mainly on two (the museum seems to be grouped with the object). In his article, “Historic Stewardship and the Amateur Tradition”, David Lowenthal highlights the “integrity of the object” and the need to preserve the true heritage of that object instead of endowing it with “some quasi-divine sanctity”.

STONEHENGE, an important but badly-managed heritage site

All of the articles emphasize the importance of making sources of significant heritage accessible to the public, which can’t be done if conservators are so worried about protecting the object that they build a wall between “academic” and “active” life (Lowenthal). All material is meant to disintegrate eventually over time, and while a conservator must consider the “sustainability” of an object it is important to “enable its use” for people now (Corruchaga). Do you agree? Should a conservator’s first priority be to the people or to the object and the museum which wishes to protect it? How can a museum attract people if it prefers the object’s physical preservation over the integrity of the experience people gain from interacting with it?

Elizabeth Pye points out how important and beneficial it is for people to be able to hold objects. There is an “element of exploration and discovery” that we can only find when we employ our hands, for “our facility with tools…mark us as human”. Where do human nature and emotion fit in? How important are they in preserving the integrity of heritage?

What happens when we are not only forbidden from touching the object, but from even seeing it, as in the case of many indigenous Australian sites? Andrew Thorn explores the idea of the conservator as “visitor”, an outsider who cannot possibly understand or fully appreciate the integrity of the piece that must be conserved because it is not allowed. Is it still possible for the object to maintain its integrity in this instance? How about with non-indigenous viewers? Is there a responsibility to them? Who decides and why?

Lowenthal states that “we may be more caring stewards of things” when we realize that they cannot last forever – maybe this holds true for things that we can never fully understa
nd as well.

indigenous drawings at KADAKU, an indigenous site that is working to satisfy cultural wishes and tourist curiousity

This may also be the case in instances where we can see the object, but it is not the original. Corruchaga and Monforte talk about how public understanding and appreciation grew for Altamira when the original site had to be closed down and people had to replicate their experience in the Neocave. Even though it is not the original, the replica is effective in maintaining the integrity of the site because it shows how fragile heritage is and helps people understand the changes over time that the cave went through over time – also while allowing the site to be preserved without disturbance as well.

Most of the articles seemed to suggest that a conservator’s allegiance lay first and foremost with the object, but is this always the case? As Balachandran pointed out, where there is no provenience or site information known, preserving an artifact may actually ruin its integrity. Can we say where a conservator’s allegiance should lie (with the museum, the object, or the public and their desire to experience the object…), or are there certain instances when one party may hold more weight than


  1. I agree with Lowenthal that learning to share cultural heritage leads to greater understanding between different people. At Uluru in Australia he notes that once signs were posted discouraging visitors from climbing the rocks most people listened and had a greater appreciation for the spiritual significance. I think that objects and sites should be able to be enjoyed by everyone, not just a small group of people who claim it as their own heritage. Thus, I believe that a conservator's primary duty is to preserve the object so that it can last for as long as possible and be seen by many people. We should try to inform people and make them appreciate the spiritual significance or fragility of an object or site, but they shouldn't be barred from seeing them. The new museum at Altamira is an interesting compromise, but I don't think that a "replica" has the same effect and gives the same experience as the original.

  2. I thought the replica cave of Altamira is a really great way to have people experience the cave while preserving the original. While at first I thought it was a little hokey, realizing that the model had the accuracy of one millimeter to the real cave and the paintings were done in the same kinds of pigments and techniques as the original was remarkable. Because copying these paintings does not try to sell them as original, and instead allows visitors to continue to visit and acknowledge the fragility of some of these sites, I agree with Max that it is a good compromise. Although I don’t think it transmits the same as an original, especially if it is noticeably fake, it does not deny visitors access of its aesthetics and an experience. I think touch is such an integral part of learning. While you can learn an infinite amount of knowledge from reading, viewing and hearing, that sense of touch makes things personal. Pye reminds us that touch is how we learn when we are young. Touch can give us more information especially about tools, and make space for other items to be stored in the museum. Museum storage is somewhat of an upsetting concept to me. I think some items which are stable enough and maybe have multiples should be available to touch under the right occasions and protocol.

  3. Novik: I also liked the idea of the 'neocave' employed in Altamira. Corruchaga and Monforte acknowledged the dangers of 'the tendency to attribute value exclusively to the originals and to reject copies and reproductions." The authors solved this issue by making sure that the reproductions were "of the highest quality and based on scientific research." This emphasis on accuracy when recreating sites or artifacts is vastly important so that the viewer is not fooled by false information. This idea of recreation also satisfies some of the issues that Thorn presents. "Spiritual places, regardless of the people who create them or need them for nourishment, have not been created as places of curiosity." We forget that these sites that we are all so eager to see may not be able to accommodate the large influxes of people. Although tourism is an important aspect of historical sites, it cannot be prioritized over the health of the site.

  4. Carambelas: Balancing the preservation of a site or object with the desire to continue the culture that produced it is very hard, as all the articles highlight in various ways. But a point made in the Corruchaga article concerned me a little. The authors note that our current use of sites and objects should never exhaust potential future studies. While this seems very noble, it puts a lot of faith—perhaps too much for myself—in the unknown. Yes, technologies are progressing with the hope of revealing information which is at the moment inaccessible to us. However, we don’t know how far out these advances are, or if they are even possible at all. Today we hold science on a pedestal, believing it can solve any problem and answer every question: but it cannot. This is definitely an underlying concern not drawn out in these articles, but one which we must consider in our discussion of conservation versus use.

  5. The “neocave” of Altimira is an unsurprising result of our times. I’m trying not to be cynical and old-fashioned, but its creation seems purely driven by the tourism industry. The authors state, “Heritage is a fragile, nonrenewable resource” (Corruchaga), but Pye, in her article “The Benefits of Access Through Handling Outweigh the Risks” argues that “we should accept that heritage is a constantly renewing resource.” Are viewers of the neocave able to connect with the reproduced cave paintings on the same emotional, mystical and spiritual level that they would experience on visiting the authentic Altimira? I tend to think that deep feeling of human connectedness across time is not possible within the replica no matter how high-quality and faithful the reproduction.

    An interesting contradiction in the field of art conservation reveals itself when comparing Balachandran’s experience treating an ancient Roman sword and the experience of the conservators working at Yuwengayay. Balachandran was compelled by the ethics of art conservation to research the item she was asked to conserve in spite of the interests of the owner, yet the conservators at Yuwengayay chose to pay respect to their indigenous clients by not asking questions about the meaning of the paintings they treated. I’d always thought that more research and knowledge was, without exception, a good thing in art conservation. The case of sacred art containing secret meanings may be an exception to this rule.

  6. Thorn makes a number of interesting points about the nature of spiritual places and the need to respect these places despite tourist desires. It is especially interesting to think of a museum as a place "to house...the dispossessed spiritual culture of other times." While this is certainly true to on one level, museums allow for the continuation of knowledge about different cultural and religious groups. I agree with Lowenthal that it is important to allow access to all people in order to ensure a long-lasting and widespread sense of responsibility to places that may appear to be of significance to one group. As Lowenthal says, "we need outsiders to help treasure and protect it and to show that it matters not exclusively to on group but to everybody." Cultural heritage adds to the collective history of mankind and society and it is therefore important to generate universal respect for cultural objects, and this must be done through public access. Thorn states this himself that "the appreciation of indigenous places requires much more than a digital video record."

  7. While I agree that preserving the object is one of a conservator's top priorities seen by Lowenthal's article and the example of building a replica of the Altirma cave, Elizabeth Pye emphasizes that in some cases it is necessary to give the experience of coming in contact with the art (in this case touching) to museum visitors. This is a difficult call but it depends on the piece and the conditions set in place which allows people to become more involved and interested in the work while also preserving it for the future. Adding in the religious component of the spirit of the place makes the situation even more complicated. This also rests on a case by case basis; however, in many instances, there should be some kind of collaborative effort between the indigenous people and the tourists that want to see the famous site. Like the Balachan article suggests, it is terrible to turn people away from these objects when instead they should be encouraged to pursue obtaining and learning about them in the right way.

  8. Is it possible to find Pye's article somewhere? I cannot find it online.

    It would be very helpful for my research.

    Thank you very much