The timeliness of heritage
Ironically, heritage is often conceived of as timeless. World, European and national heritage are protected with the intention to provide benefits for future generations. That future is a future to continue forever; these future generations are all future generations we can imagine.
During the recent Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists, held 30 August – 3 September 2017 in Maastricht, Netherlands, one session was held on site at the Archaeological Park Xanten (APX) in neighbouring Germany. This publically owned park of 60 ha, opened in 1977 just outside the modern city of Xanten, features a museum of Roman archaeology and a number of reconstructions of Roman buildings but mostly it preserves the remains of an entire Roman city lying nearly undisturbed below the grass. As chief architect Peter Kienzle, who acted as our guide, made very clear, the management of the Park is in it for the long term. A small part of the city is still covered with modern houses which the Park intends to acquire in order to remove them, but there is no rush and they are happy to wait for decades, or as long as it takes, until the owners are interested in selling.
Across the entire park, the Roman remains are well protected underground and they are intended to remain there. The visitor facilities are really only a way of ensuring public support for this project to continue across generations and indeed indefinitely. At the end of his presentation, Deputy Director Norbert Zieling reflected: “I have got five years left to work here, then it is for the next generation to take over the watch.” This long time perspective, and the confidence with which it has been adopted and implemented at the APX, impressed us all.
Earlier during the conference we had heard from Sneška Quaedvlieg-Mihailović, the General Secretary of Europa Nostra, in her keynote lecture, about the organisation’s work and its various campaigns to protect “shared heritage treasures that are in danger” and thus to safeguard threatened cultural heritage for the future. Spear-headed by Placido Domingo, Europa Nostra is seeking media attention and lobbying tirelessly among politicians for the sake of heritage conservation, based on the conviction that the European “Cultural Heritage is on loan from future generations and good stewardship in the present is therefore the responsibility of everyone living in Europe”, as they state on their homepage.
Such high ambitions, as championed by the APX and Europa Nostra, are however increasingly difficult to realise in the heritage sector. Archives and museum collections used to be the most reliable tools of long-term conservation but in several of sessions of the conference in Maastricht it became plain that indefinitely maintaining exponentially growing storage facilities is not sustainable for the future. The Working Group for Archaeological Archives of the European Archaeology Council (EAC), for example, discussed in a session entitled “Making Choices” how to choose more selectively what to keep and indeed whether it is legally permissible to dispose of material.
Where are such discussions taking us in the heritage sector, we may wonder?
Archives and museum collections used to be the most reliable tools of long-term conservation but in several of sessions of the conference in Maastricht it became plain that indefinitely maintaining exponentially growing storage facilities is not sustainable for the future.
As so often when creativity is called for, we are well advised to look for inspiration to the world of art. Associated with the Maastricht conference was an art exhibition entitled “The Materiality of the Invisible” (30 August – 29 October 2017) held, among other places, at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht. Among the art works is the installation “Route Sédentaire” created in 2001 by Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan. After van Brummelen had spent three months dragging a plaster sculpture of Hermes from Amsterdam to the site of Lascaux in southern France, the sculpture was badly worn and in pieces. On display in Maastricht are some of the fragments and de Haan’s 16mm film about the journey. There is only one copy of the film and it is gradually disintegrating every time it is shown…
Eventually, we will be left with the remains of a sculpture and those of a film that have both lost most of their meanings and are slowly fading away into the dust of history. Should future generations be informed about the art work in some way, for the time when the film is illegible and the fragments are incomprehensible? Or is Route Sédentaire not rather prompting us to consider whether proper heritage management inevitably means to plan for decay and forgetting?
Route Sédentaire appears to provide us with a novel and perhaps particular timely vision of heritage futures. Just like radioactive waste, heritage is suggested to have half-lives, gradually decaying over time. Heritage, then, may not always be what reminds people of the past, but it is revealed as part of history itself.
Is decay the heritage future even the Archaeological Park Xanten and Europa Nostra eventually will have to accept? Will we eventually stop to remember the Roman and the European past and instead begin remembering this past when heritage was still about conservation and the way it used to be?
ALL IMAGES: Cornelius Holtorf