Frank Matero, Professor of Architecture and Historic Preservation, Director, The Architectural Conservation Laboratory, School of Design, University of Pennsylvania
With a response by Norman Weiss.
Conservation is a practice in critical need of revisited theory, a field desperately in want of respectability, to be viewed as ‘creative’ as the works it seeks to preserve. The former demands an intellectual platform capable of sustaining robust and challenging questions as to its means, methods and goals; the latter must address its longstanding association as legacy ‘care-taker’ and recognition of its contributions in sustaining, revealing, and redefining existing cultural works through tangible interpretation. As a teacher and practitioner for over 37 years, I continue to ask what conservators do and why they do it, especially as the vast stock of heritage buildings and places continue to gain cultural, social, and economic value in contemporary society.
Contemporary conservation claims a number of texts critical to its theoretical foundations. Common to all is the material value of the original object, building, monument and site. Even traditions that privilege the intangible aspects of heritage over their tangible manifestations, all engage in some way with the materials and materiality of heritage. Authenticity, one of the most elusive yet significant of qualities associated with the definition of heritage, is often situated in the existing fabric and its direct association as witness to people and events past, or the embodiment of knowledge (aesthetic, craft, etc.) and beliefs that contribute to the cultural significance of the thing or place. Values ultimately determine what gets preserved and how, but it is the latter that is often disconnected from the larger social and cultural questions of what and why. Various explanations have been offered for this disconnect ranging from the inherent differences in the objectives and methodologies of science and the humanities to the dominance of one epistemology over another depending on the time and place or even type of heritage
Critics arguing for a more socially based definition of conservation blame a recent preoccupation with science and technology and the domination of the tangible over the intangible in the treatment of cultural resources. The fundamental objective of conservation is the protection of cultural property from damage and loss. As such it is primarily concerned with the physical well-being of cultural works. Such definitions clearly state the focus of conservation as material-based and its methods derived from scientific empiricism. Less discussed is the relationship of the materiality of heritage to its larger set of values.
The current work addresses how technical conservation has both informed and been informed by social and cultural contexts. To dichotomize built heritage as possessing discrete tangible and intangible values may be useful in analyzing the range and complexity of meanings over time, including the present; however the risks and threats facing many structures and places today also requires a more nuanced as well as demonstrative understanding of the relationship between the tangible and the intangible. As cultural heritage specialists who are directly responsible for decisions related to physical intervention, both remedial and preventive, conservators must have a broad and deep understanding of all the values of cultural property. Technical interventions must not only respond to the physical realities of the form and fabric but also acknowledge and consider the effect those interventions will have on the continued life of the object or place. This may be less critical for cultural property divorced from its social and cultural context whether as curated objects in a museum collection or a historical house museum transitioned out of its everyday existence. As art historian Paul Philippot has noted, the technological study and critical definition of cultural property constitute only the point of departure for conservation. The conservator’s decisions ultimately determine the physical appearance of the monument—he/she is forced to concretize a critical judgment. If conservation is to be one of those rare domains within which humanist culture and technology can merge, it is clear that it will not be able to develop except to the extent that the range of its cultural functions is understood by its practitioners as well as society.
Frank G. Matero is Professor of Architecture and former Chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Director and founder of the Architectural Conservation Laboratory and a member of the Graduate Group in the Department of Art History and Research Associate of the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He was previously on faculty at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation of Columbia University from 1981-1990 and Director of its Center for Preservation Research. He has been lecturer at the International Center for the Study of Preservation and the Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in Rome, as well as visiting lecturer at the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico. He received his graduate education in architecture and preservation at Columbia University and in fine arts conservation at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. He is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and former Co-chair of the Research and Technical Studies Group and on editorial boards of The Getty Conservation Institute and the Journal of Architectural Conservation. He is founder and editor-in-chief of Change Over Time, a new international journal on conservation and the built environment published by Penn Press.