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garden tales from a Brit abroad

Monuments and Memories

Is heritage about things or about people? Last Friday I attended a conference in London, organised by Europa Nostra and ICOMOS UK, which considered this question.

Monuments and memories 1

Called “Monuments and Memories,” the conference was partly about the 2003 UNESCO convention on the intangible cultural heritage – which I now understand aims to protect performing arts, traditional craftsmanship, languages and oral traditions, rituals and festive events, and other living practices important to certain groups and cultures. It’s very much about people, and not very much about things. The list of such intangible heritage that needs to be safeguarded by UNESCO includes the polyphonic singing of Aka pygmies and oxcart traditions in Costa Rica. It is easy to smile at practices which may seem quaint to conventional Western eyes. But no doubt they have great value to the people who practise them, and many are under threat from globalisation and intolerance. We heard a speaker from Museums Galleries Scotland who is managing a ground-breaking project to inventory all such living practices in Scotland, from Shetland knitting to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Monuments and Memories 2In a sometimes rather confusing way, the conference also looked at another form of intangible heritage. This time, speakers used the term to mean the values, memories and associations we give to the tangible heritage (that is, to buildings, landscapes, and archaeological artefacts). It’s about the relationship between things and people. This is an area that much interests me. I have written elsewhere in favour of chronicling people’s responses to landscapes, of capturing what places mean to us and why we value them.

A speaker from English Heritage (EH) argued that for 200 years we may have placed too much emphasis on objects, on preserving historic fabric and maintaining authenticity, when we really need to focus on character and memories and the totality of people’s views. He talked a little about a project that EH has just completed in Lincoln, trying to identify and record the character of the city, and inviting people to submit their views, comments and memories on line. We both agreed that it is hard to find ways of tapping into people’s values and responses, but that shouldn’t stop us continuing to try…

Another speaker talked about John Ruskin’s influential views on heritage, as expressed in his work The Lamp of Memory. He argued that what matters is not the thing itself (the heritage building or historic landscape) but its lifeblood, its metaphor and meaning to people – how we infuse things with our memories of the past and our hopes for the future.

It struck me, as I chose some images to illustrate this post, that I routinely take photographs of historic sites without people in them. I struggled to find any images that show the human delight in heritage which is often the subject of my writing. It makes me wonder whether subconsciously I believe that such places are more attractive, or more authentic, when denuded of visitors…

Monuments and memories 3

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3 comments on “Monuments and Memories

  1. Pingback: Parc de La Villette « Landscape Lover's Blog

  2. Adam
    November 30, 2010

    Vast subject! The first thing that springs to mind though are the Communist era statues that were pulled down at the same time as the iron curtain, only to later become popular attractions in out of town scrapyards.

    I guess that many ‘landmarks’ and objects today are also traces of events that no longer have any meaning to people at all. To that end, they become either interesting as visual pieces in a certain location, or useful as markers where people can meet and congregate.

    What is interesting in that respect though is almost every time anybody tries to build a new heritage site or marker they are initially almost universally ridiculed and rejected. It’s almost as if the object has to be devoid of meaning to make it accepted.

    • landscapelover
      November 30, 2010

      Your point about the Communist statues reminds me of places like Gasworks Park in Seattle and the Landschaftspark in Duisburg-Nord, where former industrial sites have been incorporated into new public parks, as a way of keeping recent history alive, rather than banishing it as something ugly or better forgotten. Similarly I read somewhere recently that many of the mining communities in the north of England (destroyed under Thatcher) now bitterly regret allowing all the physical signs of the coal pits being removed. But there is a question over how long local residents would want to be reminded of a past that would increasingly have no resonance for them.
      Some new sites have immediate significance – think of the Vietnam memorial in DC (the design of which was of course extremely controversial). Maya Lin has said she designed it specifically to get people to cry when they visited. She has no doubt succeeded. But will it still provoke the same levels of emotion in say 50 years, when the family and friends of the war’s fallen soldiers will themselves have passed on?
      There’s a fascinating article in (I think) the Figaro magazine this week, about trees as memorials – living things that happen to be present at important events and so become symbols or memorials. Anne Frank’s horse chestnut tree is one of the best-known examples, but the article suggests several others, some of which commemorate events many hundreds of years ago.
      As you say, a vast subject!

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