Academic journal article Change Over Time

CIVILIZATION-MAKING AND ITS DISCONTENTS: The Venice Charter and Heritage Policies in Contemporary China

Academic journal article Change Over Time

CIVILIZATION-MAKING AND ITS DISCONTENTS: The Venice Charter and Heritage Policies in Contemporary China

Article excerpt

Any examination of the impact of the 1964 International Charter for the Conservation and Preservation of Monuments and Sites (more commonly known as the Venice Charter) on cultural heritage preservation over the past five decades must begin with a key caveat: this accord was strictly aimed at the preservation of archaeological sites and monuments. This "dead stones" approach to preservation is certainly open to critique.1 But it is important to remember that the Venice Charter has been supplemented by more than forty additional international and regional conventions and accords on the nebulous topic of heritage. In the process, the meaning and scope of this concept has steadily expanded far beyond monumental and historical built space and archaeological sites to include parks, gardens, and urban industrial zones; natural landscapes such as mountains, rivers, and forests; human-impacted natural spaces that range from terraced rice fields in Bali and Nepal to the Trinity nuclear test site in New Mexico; and most recently, intangible cultural practices. Thus, in surveying the bewildering state of heritage today (is anything not potentially heritage?), both the significance of the Venice Charter and critiques aimed at this should be considered in the context of the time in which the charter was written.

First, given that it was drafted and approved at the Second International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments, the Venice Charter emphasizes both the conservation and restoration of monuments and sites. It is thus largely a technical document. Being so, the charter describes a set of principles for material conservation that it implies are universal-not surprising given the time in which it was written, which was arguably the height of the postwar Modernist movement in built space. Second, this was a profoundly progressive document, particularly in its insistence on the primacy of in situ principles (Articles 1 and 7),2 acceptance that preserved monuments should have a "socially useful purpose" (Article 5),3 and recognition that at monuments and sites with multiple temporal layers of built space, an original or first layer should not automatically be privileged (Article ll).4

However, the Venice Charter rests on a foundational value claim masquerading as a fact, one that, fifty years on, still resonates with preservationists: namely, that "people are becoming more and more conscious of the unity of human values and regard ancient monuments as a common heritage."5 This is an aspirational claim borrowed wholesale from the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights and applied to material culture. It is not that some people do not indeed accept this claim of a collection of heritage sites that belong to all the people of the world by dint of a shared humanity, or believe in "the unity of human values"; it is that those who do so are primarily privileged elites who identify as transnational citizens of the world and hence assume they are above (or beyond) the particularities of culture.6

If we accept that culture is the source of human values, and that not all such values are consistent with international rights accords, then it is not surprising that rights scholars and activists view some aspects of some cultures as the enemy of rights.7 However, to assume that one has transcended or overcome the parochialism of a culture does not place one "beyond culture." Instead, a belief in the universality and hence singularity of human values and rights is itself a culture.8 In the world at large, anthropological evidence demonstrates that most people do not identify with humanity but with specific humans ranging from family and friends to community, nation, and faith; do not feel at home "in the world" but in specific places in the world; and do not find the possession of a parochial set of values especially problematic. This is the reality of heritage, be it performative or material. Some degree of cultural particularism and hence exclusion is necessary for heritage sites and cultural practices to have an initial meaning that makes them legible, visible, and choose-able (or not). …

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