ICOMOS University Forum Workshop on Authenticity and Reconstructions (13-15 March 2017)

Post Workshop Summary by Tim Winter

The wholesale destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria in recent years has put the question of reconstruction back at the forefront of conservation debates. The 3D reconstruction of the Palmyra arch in New York and London further complicate the issue of authenticity, as the new digital economies of heritage conservation promise to upend debates about attachments to place and material worlds, and how different temporalities are imagined and reconstructed. It was these three themes – reconstruction, authenticity and managing futures – that provided the focus for a three-day symposium held in Paris, in March 2017.

The event was an experiment in dialogue, one that was deliberately designed to be provocative across disciplines and across professional boundaries. It was organised by ICOMOS International, under the umbrella of their new University Forum, with sponsorship from Kyushu University, Japan. The University Forum has been established by ICOMOS with the intention of building dialogues between professional experts and those in academia in ways that allow familiar issues and themes to be interrogated from a wide range of geographical and disciplinary experiences. This inaugural Forum event did just that. With the 40 or so contributors divided into three thematic groups, debates were energised by opinions that were offered and challenged, defended and refuted across the days.

For me, this process served as an important reminder of the instability of key concepts, how people in different fields use and understand terms in divergent ways, and how the field of conservation is changing in response to the ongoing democratisation of heritage as a domain of governance. Heritage management as a community driven process was repeatedly put on the table. But what value does that term, community, hold at a time of historically unprecedented levels of transnational migration? And what does authenticity mean in the context of reconstruction? Indeed, it became clear that the latter term, reconstruction also meant very different things to different people. Depending on your work it speaks of rebuilding and reviving buildings, urban environments, livelihoods, countries or dignities.

ICOMOS Reconstruction Workshop March 2017 Group Photo.jpeg

As with many events like this, it became clear somewhat late in the day that such divergences existed across the table. Where that left us was less clear. The symposium revealed the very different epistemologies and discourses of heritage that now feed into the field, and it is not clear to me how these will be reconciled over the coming years.  Clearly the social turn in heritage and conservation in recent times is transforming the field insignificant and productive ways.

Cultural heritage is now deeply entwined in the planning and management of cities, and the ways in which local communities build a sense of identity in response to the forces of capitalism and abusive state power. It has also become an important vector in discourses of sustainability, human rights and resilience, which now commonly underpin today’s structures of international cooperation and multilateral governance.  This greatly complicates the question of what constitutes reconstruction from the perspective of heritage conservation, and, by implication, what are the expectations and capacities of culture heritage in situations where reconstruction is the primary agenda.

The symposium did not resolve such questions. But then it would be naïve to think it could within three days of roundtables and discussions.  The important thing then is that it broke new ground by fostering dialogues between architects, planners, anthropologists, psychologists, historians, and others.  It put conventional ideas and assumptions under the spotlight, and provided a valuable space for opinions and ideas, which lie at the margins of mainstream discussions about conservation, to be heard and respectfully listened to. Equally importantly, the workshop organisers worked hard to create a diverse mix of people with age, gender and country of origin all considered in the invitation process. Notably, the workshop featured several early-mid career scholars and professionals. This is particularly important for an organisation such as ICOMOS, which needs to consider its future heterogeneous capacities for addressing different issues and regions.

If the University Forum concept can continue along such paths it can make a significant contribution to understanding and making sense of where heritage and conservation are heading in the 21st-century.  We are now on the cusp of another revolution, whereby the digital economy of heritage is going to profoundly alter the possibilities for reconstructing material worlds from the past, both physically and through virtual environments.

This digital economy will alter how we engage with physical places, and create altogether new ways of mediating the human-nonhuman chains of value that lie at the heart of just about any definition of cultural heritage.  It will afford new possibilities for reconnecting and reconstructing.  But it will also require new ways of thinking about authenticity, provenance and rights to ownership.

Clearly then, the questions surrounding reconstruction bear heavily upon the future of heritage and conservation. Myriad complicated issues converge upon these singular terms. As the symposium noted, authenticity as a word is overburdened with semantic ambiguity and expectation. How then do we move forward, enabling pluralism and at once retaining effective decision-making and affirmative action in socially complex situations? This symposium made productive and valuable steps in tackling such issues. It opened doors and laid foundations. It will be interesting to follow how the University Form builds on this model in the future, and shapes the dialogue of its own parent organisation and the field more broadly.

Tim Winter, March 2017