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Preservation and Modernity:
Competing Perspectives,
Contested Histories and the
Question of Authenticity
Mrinalini Rajagopalan
The coupling of the concepts of preservation
and modernity, as complementary rather than
contradictory phenomena has been a fundamental aspect of theories of architectural
preservation. Whilst the preservation of
monuments has a long history spanning back
many centuries, it was the particular pressures sparked by the Industrial Revolution
and modernization that generated philosophical inquiries into the meaning of the historic
monument as well as inspiring policies for its
preservation. Since its inauguration in the
modern era though, preservation theory has
responded to and indeed been shaped by
various forces. These include the colonial
encounter; the identity politics of nationalism; the commodification of heritage through
tourist practices; and the use of heritage as
a catalyst for urban redevelopment and
gentrification. The dialectic that shapes preservation discourse as essentially focused on
the objects of the past, but ineluctably shaped
by the concerns of the present is a central
theme of this chapter.
Two core concepts will frame the discussion of preservation as an institutional
process as well as epistemological debate in
this chapter. The first is the concept of
authenticity, which has operated as a foundational conception in theories of preservation
both historically and in the present. It received
considerable attention from philosophers and
historians in the late nineteenth century, as
industrialization was fundamentally changing the physical environments of the Western
and non-Western world, and architectural
monuments began to occupy a prominent
place in narratives of civilizational progress
and national identity. The etymology of the
word authenticity can be traced to the Greek
root ‘authentes’, meaning author, and the
earliest uses of the concept of authenticity
were linked to evaluating objects and artifacts as original and genuine as opposed
to counterfeits or reproductions (Benjamin
1969; Matero 2007). In addition, by the late
eighteenth century, the rise of capitalist economies and nationalisms around the world
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had led to the idea that modern societies were
those that were marked by the individual
rather than the collective. The radical rise of
individualism in the era of modernity was not
only marked by the ownership of property
and the freedom of choice, but also the laying
of claims to a particular set of ‘authentic’
histories and traditions that would differentiate modern individuals from premodern societies defined by kinship networks and
collective living. In the modern era, authenticity thus functioned as a marker of not just
objects but also of ‘modern individuals’ who
were able to position themselves within the
trajectory of civilizational progress rather
than as simply a member of a collective mass
(Berman 1970; Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983;
Handler 1988). From France’s efforts to
establish national policies to protect historic
monuments or the nostalgic lamentation for
traditional architecture in Britain to the
popular movement to save structures like
Mt. Vernon by deeming them ‘national monuments’ in North America, the mid- to late
nineteenth century was marked by a renewed
interest in the preservation of architectural
monuments as authentic documents of irretrievable pasts. As the historian Francois
Choay has argued, the ruptures caused by the
Industrial Revolution propelled scholars to
recalibrate the history of human creation as
two distinct phases: ‘a “before”, to which the
historic monument was relegated, and an
“after”, where modernity began’ (Choay
2001). Such teleological conceptualizations
of modernity were also, however, deeply
embedded within the structural violence of
colonialism, whereby the physical and cultural resources of the non-Western world
were appropriated and or redefined to serve
the ideology of colonization (Said 1979;
Fanon 1963). The trope of authenticity
was a recurrent theme in the narrative of
colonial domination as well, with the representation of certain indigenous architectural
styles and urban forms, as ‘vernacular’ or
‘premodern’ (Wright 1991; Çelik 1997); or
the classification of vastly different architectural objects from diverse contexts into
ethnic or linguistic rubrics such as Islamic,
Hindu, or Buddhist by colonial historiographers (Guha-Thakurta 2004; Abu-Lughod
1987). Indeed architectural preservation
worked alongside other technologies of the
nineteenth century such as photography and
the spectacle of World’s Fairs to represent the
cultural resources of the colonized world as
the primitive other to the modernizing
Western world (Morton 2000; Pelizzari
While authenticity formed the epistemological foundation for the theories of preservation, it was also the basis for several
conservation charters, policy documents, and
legislative tracts that marked the formalization of preservation initiatives in many parts
of the world. Therefore, the second concept
that guides this discussion of preservation
and modernity is the role that institutional
regulation has played in the selection,
classification, and management of monuments from the nineteenth century onwards.
Rather than force a false (and inaccurate)
separation between the theoretical debates
surrounding the historic monument and the
policies of architectural preservation, this
chapter is meant to highlight the connections
between them and emphasize that the theory
and practice of architectural preservation
have been and continue to be deeply
imbricated within one another. In other
words, it is impossible to understand the calls
for architectural preservation as championed
by Viollet-le-Duc in France or John Ruskin
in Britain, without understanding the parallel
emergence of museums and archives dedicated to conserving the partrimony of these
nations or the professionalization of archaeology as a discipline. The urgency to preserve historic monuments as ‘authentic’
documents of the past, was a product of
modernization rather than a reaction to it.
Moreover, in order to implement the values
of authenticity and historical accuracy so
that they could be commonly understood
by amateurs and experts alike, these abstractions had to be instrumentalized and managed via the bureaucracy of modernity
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such as institutions, charters, policy regulations, etc.
This chapter is arranged according to four
loose chronological sections that mark
significant shifts in preservation theory and
policy. Following from the origins of preservation theory as an elite Western European
discourse, the first section titled ‘Preservation
as a Discourse of Nation and Empire’
explores the global transmission and local
appropriations of preservation in various
contexts through the processes of colonialism and nationalism. The ideologies of
preservation that underwrote the narratives
for nascent nationalisms as well as the dominance of empire in various parts of the world
is the focus of this first section. The second
section, ‘Preservation in the Post-War
World’, looks at the internationalization
of preservation discourse following World
War II. Authenticity was the dominant theme
of policy initiatives espoused by institutions
such as UNESCO, ICOMOS, ICCROM, etc.
for the cataloging, salvaging, and stewardship
of monuments around the world. The significant shifts in historic preservation brought on
by the emergence of postmodernism as a
philosophical discourse and architectural
movement is the substance of the third
section titled, ‘Preservation and Postmodernism’. Here I address the greater
inclusion of various types of agents as well
as objects into the previously narrow canon
of preservation, due to the fragmentation
of linear notions of history; the co-option of
preservation to strengthen national and
ethnic identities; as well as the further commodification of heritage through the processes of tourism and themeing. The final
section of the chapter, ‘The Globalization of
Preservation’ focuses on the production and
management of architectural heritage as a
commodity in the cycles of global capitalism. Whilst this chapter argues that the
beginnings of modern preservation theory
have been inflected by global processes, such
as colonialism, since the nineteenth century,
this last section focuses on the increasing
collusion between preservation practices,
urban renewal, tourism, and gentrification in
late-twentieth-century constructions of place.
The simultaneous emergence of nationalist
consciousness and historic preservation in
the nineteenth century was neither coincidental nor unrelated. Eric Hobsbawm and
Terence Ranger have identified this historic
period with the ‘invention of traditions’
with new nations laying claim to unique
origin narratives that were dependent upon
long-enduring histories and attendant cultural symbols such as architecture, literature,
food, rituals, and costumes (Hobsbawm and
Ranger 1983). As Timothy Mitchell has
argued: ‘One of the odd things about the
arrival of the era of the modern nation-state
was that for a state to prove that it was
modern, it helped if it could also prove that it
was ancient’ (Mitchell 2002, 179).
The use of architectural preservation as a
scaffolding for representing the collective
past of a nation is perhaps nowhere more
evident than in nineteenth-century France,
particularly with Viollet-le-Duc’s techniques
of preservation, which were articulated less
as a means to conserve the physical form of
a historic monument but rather, to reveal the
universal principles of cultural progress that
had led to its creation. In France, industrialization was understood as the inevitable outcome of civilizational progress and the
historic monument was seen as a signifier of
the nation’s teleological development into
modernity (Jokilehto 1999). In other words,
the key role of preservation was to provide a
sturdy narrative of the history of national
development (Rabinow 1989). This view led
French preservationists such as Viollet-le-Duc
to follow a radical interventionism when it
came to restoring monuments to their original form and style – an ideology that would
shape the preservation movement in France
as well as its many colonies (Dupont 1966;
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Huxtable 1983). Pierre Nora has argued that
the consolidation of tangible sites of heritage
at this time went hand in hand with the creation of other historical institutions such as
archives and museums, whereby an older
model of experiential and spontaneous
memory was substituted with official sites
and documents of history (Nora 1989).
Nora’s concept of the modern institutionalization of memory as history was apparent in
the destruction of large parts of Parisian
fabric by prefect of the city Baron Haussman
on one hand, and on the other hand, the
protection of selected monuments by the
Historical Monuments Office, of which
Viollet-le-Duc was an active member
(Rabinow 1989).
Narratives of preservation as a nationalist
cause also emerged in various nineteenthcentury descriptions of heroic individuals
struggling to save their nation’s patrimony.
For example the history of preservation in the
United States has placed much emphasis on
the agency of individuals such as Ann Pamela
Cunningham in the rescue of Mt. Vernon and
John D. Rockefeller’s contribution to the
restoration of colonial Williamsburg, thereby
crediting them as visionaries who saved the
nation’s historic structures (Hosmer 1965).1
As Max Page and Randall Mason have
argued, the saving of Mt. Vernon has been
seized as the ur-moment of historic preservation in the United States, thus mythologizing
the characters as well as their motivations in
a larger narrative of national consciousness
(Page and Mason 2004). However, as Daniel
Bluestone reminds us, the prominent role of
women in nineteenth-century preservation in
the United States was motivated by their
‘stewardship of domestic and national morality and as part of their role in educating
children for citizenship’ (Bluestone 1999,
301).2 Indeed, it is important to understand the work of the Mt. Vernon Ladies
Association as not simply an act of historic
preservation but within the nineteenthcentury social context where upper-class
American women actively took on the role of
social and moral reformers. The urgency to
preserve Mt. Vernon cannot be separated
from the nineteenth-century anxieties over
increased immigration and the concomitant
desire to canonize the nation’s origins as
marked by elite-male privilege.
Similarly in the early twentieth century,
Germany historic preservation was given impetus by the concept of Heimat (or homeland),
which was embedded in the belief that historic
monuments, landscapes and cities had the ability to arouse national sentiment and belonging
in the nation’s citizens (Umbach and Hüppauf
2005; Koshar 1998). This concept of belonging was aggressively co-opted by the Third
Reich who used urban planning and architectural monumentality to represent myths of
racial purity and to justify the authority of the
Nazi regime, which often meant a radical reinscription of historical meaning.3 The architectural vocabulary of monumental classicism,
was favoured over historical eclecticism on the
grounds that the former represented racial
purity, socialism and anti-capitalist sentiment,
a representation of power that would also be
replicated by other fascist regimes, such as that
of Benito Mussolini in Italy (Koshar 1998;
Fuller 2007).
For the emergent nation-states around the
world in the nineteenth century, architectural
preservation served as a tectonic record of
their unique and glorious pasts. In doing so,
historic monuments underpinned hegemonic
national narratives that could not rely on
the fragmented and contested memories of
the various peoples that they claimed to represent. Indeed as Pierre Nora has remarked,
‘[modern memory] is, above all, archival.
It relies entirely on the materiality of the
trace, the immediacy of the recording, the
visibility of the image’ (Nora 1989, 13). It
was precisely in their canonization as historic
monuments that many buildings gained currency as authentic markers of the nation’s
past, thereby also linking authenticity to
modern institutions of authority, such as the
In addition to nationalism, theories of
preservation that acknowledge its role within
(rather than in opposition to) modernity have
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benefitted from the study of colonial
processes. Over the last two decades,
a wide range of scholars have argued that
industrialization and imperialism were concomitant projects that shaped preservation
discourse in the centres of Euro-American
domination as well as the colonies. Studies
of preservation in North Africa, Indochina,
India, etc. followed Edward Said’s conceptualization of orientalism and the European
imperialist construction of the non-West as
‘other’ (Said 1979). Post-Saidian theories
regarding preservation have marked a distinct shift from the assumption of cultural
geography and historical value as naturalized
categories of valuation to a broader understanding of the invention of cultures and
geographies through Eurocentric notions of
difference. Architectural preservation was
only one of many ways through which the
systems of difference, between colonizer and
colonized, were established and maintained.
Others included the display of history via
the spectacles of World’s Fairs and exhibitions; the display of physiognomic difference
between the races in museums; and the use of
literature and painting as systems of imperial
domination (Said 1993; Mitchell 1988;
Morton 2000; Bennett 2004).
One example of such strategies of othering,
as outlined in seminal studies by Timothy
Mitchell, was the representation of Cairo in
the World’s Fair of 1881 in Paris, as a dusty
and exotic panorama complete with Oriental
dancing girls and donkeys for transportation
(Mitchell 1991). Such ‘authentic’ representations of Cairo bore little resemblance to
the actual city which was rapidly modernizing at the time as per the vision of its ruler,
Khedive Ismail (Adham 2004). Despite these
indigenous attempts at modernization, the
colonial apparatus of historic preservation in
nineteenth-century Cairo (the Comité de
Conservation des Monuments de l’Art
Arabe), was committed to freezing the city’s
heritage so that it could comply with Victorian
perceptions of a ‘medieval, Islamic’ city in
contrast to Europe’s own historical past and
present – a process that Irene Bierman has
referred to as the ‘medievalization of Cairo’
(Bierman 2005). Colonialism thus had a
profound influence on the manner in which
non-Western ‘heritage’ was constructed
along orientalist lines in the West. Thus,
whilst authenticity was seized in Europe and
North America to denote national uniqueness
or as a claim to modernity; in the colonial
context, authenticity appeared as a spectacle
that marked the colonized as outside the
As it was with the ‘medievalization’ of
Cairo, the histories and geographies of many
other colonial cities were also subject to
aggressive edition and redaction. For example the formalization of historic preservation
in India began with the establishment of the
Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), by the
British colonial government in the late
nineteenth century to catalogue architecture
and antiquity in the subcontinent.4 Colonial
notions of India’s past were based on a crude,
evolutionary logic of history and the separation of ethnographic groups into distinct and
immutable categories. Thus ancient India
was defined as Hindu and Buddhist, followed
by a medieval period dominated by Islamic
rule, which in turn was superseded by the
colonial period of modernity. This notion of
history was translated into a scientific taxonomy through which India’s monuments
were classified into strict categories, that left
little room for interpretations of cultural
or aesthetic syncreticism (Metcalf 1989;
Asher and Metcalf 1994). The inequality of
power in the colonial context allowed the
colonizers to represent conjectural theories
of ethnic and racial difference as scientific
Modern technologies (photography and
museums) along with the rise in tourism
played a large role in the commodification of
colonial heritage as well as the construction
of national identities. For example, in
addition to the picturesque depictions of
‘ancient’ India on postcards, photographs,
and paintings that circulated widely in the
British empire; reproductions of architectural
details were exhibited in British museums as
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a means to illustrate Indian history (and
Britian’s place within it) to audiences in
the colonial metropole (Pelizzari 2003;
Breckenridge 1989). Heritage management
also played a large part in staging national
spectacles such as those organized by
Benito Mussolini in fascist Italy, where in an
effort to position himself as the modern successor of past Italian emperors, he recreated
tableaux of what he perceived as ‘traditional
Renaissance towns’ and ‘revived’ Renaissance
festivals all over the country (Lasansky
The development of preservation theory in
the late nineteenth and early twentieth
century must be understood as an important
thread within other epistemological constructions of m …
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