In her 2017 book Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving ‘(University of Minnesota Press)’, Professor Caitlin DeSilvey argues for a new approach to heritage conservation. Find out how her argument may have a strong influence in a post-COVID world…
In the wake of a global pandemic and recession, how will we preserve and maintain our country’s heritage? Caitlin DeSilvey may have an answer. In her book, Curated Decay, she proposes that we need to embrace nature in some cases, and allow it to take its course. Some may argue that rather than spending thousands of pounds on heritage upkeep in a time when money is scarce and climate change is inevitable, it may be appropriate to manage the decay of certain sites instead of preserving them. On the surface, Professor DeSilvey’s approach presents an attractive option in a time of recession.
However, Curated Decay and its argument goes much deeper than this. The book is not just concerned with managing the decay of our heritage, but with the ethics behind allowing this transformation to happen. In a conversation with Professor DeSilvey which I was lucky to have, she stressed that the material ‘letting go’ element of the book is often over-emphasised. Embracing the approach in Curated Decay, DeSilvey mentioned, does not mean freely abandoning our material heritage to save costs. In fact, significant investment is required, both in money and in time, if we are to allow heritage assets to transform gradually while carrying out ongoing monitoring and interpretation of the process. We should be cautious, then, in how firmly we stress the decay of heritage as a material approach alone.
What is worth much more weight, particularly in a world altered by COVID-19, is the debate surrounding our attachment to heritage and the ethics behind loss. In a podcast conversation between Professor DeSilvey and Dr Peter Ekman of Berkeley University, they specifically discuss the third chapter of Curated Decay, which is devoted to managing heritage at Mullion Harbour in Cornwall. DeSilvey noted how the chapter was an internal ‘argument with herself’, trying to understand how the harbour’s history could be used to support both its preservation and its natural decay. According to DeSilvey, Mullion Harbour revealed the tensions and difficulties in facing up to loss and change within heritage. In this regard, this tension is relevant now more than ever. In a world where the prospect of economic, personal, and cultural loss is becoming increasingly common, it is time to evaluate the attachments we hold to our heritage as well.
Loss is never a comfortable subject according to Tanya Venture, who is currently working on her PhD with Professor DeSilvey, Dr Bryony Onciul and Dr Hannah Fluck at Historic England. In a recent blog post, Venture stresses the devastating impact COVID-19 will have on British heritage. We should accept this loss and transformation, she argues, so we can change our relationships with heritage. Tanya Venture provides a crucial argument for rethinking heritage management in our current times.
Perhaps, though, we are already changing these relationships on a large scale. As we see statues of slave traders and colonialists being toppled, Britons are being forced to re-evaluate their relationship with their history, land, and heritage by extension. Added to the discussion about allowing material transformation in the wake of a recession is the evaluation of what heritage represents to us. Curated Decay’s prescient argument about allowing for this loss must be considered now more than ever as our public actively engages in a discussion about the fate of its heritage.
By Frank Allen