Review of Curated Decay: Heritage beyond Saving | Leonardo

Review of Curated Decay: Heritage beyond Saving

Curated Decay: Heritage beyond Saving
by Caitlin DeSilvey

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017

240 pp., illus. 8 b/w. Trade, $108.00; paper, $27.00

ISBN: 9780816694365; ISBN: 9780816694389

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
May 2017

Poetry plays an important role in this book on post-preservationist, post-humanist heritage, and while reading it, I could not stop thinking of this stanza of Rilke’s 8th Duino Elegy:

And we: always and everywhere spectators,
turned toward the stuff of our lives, and never outward.
It all spills over us. We put it to order.
It falls apart. We order it again
and fall apart ourselves.” (Translated by Joanna Macy & Anita Barrows)

The fragment (and it is important that it is a fragment, not a complete poem) poignantly summarizes the very failure of the preservationist and humanist paradigm: the impossibility to give a lasting form to what is going away as well as man’s refusal to accept the vanishing of “the stuff of our lives”. DeSilvey’s starting point in this important book is the growing awareness of the limits—she does not say failure, for the tone of the book is not polemical at all—of the traditional humanist preservationist ideal still dominant in Euro-American heritage policy and, more generally, in the Western relationship toward the past. On the one hand, it becomes clear that preservation is becoming more and more difficult, from a material as well as financial point of view: There are simply too many buildings and built environments to be protected, restored, and managed (and their number is increasing day after day), and the costs of this operation are so high that it becomes inevitable to make choices—painful choices, since in the humanist preservationist paradigm the loss of a thing, be it an object or a building, is experienced as the loss of one’s own identity. On the other hand, preservation heritage clashes with other priorities, no less important, even from a classic humanist point of view, than that of the material maintenance of manmade things: wildlife, plants, animals, biodiversity, for instance. Finally, it also appears that preservation does not necessarily produce or enhance what is the essential motivation of heritage, namely the establishment of a deep relationship with the past (or rather with time, for the perception of the past cannot be separated from an anticipated connection with the future).

Curated Decay makes a plea for a different take on heritage. This take is post-humanist because it looks for a new balance between the needs of man and those of nonhuman beings (plants, animals, buildings, environments), putting thus an end on human exceptionalism. It is also post-preservationist since it tries to make room for the creation of new relationships with the past through the (curated) use of decay, that is of vanishing and death, addressing things no longer just as “things”, capable of being kept outside the cycle of life and death, but as “processes”, that is as beings and structures having, just like human beings, their own life and death. Heritage beyond saving, to quote the book’s subtitle, is then the search for a new form of heritage that does not reject preservation but that tries to broaden and deepen it, first by proposing forms of curating heritage that stop seeing integral material maintenance as an absolute ideal; second by stressing the productive values of decay, which may prove much stronger instruments to give meaning and value to the past than the classic preservationist paradigm. In that regard, the positive reinterpretation of decay and entropy, the two principal notions defining what the classic paradigm wants to fight at all cost, does not come as a surprise. In the experimental heritage policy defended by DeSilvey, decay and entropy are not synonymous of destruction and loss, they open instead the possibility of seeing loss and destruction as the beginning of something new, not only in the material sense of the word but also in the cultural sense of the word, provided people manage to develop new ways of living the permanent change of things in relationship with their own transience and mortality (non-Western cultures, which often have a different approach of change and impermanence, may provide useful examples in this regard).

DeSilvey does not make her claim via a theoretical discourse. Although she smartly uses all relevant literature in her book, she does so in a very practice-based, hands-on and personal way of writing, which manages in seamlessly bringing together major insights from human geography and cultural heritage (Ingold and Lowenthal are frequently quoted, next to many others), personal research reports (the author has been doing field work in several American and British heritage locations, in very different archaeological and institutional contexts), personal reflections and testimonies (I already mentioned the repeated use of poetic fragments, brilliantly woven into the fabric of the text, and I would like to stress also the sober but crucial contributions of  personal life-writing). Chief in this book are eight case studies, all of them devoted to a specific kind of endangered site (deserted homesteads, abandoned industrial plants, harbours imperilled by sea storms and climate change, empty Cold War test sites) and discussing specific aspects and dimensions of experimental heritage work. DeSilvey’s approach is always very cautious and extremely polite to the point of view of traditional preservationists, whose position and priorities are approached with great carefulness and understanding and above all with a strong concern for what underlies the desires and sensibilities of all those having to do with heritage: the idea and practice of care as well as the need to find an ethics of heritage that emphasizes the connectedness of all things, human and nonhuman, living and no longer or not yet living.

Although the aim of the book is not to propose a new institutional policy, it is impossible to think that DeSilvey’s argumentation, which is increasingly present in heritage studies, will remain without impact on the political agenda. At the same time, it should encourage those working in the field of immaterial heritage to start asking similar questions, and in this sense a book like Curated Decay is an essential contribution to a debate that we can no longer avoid.