Discovering Authenticity

Getting to the heart of places that matter.

Category: Resource

Supporting Fuzzy Dates, Approximations, and Uncertainties in Arches

When working with heritage inventories, historic archives, and archaeological site records, dates are some of the most important pieces of information that we manage. However, we often deal with instances in which our temporal data are “fuzzy”—sometimes we only have precision down to a month, a year, maybe even a century—sometimes we only have approximations or are uncertain about the information we do have on hand.

Some dates are difficult to decipher. Photo: National Museum of American History, "American Enterprise" Exhibition (2015)

Some dates are difficult to decipher. Photo: National Museum of American History, “American Enterprise” Exhibition (2015)

Computer systems such as databases typically don’t like fuzzy dates—they assume a level of certainty and precision that historic data are hard-pressed to match. But given a blank form field, humans aren’t very good at entering fuzzy date information in a consistent manner. The US Library of Congress has recognized these challenges and has drafted an extension to the ISO 8601 date standard they call the Extended Date/Time Format (EDTF).

Arches, an open source heritage inventory system, developed by the Getty Conservation Institute and the World Monuments Fund, is the first of its kind (and its class) at providing a standards-based inventory system specifically designed from the ground up for built heritage resources.

While learning how Arches works and testing it out in house, we found that adding EDTF support to Arches date fields would possibly benefit users who need to manage a wider range of dates in their inventory system: dates such as “about 1800” or date ranges such as “1934 – present”.

And because Arches is an open source system, we were able to seize the opportunity to develop the feature and contribute it to the growing Arches community!

You can access our more detailed documentation and download the code at our Github. And we welcome further contributions and issue reports there!



What Heritage Managers Will Need to Know

The revolution in the development of digital tools for heritage practice is only a single aspect in a far wider transformation of the field. It’s essential for heritage managers to understand the nature of that transformation to recognize which tools are merely “gee whiz” gimmicks, which are quick fixes for longstanding dysfunctions, and which are the avatars of a new, 21st century approach to heritage management

PR for heritage managers

The British government has energetically marketed heritage as a part of the national “brand.” What role could or should heritage managers play in this new marketing strategy?

For just as in the realm of museum management, where the traditional skills of curatorship and collections management have been superseded by specialist skills in marketing, branding, public outreach, and fundraising, the heritage community is itself entering an era in which deep historical knowledge and skill in physical conservation, although essential, are simply no longer enough.

What are the challenges that heritage managers will have to address? The short answer is that they will have to tackle issues of economic, environmental, social, and cultural sustainability in a rapidly changing world. Gone are the days when heritage managers oversaw unchanging and neatly fenced islands of purified pastness. They must now conduct their work in the midst of a fast-moving, thoroughly commercialized, multicultural society.

Heritage as Part of the Global Present

Heritage managers will need new tools to successfully and sensitively integrate historic architecture and archaeological sites into the market economy. Reliance on generous funding and private philanthropy is a precarious but necessary survival in light of severely diminished public funding for culture and the rising expenses of conservation activities.

What is a heritage manager to do?

Earthquakes, tsunamis, and human destruction have brought about unprecedented destruction of heritage all over the world. How well are managers prepared for catastrophe? 2015 Nepal earthquake, NY Daily News

They will need new tools to enable ever greater risk preparedness and disaster recovery with the rising sea levels and ever greater weather volatility of global climate change and other catastrophic natural and man-made events.

New tools are needed to monitor the effects of intensifying urbanization, deindustrialization, and shifting real estate values. Urban planners and heritage professionals alike must cooperate in monitoring the social impact on heritage resources of historic districts and gentrification in the cities– and of depopulation and industrial agriculture in rural areas.

New tools will be needed to encourage intercultural communication at heritage sites, in light of the unprecedented scale of migration and diasporic populations. One interpretive size certainly cannot fit all.

Above all, heritage managers will need to understand the underlying conditions and character of heritage in the 21st century, in which cultural relevance and economic sustainability will be no less important than expert opinions about historical significance and physical authenticity.

Heritage “Process” not Heritage Site

Long ago archaeologists learned the importance of understanding “site formation processes,” a concept introduced by Michael Brian Schiffer to refer to the natural forces and human activities that continuously shaped the physical character of an archaeological site.

Formation processes have an analogue in heritage sites– not only or even primarily with regard to their physical conservation. The processes of discovery, commemoration, visitation, commercial exploitation, and local community engagement are all factors in the life of a site. Managers must learn to use social science methods to anticipate and plan for change.

Canute as manager

Legend has it that King Canute, ruler of Denmark, England, Norway and parts of Sweden, attempted to hold back the tide. Needless to say, he failed. From the blog “John R Childress . . . Rethinking”

The idea of “managing change” has come under criticism from some traditional heritage experts. Their contention is that historic preservationists must remain true to the ideal of preserving the inherent physical authenticity of sites no matter what counter-pressures there may be.

Yet 21st century heritage managers can never succeed in holding back the enormous forces of change, adaptation, and reinterpretation that characterize our globalized world. Heritage is part of the changing present and can be a creative force for widened cultural inclusion. Conservation is not a zero-sum game.

Managers: Neither Soldiers nor Showmen…

guidance for managers“The increasing involvement of society as a whole with heritage means that it is no longer, if indeed it ever was, the preserve of academics and antiquarians,” notes the 2013 UNESCO manual on Managing World Cultural Heritage.

“Nowadays, communities are increasingly involved in their heritage. Cultural properties have important social and economic functions and some continue to maintain strong links with communities with added tangible and intangible expressions of value” (p. 22).

The manual goes on to argue that there is currently a wide difference of opinion between those who believe that conservation of monuments is a self-evident and self-contained goal– and those who believe that heritage must be primarily seen as an effective engine of local economic development.

At present there are digital tools that serve both ends of the spectrum. Conservation can now rely on a range of monitoring, mapping, and remote imaging applications. Development (certainly in the realm of cultural tourism) is widely promoted by a range of interactive multimedia installations, immersive and 3D visualizations that promise every visitor an edu-taining experience.

Who will dominate the future? The emerging practices of heritage management will have to balance physical conservation with ever-greater public engagement. The Future generations of heritage managers will have to know (and apply!) an ever-widening range of economic, ecological, and sociological methodologies. They will have to be sensitive to the changeable nature of heritage– not only as a fragile collection of fossilized remnants of bygone ages or lucrative tourist attractions, but as the focus of evolving collective memory.

How they will do it and how will heritage itself be affected? A great deal will depend on the new digital tools that are emerging today.

Next Up:

Putting Your Finger on the Pulse of Constant Change

Interpretation and Heritage Inventories

Interpretation is a key to highlighting the importance of heritage inventories, and Arches is the most powerful, dynamic heritage inventory system on earth. It’s the perfect 21st-century tool for the management and technical monitoring of the conservation of historic sites.

Arches + Interpretation

Arches is an open source platform developed under the auspices of the Getty Conservation Institute and the World Monuments Fund. It has enormous potential for interpretation too.

It’s been effectively used to document looting and the destruction of ancient sites in the Middle East. In fact that’s where it began. But what about its interpretation potential to explain as well as document everyday heritage?

The Interpretation Behind the Inventory

What about community activities on Main Street? What about active public outreach? What about sites linked to unique intangible heritage? Arches can also be the world’s most powerful interpretive as well as inventory tool. It can be a dynamic platform for communicating with your donors and supporters about the important work you do.

Arches makes it possible to access the inventory from any device. It can hold images, sound files, and videos. But in this time of shrinking budgets and bitter competition for grants, successful applications to public funding sources, and the generosity of private donors may hinge on the quality and vividness of your interpretation. It has to have impact. It must be more than a sorted list of site reports and pins on the map.

In 21st century heritage, compelling interpretation is the key to sustainable conservation.

In 21st century heritage practice, compelling interpretation is the key to sustainable conservation.

The Medium is not the Message

The CIDOC-CRM that comes with Arches isn’t really suited for creative interpretation. It’s standards-based, it’s highly structured, and it relates more to the details of the architectural or archaeological history of a site. There is no question about its importance as a global information standard for cultural heritage professionals. But it is a technical tool that records conservation data– and its official designations– rather than its human and community meaning.

Vivid, compelling interpretation is absolutely crucial to 21st century heritage. We can show you some secrets. We can help you unlock the public power of Arches as a promotional and educational tool linked to your organization’s social media and other online platforms.

Let Arches be your storyteller as well as your inventory manager!

Contact us at Arches on Demand


Welcome to the Future of Heritage

The future as imagined circa 1951

We Must Prepare for the Future of Heritage! Captain Rocket Issue #1 Nov 1951 by P.L. Publishing Co.

It’s not a sci-fi dream of laser beams and self-monitoring monuments. It’s not yet-to-be-invented gee-whiz, ground penetrating imaging that makes excavation unnecessary—or fully multi-sensory time-travel through virtually reconstructed open worlds. The future of heritage will not be based exclusively on mechanical ingenuity, aesthetic authority, or the ability to halt physical decay. It will be based much more on building relationships between people, within groups, and between the individual and society.

Four years ago, Gustavo Araoz, Angela Labrador, and I established a partnership called Coherit Associates to coordinate a 14-nation Caribbean cultural heritage initiative for the Organization of American States. Both the name of the firm and the goal of the project were meant to signify that inheritance should be shared by many people and that heritage management might benefit in tangible ways by a public engagement paradigm. And in the course of a regional needs assessment survey in which hundreds of people from public, private, NGO, and academic sectors were contacted—and in the still ongoing implementation phase of the project, dealing with five priority areas that the survey identified (networking, legislation, inventories, tourism, and education)—we have experienced how certain elements of traditional heritage practice are not easily reconciled with the realities of a globalized and economically stratified world.

Regional meeting of Heritage stakeholders discussing the future of Caribbean Heritage Management, Bridgetown, Barbados, 2013

Heritage stakeholders discuss the future of Caribbean heritage management at a regional meeting in Bridgetown, Barbados, 2013

To be sure, the foundations of heritage practice will—and should—never be abandoned, but they do not address the serious socio-economic challenges of the 21st century that John Ruskin, Viollet le-Duc, or even the drafters of the 1964 Charter of Venice and the 1972 World Heritage Convention never had to face.  For ours is now a world where heritage sites have become targets for destruction; where less, not more, public funds are devoted to culture; where profit or at least economic sustainability is considered paramount values; where local communities, ethnic groups, and diasporic peoples are demanding rights to designate and control their own heritage places; and where heritage-themed urban revitalization projects often have far reaching impacts on local property values and residents’ quality of life.

The terrific mass tourism impact on the historic city of Venice, February 2009, illustrates the present and future strain on heritage resources as sites become anchors for tourism and urban revitalization. Photo: Alessandro Giumelli/World Monuments Fund

A sign of the future? The mass tourism impact on the historic city of Venice, February 2009. Photo: Alessandro Giumelli/World Monuments Fund

Though conservation science is steadily evolving to deal with the physical challenges of historic preservation, new tools are clearly needed to deal with the socio-economic concerns of 21st century society. Those tools are likely to be digital and they are already emerging—not as already-familiar 3-D reconstructions or multimedia attractions, but as powerful tools for planning, management, and public engagement.

The future of heritage isn't just gee-whiz tech...Visitors to the El Born Cultural Center. Barcelona, December 2015

The future of heritage isn’t just gee-whiz tech…Visitors to the El Born Cultural Center. Barcelona, December 2015

Introducing a new series about the future of heritage management

The series of blog posts that we’ll post in the coming weeks, “The Practical Guide to Next Generation Tools for Heritage Management,” is intended to describe and demystify the range of tools now available or just now emerging that may well revolutionize the scope and objectives of cultural heritage practice in the coming decades. New participants, new relationships, and new attitudes toward both past and future will supplement and likely transform long-debated issues of physical conservation, significance, and authenticity.

We’ll begin with the changing landscape of heritage activities and the need to see our challenge as managing, not stopping change. From there, we’ll explore the increasingly important issue of digitized heritage data—both that which has accumulated through decades of research and meticulous documentation and that we need to start to intensively collect. We’ll describe the tools and their benefits and offer insights into their weaknesses and strengths. We hope that our predictions and evaluations about “new generation” tools for cultural heritage management will be both eye-opening and useful to all who are concerned with cultural heritage as a medium of cultural identity.

So stay tuned!

7 Lessons from Brazil about Sustainable Heritage Tourism

posterFrom 29 September to October 10, Coherit Associates conducted a workshop in values-based, participatory heritage at the Center for Environmental Studies and Public Archaeology Lab at the University of Campinas in Brazil. The aim was to offer the rising generation of Brazilian heritage professionals with a set of tools to empower local and associated communities to promote and protect their tangible and intangible heritage.

Seven important insights emerged that may be valuable to destination managers and heritage professionals working elsewhere to develop sustainable heritage tourism:

1. Pay more attention to domestic tourism

Though many (most?) heritage initiatives are focused on attracting international tourists, the development of dynamic programming that can attract return visits from weekenders and day trippers from nearby cities or regions may offer a more sustainable visitor base.

2. Recognize that capacity-building must benefit every level of the workforce

If empowering local communities to protect and promote their heritage is the objective, career enhancement and job training for local employees is a necessary complement for specialized capacity-building for heritage professionals.

3. Accept that heritage may already be managed effectively without you

Some communities, religious orders, and traditional practitioners are sustainably and creatively managing their heritage as lived culture rather than tourist venues. In such cases, the inclination of heritage professionals to promote and manage a site as a “cultural destination” may ironically drive cultural tourists away.

4. Don’t try to combine cultural tourism with eco-tourism prematurely

Yes, there is an artificial partition between “nature” and “culture” in heritage management.  Yes, the value and significance of the two are inextricable.  But the marketing and management of each are often in competition for funding and visitors. Don’try to break down the wall between cultural and natural tourism until both sides can recognize a mutual benefit.

5. Don’t promise too much or too vaguely; failure can be fatal to heritage 

It may be common practice for consultants or other experts to promise how heritage protection and promotion will be good for everyone and will stimulate the local community.  Usually the promise-makers are long gone by the time the actual results come in.  Local communities must demand accountability. Clear, measurable indicators of project performance–agreed upon at the outset–foster realistic promises and build mutual trust.

6. Recognize that nostalgia differs between generations and from place to place

Heritage tourism has traditionally relied on a universal longing for the Good Old Days– however ancient or recent they may be. Yet every generation, every community sees the past through the lens of its own memories and lived experience, and it’s important for heritage planners and interpreters to understand and connect with that specificity.

7. Know the limits of development; sustainability rests on a knife’s edge

Heritage consultants and community leaders are well aware of the dangers of economic underperformance of heritage investments, but they often fail to recognize that unchecked economic growth in heritage tourism can have destructive effects as well.  Tourist booms are often fleeting and can transform a place of once-vibrant culture into a dehumanized theme park.  What will be left for generations yet to come?  In Brazil, as elsewhere, the contribution of heritage to sustainable development lies along the narrow path between economic failure and unlimited growth.

Heritage Authenticity: You’ll know it when you see it

Reams of official reports, mountains of monographs, and a babel of professional heritage jargon still have not succeeded in precisely and universally defining the essence of authenticity.  You can’t fault the heritage professionals for not trying:  The Venice Charter (1965) tried to outline the conservation practices that protect it; the Nara Document (1994) tried to globalize it; and the World Heritage Convention Operational Guidelines have established the procedural round hole into which every square heritage peg must be jammed.

An authenticity certificate - Wouldn't it just be easier this way?

Wouldn’t it just be easier this way?

But could there be another way for site and destination managers to think of heritage authenticity– not only as the accurate dating and description of a historical monument or artifact– but as a meaningful relationship between people and a place?

An average person may not be able to define “authentic” heritage concisely or clearly, but give them  a camera and tell them to document what heritage means to them, and they’ll be shooting pictures of their sense of authenticity in no time. Give them the freedom to express what places and things matter, and you’ll have a collection of images that speak more eloquently than a tall pile of policy guidelines.  Individually, they represent personal perspectives, but taken together they are the distinctive mosaic of meanings that give life to a cultural tourism destination or heritage place. 

Photography is a powerful – and handy – medium to use to empower visitors and community members to express their feelings about the meaning of their heritage.  And there are several powerful ways to use it.  Not with professional photographers or with expensive equipment, but with inexpensive digital cameras (or mobile phones) and carefully planned activities.

In coming posts we’ll talk about several specific tools and techniques for eliciting heritage values and inventorying significant heritage attributes in your community or destination using digital cameras.  They include Photographs as Memory PromptsPhotovoice, Digital Storytelling, and the use of Social Media as an evolving visual archive.

By using them, you’ll see how these tools can help you powerfully and memorably communicate the distinctive character of your heritage destination or site.

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