Discovering Authenticity

Getting to the heart of places that matter.

Category: Viewpoint

Why Heritage Inventories Get No Respect

I have to admit that not too long ago I thought heritage inventories were about the most boring subject in the world. Long lists of of geographical coordinates…artifact drawings and state of conservation reports…highly technical terminology…close-up photos of stratigraphic layers, cracked foundations and water stains…

Rodney and Inventories

Rodney Dangerfield could have spoken on behalf of traditional heritage inventories. But things could change…

Coming from the field of public heritage interpretation, I’ve always preferred the sizzle to the steak. I’m not saying that the particular cut of steak—and its physical condition—are less important than the presentation. I’ve also always known that SOMEBODY had to do the listing and documentation. But the very concept of archaeological and architectural inventories summoned up visions of some patient and sometimes put-upon staff member tediously glueing field photos to printed inventory forms or squinting for hours at the rows of an excel spreadsheet or typing inventory data—item by item—into the fields of a conventional database.

That all changed a couple of years ago when my firm Coherit started to work on a regional cultural initiative for the Organization of American States. There was considerable uncertainty about the extent and even existence of heritage inventories among public sector respondents in many of the fourteen participating member states.

Now just imagine if a town, city, or region had no Registry of Deeds, no assessor’s database, no Registry of Vital Statistics. Taxes would go unpaid. People would disappear or never be acknowledged. Property would be claimed (and lost!) without legal means of recourse. No one would know—except by word of mouth—who, what, and where important things were kept. The rich and powerful could shape the landscape to their whims and the community as a whole would have no lasting collective memory.

When it comes to heritage inventories, that’s exactly the situation in some of the places we’ve worked in. I’ve grown to appreciate that inventories should not be the Rodney Dangerfield of heritage work. Yes, the storytellers may get the attention, and the preservation architects and restorers may keep individual sites and buildings from collapsing, but should a natural catastrophe or other disaster strike suddenly, inventories are the key to reconstruction. They may be the only thing standing between a community and the irreparable loss of its heritage.

Inventories are essential

Santa Ana Catholic church in Port-au-Prince, badly damaged by the January 2010 earthquake. Only a handful of Haitian sites were recorded in detail. The rest remain in ruins or have been bulldozed away. Photo: Radio Vaticana

Take My Inventory…Please

What are the problems? Why aren’t heritage inventories everywhere complete and kept current? The work is painstaking, time-consuming, and highly detailed. Most heritage organizations have to spend most of their time putting out fires and dealing with imminent threats. They have too little time to devote to long-range documentation. And besides that—with most of the traditional methods of record keeping—many of the individual entries are out-of-date and out of mind by the time a single round of inventorying is done.

attics or inventories

Does your heritage inventory look anything like this?

Add to that the problem of finding a certain range or type of entries: paper inventories kept in folders and file cabinets are often hard to search and impossible to visualize in their entirety. Often an inventory is kept in a combination of media—handwritten notes, printed forms, spreadsheets, scanned images, and GIS shape files—so research about sites over a large area and a particular timespan is a bit like rummaging through an attic filled with trunks and suitcases and cardboard boxes. Clouds of dust and frustration are likely results.

No wonder the keeping of detailed heritage inventories are seen as a chore that definitely needs to be worked on—next week, next month, next year…

From Closed Inventories to Open Invitations

In earlier posts, I have described the enormous potential of Arches, the web based, open-source inventory management system developed by the Getty Conservation Institute and the World Monuments Fund. Arches solves many of the most common headaches that heritage inventories cause: once installed and configured, Arches combines the mapping power of GIS with the nimble data relationships of of a graph database. Entries are easily made and edited with drop-down menus, and can be accessed simultaneously by multiple authorized users on any online device, from a widescreen desktop to an iPad or smartphone in the office, at home, or in the field.

This obviously makes the inventory accessible, flexible, and easily updatable. But there is more. At Coherit we have been working hard to develop new interpretive features to the front end of Arches, such as customized templates, user-friendly interpretive search glossaries, and integration with social media to involve the general public in contributing information and interacting with the inventory in new ways.

With these features a heritage inventory can do double duty: both as a secure, standards-based inventory for professional conservation monitoring and as a powerful interpretive tool that will offer heritage enthusiasts and the public at large a way to connect with the historical assets they share.

We’ll keep you updated on our work and the services we offer. And maybe someday soon, 21st century heritage inventories will finally get some respect.


Developers & Preservers: Best of Frenemies

What is the single biggest challenge facing the world of Cultural Heritage in the 21st century? It’s not looting or illicit traffic. It’s not terrorist dynamite.  The threat is far more pervasive. It’s the same challenge that every generation has faced since antiquity: the inevitability of change and the wide range of peoples’ attitudes about it.  Some want to become developers — to design, plan, build, and reshape an entirely new landscape. And others prefer preservation, finding comfort and security in navigating through life, surrounded by familiar monuments and landmarks.

Federico Zuccaro shows developers at work

Renaissance property developer as heritage maker: Federico Zuccaro (Italian, about 1541 – 1609)
Taddeo Decorating the Façade of the Palazzo Mattei. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The debate between the two competing visions has always been central in the history of heritage. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that developers and preservationists have had a love-hate relationship for centuries. No matter whether it was Renaissance architects reshaping their cities from the ruins of Roman colonnades and temples– or today’s heritage professionals promoting economic development through revitalized historic districts. The differences between those who seek to transform the landscape and those who seek to preserve it have always been a lot hazier than their heated rhetoric suggests.

Ken Barwick rails against the developers

Developers as enemy: Kent Barwick at the June 29, 1988 restaging of the picketing of Pennsylvania Station to protest Mayor Koch’s proposed changes to the landmarks law. Photo by Steven Tucker.

Of course there have been some terrible heritage losses due to the clear-cutting urban renewers of the 20th century and the drip-drip-drip landscape devastation of suburban sprawl and industrial decay. At the same time, it’s been argued that historic preservation regulations both damage property values and gentrify while deepening residential inequality. Yet as public culture budgets continue to shrink and historic preservation costs continue to soar, the preservers are becoming more involved in development projects and the developers are coming to recognize the economic value of “local character.”

The developer resident gentrification of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, 2004

Gentrification by resident-developers. Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, 2004

In fact, in the 21st century, the boundaries may almost completely disappear as the prudent yet economically sustainable management of the historic environment will become as central a concern to civic well being as natural environmentalism has become. And just as the collection of rare botanical specimens gradually gave way to an awareness of the complexity of ecosystems, the careful management of heritage landscapes will have to assume an ecological consciousness.

Developers’ Ethics: no longer an oxymoron?

Many politicians and community leaders now understand they must balance corporate promises of employment with the likely impact of increased pollution. Likewise, the demolition of traditional structures for strip malls, business parks, and McMansions is making everywhere look pretty much the same. Balance, not conflict, will be the foundations of smart policy and resilient communities as heritage– in its most inclusive meaning– becomes social glue rather than patriotic monuments or touristic curiosities. The global recognition that “Culture” is and must be one of the main pillars of sustainable development, offers an opportunity for developers and preservers to realize that they are both shaping the future that all of us will share.

developers of Armageddon?There’s no question that conflicts will continue to arise over what should be changed and what should be preserved. But the black-and-white differentiation between those who look to the future and those who protect cherished vistas will have to be abandoned. The post-World War II dream of constructing a thoroughly modern, secular society has now fragmented into what the sociologist Benjamin Barber has colorfully dubbed Jihad vs. McWorld.  In the 21st century, will Jihad succeed in eradicating modernity? Will McWorld divert us from ever thinking about the past? Neither is likely; a different path to the future will have to be found.

As defined in Oxford English Dictionary, a frenemy is a “person with whom one is friendly, despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry; a person who combines the characteristics of a friend and an enemy.” And so it will be in the coming decades with those who spend their careers planning, building, and managing the places that communities of the future will inhabit and those who devote their energies to insuring that community memories will not fade away.

But how will the future practice of heritage fundamentally alter this seeming binary opposition? This series is meant to explore the existing challenges, emerging opportunities, and new tools for heritage management even the best of frenemies can share.

Next up: What Site Managers Will Need to Know

Are Authenticity and Change Compatible?

I’m guessing that your immediate answer to that question would probably be no.  And you wouldn’t be alone.  To most people, authenticity and change are opposites, if not outright contradictions.

To cultural heritage experts, tour guides and destination marketers, and of course to historic site managers and museum curators, “authentic” usually means unchanged, original, exactly as conceived.  “Change” is therefore the primary threat to authenticity.

But is it really so?  Are we mistaking the authenticity of a material object or monument for the authenticity of human experience?

Take the example of the Parthenon and a busy street in Hong Kong, for example:


If there is a single iconic heritage monument that people agree is “authentic,” it’s the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis.  It has come to symbolize the aesthetic and philosophical foundations of Western Civilization and for the past few decades the Acropolis Restoration Service of the Greek Ministry of Culture has been entirely dedicated to conserving the material remains of the Parthenon (and all other structures on the Acropolis) from the effects of human activity and the forces of natural and environmental deterioration.  

One of the guiding principles of the Service– contained in the 1964 Charter of Venice, which is still widely considered conservation orthodoxy in the heritage field– is “Respect for the authentic material, retention of the structural autonomy of the architectural members and their original structural function.”

Now take a different example from the other side of the world.  The urban fabric of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong in China is in a process of continual change.  With the exception of 105 buildings (mostly restored official structures from the British colonial period), visitors and residents alike witness a city in continual transformation, with at least one conservation architect accusing the Hong Kong government of favoring development over heritage and being “incapable of safeguarding anything that makes Hong Kong special.

But are we mistaking authenticity for a material state, when it is equally a relationship between people and a place?


In the introduction to her fascinating new book, The Parthenon Enigma, Joan Breton Connelly emphasizes the dramatic changes that the Parthenon has experienced– and continues to experience today.

Ravaged by fire and rebuilt with extensive modifications to the rook and interior in the second century BC and the third century AD; transformed into an Orthodox church in the sixth century AD (with a baptistry, apse, and new entrance door created); to a Catholic Church by the holy warriors of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 (with a belltower erected); to a mosque by the Ottoman conquerors in 1458 (with the belltower reconstructed to a minaret).  Then came its use by the Turks as an ammunition depot during the Venetian siege of Athens in 1687)– resulting in a devastating explosion that nearly destroyed it when a Venetian cannonball scored a bullseye.

On through the centuries the changes continued, with a new mosque constructed in the ruins; the stripping of sculptures by Lord Elgin(1801-1812); more damage during the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832); energetic and often fanciful restorations throughout the rest of the nineteenth century; a new effort of the Acropolis Restoration Service to peel off any trace of of the “inauthentic” since its establishment in 1975; and finally in its interpretive integration in the flow of Greek history with the opening of the technologically cutting-edge Acropolis Museum in 2009.

The Parthenon’s authenticity has been evolving through each and every change.

Now look at Hong Kong.  Its authentic character remains.  Changing, morphing, combining cultures, and quickly snatching up promising business opportunities as the world around it evolved.  As the Hong Kong novelist Dung Kai-Cheung put it so well in the preface to his brilliant Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, “The miracle of Hong Kong is that it has always been evolving, incorporating elements of both Chinese and foreign cultures, accommodating influxes of immigrants from the mainland in different historical periods, and nevertheless maintaining a distinctive identity.”

So which is more authentic?  The surviving golden columns of the Parthenon or the bustling, busy, hustler-filled streets of Hong Kong?  The answer of course, is that they both are authentic.

Authenticity and change are not only compatible, they are inseparable.

So the challenge today for cultural heritage experts, tour guides, destination marketers, and historic site managers and museum curators may be to balance the experiential and the material aspects of authenticity– to enrich and deepen the interlocked perceptions that make their places and their cultural heritage significant and unique.


Whose Authenticity Is It?

Authenticity is the new secret sauce of the global consumer economy.  The quality of being authentic– direct from the source, unmediated, unprocessed, and emotionally significant– is increasingly regarded by marketers as the quality that attracts the most profitable and loyal consumers in every industry.

Tourism is no exception.  This week tourist destinations ranging from Italy to British Columbia to the Great Smoky Mountains were featured in press releases and news articles celebrating the value of their authenticity.  Dozens, if not hundreds more destinations and heritage sites all over the world have made the same claim.

But what exactly does authenticity mean?

Authenticity means different things to different people

James Gilmore and Joseph Pine followed up their bestseller The Experience Economy (1999) with a book on what makes it work.

James Gilmore and Joseph Pine followed up their bestseller The Experience Economy (1999) with a book on what makes it work.

Pine and Gilmore give five distinct genres of authenticity (natural, original, exceptional, referential, and influential); travel industry experts have listed many more.  They all seem to relate to the way that places and things are perceived by visitors at a destination. Thus destination marketers are on the hook for the consequences of visitor dissatisfaction if authenticity is not “properly” perceived; the stakes are high for authenticity marketing.

Authenticity is the cornerstone of cultural heritage expertise, and so one would think that the cultural heritage profession has a single, unambiguous definition.  But here too the nature of authenticity is far from clear.  In fact, there are at least three rival understandings of authenticity within the field:

  1. Some art historians, architects, curators, and archaeologists see authenticity as scientifically validated conclusions about the dating, style, and thus historical significance of a place or a thing.
  2. There are other cultural heritage experts, whose perspective is expressed in the 1994 Nara Document, who go a step beyond scientific validation to also recognize that every culture may have additional standards for authenticity, including design, materials, function, location, and tradition.
  3. And there are academic critics like Dean MacCannell and John Urry, who contend that authenticity is the object of a continuing quest rather than a static quality. It is the never-ending search for significant places and memorable experiences offering an escape from the everyday routines of work and personal life at home.

So how can a travel destination successfully promote its authenticity if there is such a wide range of opinions among cultural heritage experts on what authenticity is? Should marketers emphasize the material or historical aspects of authenticity at their destinations?  Should they focus on the immersiveness of local festivals and cultural rituals?  Or should they highlight self-enrichment as the reward for seeking authenticity at a destination?

Authenticity is everywhere

The fact is that all three of the emphases on authenticity– the empirical, the experiential, and the therapeutic– are valid and attract different types of visitors. Furthermore, these different modes of authenticity often reinforce one another.  If authenticity indeed exists in the eye, mind, and heart of the beholder, a whole new world of opportunities lies ahead for both destination marketers and cultural heritage experts to work together to convey a more holistic concept of authenticity.



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