Two areas of inquiry have been included in the Agora—the new GCI initiative that is exploring philosophical and societal issues regarding the conservation of cultural heritage. Through interdisciplinary meetings and exchanges, the Agora will study and debate the values and benefits of cultural heritage and its conservation, as well as examine their economics.
The values-and-benefits inquiry will last approximately two years and conclude with a large conference in the year 2000. Individuals from various professions and cultural backgrounds will participate in Agora symposia and research activities that will synthesize present thought regarding the values and benefits of cultural heritage and consider ways to increase understanding of the benefits that the conservation of cultural heritage brings to society.
The inquiry was launched with a meeting in Los Angeles and Riverside, California, on January 14 through 16, 1998. The meeting was attended by a multinational group of professionals and academics, some from the conservation and cultural heritage fields, others from associated disciplines. Participants examined the multiple definitions, roles, and meanings of cultural heritage.
Intertwined in the discussion of cultural heritage as a concept were the various perceptions of values and benefits. It was argued that the different benefits of heritage conservation flow out of the correspondingly different ways to value heritage. Derived benefits often influence perceptions of value and thus of meaning, making the separation of these notions difficult. It was maintained, though, that despite the many ways of valuing cultural heritage, access to culture and heritage contributes to human well-being. There seems to be a universal quality to the notion of heritage that transcends relativistic interpretation but that is equally bound up in the specifics of time and place.
In looking at culture as an ever-changing process—and at cultural heritage as both a product of that process and as a binding force within it—the group tried to identify some of the factors that influence this dichotomy. Continuity and change, participation, power, and ownership are all bound up in the ways in which cultures are created and progress. It was noted that the construction of heritage is largely derived from the way people remember, organize, and think about material culture, which in the end symbolizes the organization of their relationships and emotions. The stories invested in objects, buildings, and landscapes constitute an arena in which the valuing (appreciating existing value) and valorizing (giving added value) of cultural heritage play out.
The bulk of the meeting's discussions focused on the question "How do we shape cultural heritage?" The dialogue often returned to the notion of process—the process of constructing culture, of valuing or valorizing heritage, of negotiating its conservation—and the role of human agency within these processes.
There were long discussions on how our engagements with history and with heritage derive certain benefits that inform these processes. Tangible benefits, such as economic development, were easily discernible. Other benefits—such as cultural confidence and an increase in social peace—were not as easily characterized. To answer the question of why cultural heritage is important, the group speculated that, at present, it is largely an act of faith to believe that access to heritage makes people happier and allows people to live life to the fullest. A greater understanding of the role of cultural heritage in society and of its effects on the cultural process is needed. Likewise, the group recognized the need to look at the processes by which culture is constructed and heritage valorized—such as through studies of the psychology of the individual and of how ethnic groups operate.
The group concluded that case studies are critical; in many areas of the field, not enough systematic comparative analyses have been based on case studies. To create and catalogue case studies would allow us to learn more about the strategies of the past. As consistent, successful strategies emerged, those seeking to negotiate among individuals, groups, institutions, and government would have a powerful tool in the global discourse on cultural heritage.
Following the meeting, the participants are continuing their discussions via the Internet. These ongoing exchanges will help determine other areas of research and investigation that will shape this Agora inquiry over the next two years.
Agora Meeting Participants: Suad Amiry, Director, RIWAQ: Centre for Architectural Conservation, West Bank, Palestine; Lourdes Arizpe, Assistant Director-General for Culture, Unesco, France; Erica Avrami, Project Manager, The Agora, The Getty Conservation Institute, U.S.A.; Daniel Bluestone, Associate Professor and Director, Historic Preservation Program, The School of Architecture, University of Virginia, U.S.A.; Erik Cohen, Professor, Department of Sociology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel; Miguel Angel Corzo, Director, The Getty Conservation Institute, U.S.A.; Hugues de Varine, Directeur, Asdic: conseils et services pour le développement communautaire, Cour des Entreprises, France; Cevat Erder, Professor, Faculty of Architecture—Mimarlik Fakültesi, Middle East Technical University—:Orta Dogu Teknik Üniversitesi, Turkey; Brian Fagan, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, U.S.A.; Margarita Gutman, Directora, Programa de Historia y Desarrollo Urbana, Instituto Internacional de Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo—IIED-América Latina, Argentina; Nobuko Inaba, Senior Specialist for Cultural Properties, Architecture Division, Cultural Properties Protection Department, Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan; Uffe Juul Jensen, Head, Department of Philosophy and Director of Research Center, Institut for Filosofi, Aarhus Universitet, Denmark; Arjo Klamer, Professor in the Economics of Art and Culture, Kunst en Cultuurwetenschappen, Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, The Netherlands; David Lowenthal, Professor Emeritus, Department of Geography, University College London, United Kingdom; David Maybury-Lewis, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, U.S.A.; Alessandra Melucco Vaccaro, Dirigente Archeologo, Ministero per i Beni Culturali e Ambientali, Italy; Susan Pearce, Dean of Arts, University of Leicester, United Kingdom; Mona Serageldin, Associate Director, Unit for Housing and Urbanization Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, U.S.A.; Karen Stephenson, Professor of Management, The John E. Anderson School of Management, University of California, Los Angeles, U.S.A.; Marta de la Torre, Group Director, The Agora, The Getty Conservation Institute, U.S.A.