Material Preservation and Its Alternatives
Lowenthal ( David)
Source: Perspecta, Vol. 25 (1989), pp. 66-77
Paper - Abstract

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  1. Endurance in perpetuity is preservation's guiding aim. But nothing lasts forever, and however faithfully protected, everything always departs more and more from its original state. Indeed, for all preservation's emphasis on original substance, we identify and cherish most things for their form or genetic continuity, not for the stuff they are made of. Though erosion and accretion ceaselessly transform them, a building or pair of shoes remains that building or those shoes from the moment of their making until the building falls into rubble, the shoes into rubbish. Living things likewise keep their identity despite obvious development and physical change. "An oak, that grows from a small plant to a large tree, is still the same oak," as Hume put it, "tho' there be not one particle of matter, or figure of its parts the same."
  2. Preservationists have done little to resolve the dilemma Plutarch made famous to philosophy as the "ship of Theseus2." Brought into port for repairs, every old plank in Theseus's ship was replaced by new planks. Was it still the original ship? Brian Smart's variant sharpens the issue: a builder commissioned to supply two ships, an old one restored to seaworthiness and a new one made of old materials, sees a way of selling the two ships for the cost of one. In drydock A, each old board of Theseus3's ship is replaced by a new one, until the entire ship is refurbished. Meanwhile, each old plank is put into a new frame at adjoining drydock B. When a fire destroys drydock B, both buyers sue for the delivery of the original ship; but which one is it? On the grounds that identity inheres in an object's continuing form, not in its fragmentary and ephemeral substances, the court ultimately awards possession to the buyer.
  3. of the surviving ship at drydock A. Each new plank in it has at once become part of the old ship, while the old plank it replaced forms part of the new ship just coming into being. Being a part of Theseus4's old ship was only a temporary phase in the lifetime career of the old planks. Does the importance of the original historical treasure lie in its identity as a boat or in its being a collection of planks5?
    Material substances may help to authenticate an object's provenance, but it is genetic properties (maker, period, history) that distinguish authentic from fake or replica objects of art and nature alike. A child values a teddy bear because they share a history of interaction; only the teddy bear he has always cuddled will satisfy him, not even a molecule-by-molecule reproduction will do. The worth of what we preserve depends ultimately on the various and sometimes conflicting intentions of its creators and subsequent guardians and restorers.
    Material preservation is thus at bottom an illusion. Felt historical continuity takes precedence over strict material authenticity, which is itself impossible to achieve or sustain. What matters6 in preservation may be continuity of form, of substance, of texture, of color, or whatever. And because material objects are continuously transformed, every stage in preservation forces choices among these many valid but irreconcilable criteria. No preservation decision is logically right, let alone permanently appropriate.

Author’s Conclusion
  1. Preservation is an impulse innate to life. But our need to preserve coexists with a no less urgent need to innovate. Preservation's extension into widening realms of nature and culture threatens to upset delicate balances between saving and changing, balances crucial to individuals and to social groups alike.
  2. The alternatives to material preservation described above are not options freely open to mod ern Western culture. Preferring fragments to wholes, processes to material entities, written or painted or mental images to physical objects, all imply perspectives on the past, on the present, and on life in general that are quite unlike our own. They are modes of behavior that are enacted only by dint of long immersion within congruent cultural features; they are patterns that derive from habit, not from deliberate adoption. We make our past, as Marx said, but we do not make it just as we choose: we are constrained by cultural circumstance, over which we have little control. So too with modes of preservation: we may study how alternative commitments operate with an eye to re-examining our own, but not with a view to seeking substitutes for them.
  3. Culture and circumstance enforce our commitment to material preservation. Nonetheless, awareness of other cultures' different modes of defining and preserving pasts useful to them may help us to extend the forms and functions of material preservation. Re-using artifacts in ways that transcend pure museumization, on the one hand, and purely contemporary utility, on the other, offers one engaging prospect. Preservation today is normally polarized between idealized pasts that are wholly antiquarian and those that are wholly usable, to the caricaturing detriment of both extremes. Preservation advocates should realize that most preserved objects occupy places along a continuum between these extremes, in some measure subserving the interests of both immediate utility and long-term heritage.
  4. To confine consideration of preservation only to our own narrow traditions disserves the treasures and diminishes the pleasures the past has left us to enjoy. It should be remembered that preservation is only a means to an end; when it becomes an end in itself it ceases to advance its prime functions of use, of instruction, of delight.
  5. Whatever may be its authentic etymology, "preserve" also carries with it the meaning of "pre-serve." It is an act that preceded some aim to be served through it. Preservation is not action or epilogue; it is only prologue.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 5:

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
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