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The importance of material heritage to the study of history and culture

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The importance of material heritage to the study of history and culture, and how far present efforts of conservation supports this.

1. Definition of heritage

1.1 Material heritage

1.2 Cultural heritage

2. The importance of heritage

2.1 How material heritage is important to the study of history and culture.

2.2 Importance of heritage to the inculcation of national identity.

3. Conservation and results

3.1 The types of conservation

3.2 Principals of conservation

3.3 What is being conserved (what is not)

3.4 To what extent are conservation efforts benefiting society.

3.5 The balance between conservation and development.

4. Conclusion

4.1 The importance of heritage to society

4.2 Areas of conservation that must be given more emphasis.

1. Definition

The Cambridge International Dictionary of English defines heritage as features belonging to the culture of a particular society, such as traditions, languages or buildings, which still exist from the past and which have a historical importance.

From this definition, it is clear that heritage goes further then to include cultural tradition and languages as part of heritage, as opposed to popular belief that heritage are merely material artefacts that ware made a significant amount of time ago. However, Cambridge does not go so far as to explain what is of historical importance. When does a certain artefact or cultural practise stops becoming historically important, and does this happen because of passage of time, where it is too old to make a difference to society or because the way society evolved? More often than not, what is considered fascinating has nothing in common with present practices.

A good example of this is the mummification practises of the ancient Egyptian people. The research done on this subject has sparked public interest both locally and internationally. However, it is clear that this custom is not practised anymore, and therefore the gains from this subject could be insignificant. However, does this mean that it is not of historical importance anymore? The person who assumes this would be wrong; as it is obvious that mummification is extremely relevant. The question now is to what extent is a subject relevant?

1.1 Material Heritage

Material heritage are things or buildings of historical importance. However, to be historically important, these artefacts must be relevant culturally through customs, traditions, language and literature. Material artefacts and buildings cannot be considered heritage if it cannot be associated culturally as it does not fulfil the criteria for heritage listings.

For example, a colonial building in old Georgetown, Penang represents a whole range of factors, showing lifestyles and customs practised by English colonialist. How and what was used in the building shows the materials available at that time as well as the technology achieved, the design shows how the colonialist adapted to Tropical weather, with higher roofs, and a more internal aeration. Ballrooms and chapels showed their customs and religious beliefs.

This example shows the relationship between material artefacts and customs. One cannot exist without the other if it is to be considered heritage. Although it cannot be considered heritage on its own, it is crucial as it does not only completes but complements heritage as a whole.

1.2 Cultural heritage

Cultural heritage are customs, traditions and common practises performed by a certain group of people collectively within that group. This form of ‘heritage’ is largely underemphasized. It cannot be touched or held, but it can be seen and experienced. Unlike material heritage, cultural heritage can exist on its own, through practises and traditions.

2. The importance of heritage

How heritage is important to society is a highly subjective. It may affect a person differently, based on cultural background or occupation. For example, a contractor may place a smaller value on heritage, as it does not always complements his job. In fact, heritage conservation might be considered a burden as it might interfere with his work of building new buildings. However, an architect or history teacher might place a larger value on heritage.

Because of the difficulty in grouping people from different backgrounds, this study considers the affects of heritage to society as a whole.

2.1 How material heritage is important to the study of history and culture

Material heritage, such as buildings, artefacts and scripts is one of the main sources of the study of history and culture, mainly because it is
considered primary information, which is not altered or changed in any way. It requires much interpretation and research, but is far more reliable than other sources of information.

However, as said above, material artefacts cannot be considered heritage unless it supports some cultural relevance to it. Finding and preserving this connection is extremely difficult. For example, a building housing an old marketplace would not be considered heritage, if the market were not functioning anymore. The atmosphere and ambience would not be there, and the affect to society emotionally and historically will be minimal.

However, striking the balance between the importance of material heritage and cultural heritage is truly the most crucial aspect of conservation. Sometimes, material conservation must be done as the first step to conservation, allowing the cultural aspect of it to develop around it. It therefore can be said that material conservation is just as important as cultural conservation, if the proper steps and procedures are done to complement it.

2.2 Importance of heritage to the inculcation of national identity.

It has been said time and again that the preservation of heritage is synonymous with instilling a sense of national pride and identity within the people of a certain region, a lot like the effect of history has upon the public. Except with history, people are affected in a more indirect way. Subconsciously, there is a lot of room where the lack of clarity and evidence deters the public from fully believing history. This is partly because there is a lack of understanding amongst the public on the procedures and methods used by historians in accumulating the data in their research.

Material heritage, as well as cultural heritage has a more direct and cumulative affect on people. Heritage is something that can be seen, and touched, and therefore, it makes more sense to the subconscious to accept heritage more then history. Although it is true the human species do practise abstract principles and traditions, like religion and spirituality, this is described by a distinguished philosopher, Prof. Azgor Malchovitch of the Chezh Republic Social Institute as being a form of mental and emotional support, which affects the human psyche as a form of justification or support to the inconsistencies and injustices of the human world.

Acceptance of heritage does encourage a more holistic affect on the people, as we are designed mentally to accept that of which is physically available. Because of this, material and cultural heritage is crucial to national and cultural identity development. A nostalgic connection to the past does in fact inculcate a sense of assurance, as it provides a means of moulding the future based on the experiences of ages passed in order to avoid repetition of fatal errors that has been done before.

Through this thorough discussion on history and heritage, it can inferred that education and research should place more emphasis on heritage, material as well as cultural, rather than history. This emphasis should be done indirectly, through communal and inter-societal activities. Conservation is truly important this way, as it involves the community, specifically and as a whole.

3. Conservation and results

3.1 The types of conservation

Conservation can fundamentally be divided into physical conservation, where materials are used to either replace or repair a building or artefact to its original appearance, ar at least until it resumes its original function or purpose. This may be done through construction, where plaster repairs or frame replacements are done, or through touch-ups, which serves to repair minor details of paintings or carvings.

There is also economical conservation, where economic activities are carried out, either with traditional products, or by traditional methods. This is largely seen in Kashmir and Iran, with carpet manufacturing, where traditional materials and methods are used. This is also seen in Malaysia, in traditional products like the production of tepak sirihs (an originally Hindu compartment case where sirih is kept with other ingredients for the purpose of habitual chewing), wou’s, and keris. This conservation serves, not primarily as a tourist generator, but more of an introduction to modern locals to traditional life, in hope of making it a part of life again. This is done with the traditional products that are not out-dated or less practical, but had simply died out through the lack of practise.

Economical conservation can also be done through a recreation of traditional life in a social sense. A good example of this is markets. A traditional market may be conserved physically through rebuilding or construction, but that is not considered a complete restoration of heritage. The market must be alive, functioning as it was previously. In other words, economic activity within that market must resume, with trading of traditional products. This has successfully been done in North Africa, in countries like Egypt and Morroco, where bazaars have been restores and conserved to its original glory, with shops selling not only modern necessities but also traditional ones.

The third type of conservation is cultural conservation. It has been said that cultural conservation means nothing if there is not support by all parties, as well as the lack of material factors to complement it. Cultural conservation has successfully been done in countries like India and China. One way to do it is by reintroducing certain festivals or celebrations. For example, the celebration of Ramungakai in Banglore was restarted by the local government. This festival, celebrating the harvest, died out when Banglore switched from an agricultural producer to an industrial one. However, since the economic crisis of 1997, the government in a move to emphasis agriculture produce reintroduced this festival. In preparation of this festival, vegetable farms and wheat fields were started, and the objective was met.

This was also massively done in China. After the Cultural Revolution during the communist regime, most of the cultural celebrations were stopped. However, recently, there has been a boom in capitalism and there was a pressure by the people to reintroduce their cultures that has long been suppressed by the government. In a desperate attempt to boost tourism and work spirit, the government has successfully not only recreated, but reintroduced many festivals. However, this move was not publicised by the government to product their national ideology.

All this conservation is part and parcel of conservation and must be done simultaneously to ensure success. However, conservation that can be done with immediate effect is physical and material conservation. Because of this, more emphasis is given in this study to this specific type of conservation.

3.2 Heritage Conservation Principles

These principles were established by the Province to gauge the appropriateness of changes to heritage buildings in British Columbia. They have been adopted by City Council for use in Chinatown. They can also be used on a voluntary basis to guide rehabilitation for buildings on the Vancouver Heritage Register. These Principles were prepared by Robert G. Lemon Architecture and Preservation for the B.C. Heritage Trust and the Province of British Columbia.

1. Recording and Documentation: Is the Building Understood?

A thorough knowledge of the building and site is an essential part of a rehabilitation project. The condition of the building and site should be thoroughly recorded prior to rehabilitation through research, drawings and photographs. Changes made during the course of the project should be properly documented. Maintaining a record of conservation work is good practice.

2. Character and Integrity: What Makes the Building Distinctive?

The important and distinguishing characteristics of the building should be clearly defined. A statement of the building’s historic, technological, cultural, contextual and architectural significance is also required. Examples of skilled craftsmanship, use of local (or unusual materials, or distinctive stylistic features that contribute to the building’s character should be retained and treated with care and respect. The appearance and surface characteristics of building materials acquire a patina through age that often contributes to the building’s importance. Where a material’s patina is part of the building’s character statement, it should be protected by appropriate conservation measures.

3. Site, Context and Archeology: Has the Setting Been Respected?

Essential components in determining a building’s historic value are its site and context, including surrounding buildings, vegetation, street furnishings and archaeological resources. Every effort should be made to retain the building in its original location and setting. Understanding the character and detailing of neighbouring buildings can help in making decisions about rehabilitation. Every reasonable effort should be made to protect and preserve archaeological resources affected by rehabilitation work. Any work that may affect an archaeological site requires consultation with the provincial heritage Conservation Branch.

4. Authenticity and Evolution: Does the Rehabilitation Respect the History of the Building?

All changes that have taken place in the course of a building’s evolution are evidence of its history and development. Where these changes have acquired their own significance, thus contributing to a building’s character, they should be retained and conserved. Alterations that destroy historic fabric or give a false (or conjectural) impression of the building’s history should be avoided, especially changes that attempt to make a building appear older than it is.

5. Utility and Minimal Intervention: Is the Building Being Put to Its Best Use With Minimal Change?

The new use to which a building is put should respect the importance of the original spatial, formal and symbolic characteristics. A compatible new use will minimize the amount of destructive intervention on historic fabric. The interior spaces of a building should be thoroughly assessed for their potential use in the project, as they can contribute to the value and utility of an historic building.

6. Cleaning: Is It Necessary?

Surface cleaning can damage historic material and should only be done after a careful review of its purpose. Cleaning methods should utilize the gentlest means possible; methods which erode surface material, such as sandblasting of brick, metal or wood, are not recommended.

7. Repair: Can It Be Repaired Rather Than Replaced?

Historic building materials, even if in a deteriorated condition, contribute to a building’s character. Repairing this material rather than removing or replacing it, is an important conservation goal. Where replacement is necessary, new material should be compatible with historic material in appearance, texture, colour and form, yet be distinguishable from historic fabric.

8. Distinguishibility: Is the New Work Distinct From the Old?

The integrity of the historic material is enhanced by distinguishing the new work from the old, which may include conservation measures and/or contemporary additions. The latter should be done through the use of new additions and materials compatible in mass, scale proportion, material, detailing and colour. Care shall be taken to avoid damage to significant historic, architectural or cultural material in the course of adding to or altering a building.

9. Reversibility: Can the New Work Be Removed?

At some time in the future, it may be necessary to alter or remove the rehabilitation work for historic, aesthetic or functional reasons. New work should, in spirit and material, be designed so that it may be removed leaving the essential form and integrity of the building intact.

10. Cyclical Maintenance: Has the Building’s Future Been Planned?

Many conservation measures are necessary because building maintenance was formerly inadequate. A cyclical maintenance plan should be established to protect the building and the conservation work for the future.

3.3 What has been conserved?

The government of Malaysia has allocated a large budget to conservation projects, and a lot have been done. However, if looked into closely, the projects pursued by the governments are usually not of historical importance. In other word, a lot of it is not heritage. It was discussed earlier that the distinction between old things and heritage is a thin, but crucial one. Many more deserving projects were not given a reconstruction budget because of wrong recommendations from wrong sources. Many of these recommendations usually have a financial motive behind it, and since the government has to means in which to filter these recommendations, many projects were carried out regardless of importance or purpose.

A prime example would be the conservation of an old show room in Georgetown, Penang named the Garage. Although there was little or no historic relevance, the project was carried out, but instead of restoring it to its previous function, the Garage was turned into a row of shops, catering to global chains that does not only not complement the heritage of the site, but contradicts it.

3.4 To what extent are conservation efforts benefiting society.

Conservation truly represents an important part to the development of a society. However, the benefits achieved by conservation are far different from the benefits achieved by heritage. Heritage encompasses materials, artefacts and cultural history, but conservation is the preservation of this heritage. Like saying goes, ‘it’s not the destination, but the journey’.

Conservation allows the public to actively participate, and experience the process that goes into conservation. People can actually see and feel it, and this allows the mental and emotional psyche of a human to evaluate and justify the process. Without actually seeing and experiencing, humans are unable to relate to the project, as they feel there is no relevance to their subconscious purpose and function as a human. It is because of this fundamental fact that conservation is important. It is shown that people are more prone to emotional change relating to heritage as apposed to only seeing the end product of a completed conservation.

It is therefore concluded that conservation not only plays an important role in preserving heritage, but the process in which this is done also allows humans to develop a sense of civic consciousness and concern.

4.0 Conclusion

4.1 The importance of heritage to society

Heritage is crucial in developing a person’s concern specifically over public issues, primarily conservation and history, as well as developing civic-consciousness of a person, as well as society’s general impression on this subject. It creates a sense of national identity, in which a person can relate to his or her origin and past, as well as provides good grounds for a person to prepare for his or her future.

4.2 Areas of conservation that must be given more emphasis.

Conservation generally plays an important part to the development of our society. However, only physical or material conservation can be done directly through conservation projects. However, society as a whole can encourage economic and cultural conservation through purchases of traditional products as well as the inculcation of cultural practises.

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