Conference Report: From Venice to Dresden…

Last weekend I attended a workshop on heritage & reconstruction, organised by a group of young heritage professionals unhappy with the current state of both practice and theory in the German heritage sector. This was the sixth such workshop on “Reconsidering heritage management” (Nachdenken über Denkmalpflege). All the others have already been published at

Gropius Haus DessauThis year, the event was held at the Bauhaus Dessau. They have a vested interest in reconstruction, for example due to the complex and still unresolved debate on whether or not Gropius’ house (image left) should be reconstructed as part of the local tourist attraction of the Masters’ Houses, a World Heritage Site. Most of the heritage professionals so far favour to retain the grey GDR building that was erected in 1956 in its place as a historic witness in its own right.

In front of more than 60 listeners, the workshop did not resolve this specific issue either. Nor was a new consensus established concerning the overarching priorities and values of heritage management. Indeed, one result was a confirmation of the truism that every case is different. Yet more significant than that was the number of voices that challenged the status quo of current heritage philosophy. Whereas in the past, few had much to add to “conserve, do not restore” (Georg Dehio), and the 1964 Venice Charter remains something of a constitution for the state of heritage management, what was said in Dessau sounded at times rather different.

Following the agenda set by Ulrich Kerkhoff in his introduction to the conference theme, several papers challenged the authority of heritage professionals in society and pointed to the validity of alternatives to academic and conservationist reasonings. “Historic monuments are sites of authentic desires”, proclaimed Wolfgang Seidenspinner and went on to speak of “wild, subjective authenticities” standing beside “official authenticity”. WarsawMy own contribution started out with illustrating the impossibility of reconstructing ‘past presents’ and finished with a celebration of ‘present pasts’, using various examples from the Old Town of Warsaw (image right) to Mainstreet at Eurodisney: “what counts as historical is decided in each present!” Other papers similarly emphasised the impact of the built historic environment on people in the present. According to Eva von Engelberg, there are no longer any clear-cut boundaries in contemporary architecture between re-erection, reconstruction, restoration, imitation and historicizing construction. What unites all these different approaches, according to Engelberg, is a widespread popular desire for the visualization of histories.

The scope of these emerging ideas might eventually lead to a new paradigm, as became clear in the final discussion. Whereas a few — following the seemingly self-evident wisdom of Dehio and Venice Charter — insisted that heritage management has no business with anything but original remains of the past, quite a few others were no less firm in that heritage management has to take a broader view and feel at least some responsibility for all historic references in the built environment, i.e. even buildings that invent their histories (as at Dresden’s Neumarkt, image below). For Matthias Donath all this pointed to what for him was the most important result of the workshop: at the heart of heritage management are increasingly the experiences of living human beings in the present instead of the integrity of architectural remains of the past.

Dresden NeumarktAt the end, we were left with the question to what extent heritage professionals are willing and able to consider their own interventions in the built environment as a cultural rather than a purely administrative or judicial task governing planning and construction work. For however foreign it might seem that heritage management is perceived as separate from culture, that is the distinction at the core of at least some of the divisions that emerged. In short, is heritage management primarily about restrictions for buildings or about opportunities for people?

Given that I was the only archaeologist in Dessau, what is in it for archaeology? There is a simple answer: insofar archaeologists too are dealing with sites of multiple authenticities, are observing popular desires for visualizations of histories, and are committed to the experiences of living human beings in the present, they too must ask themselves increasingly whether the status quo of the now dominant conservation paradigm is still appropriate. “Reconsidering heritage management” demonstrates that this timely discussion is already well underway in other parts of the heritage sector. Archaeologists keep a close eye on and on the current debate on heritage in Germany!

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