Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Preservation Transparency in Historic Sites

As a preservation professional I am inherently interested in how organizations decide on preservation treatments for historic sites. Yes, I am talking about restoration, rehabilitation, reconstruction, preservation, and I am adding renovation here, since it does happen even though it makes some preservationists queasy. Nonetheless, historic sites rarely engage in describing preservation philosophy or methodology, nor do they interpret their own "preservation histories"- preservation choices organizations have made and how changing preservation methods may have affected the site.

This seems disingenuous to me, since most sites have undergone multiple phases of conservation work in order to gain their current appearance. Historic sites are often eager to describe "historic" changes to the building, but are less inclined to discuss the staff repainting the room to a more "appropriate" color in the 1980s. I think it's time for historic sites to be more transparent about their preservation choices and to incorporate education on preservation into their interpretive plans when appropriate.

Following are sites we visited and observations about their preservation choices, plus questions to consider related to the interpretation of preservation at historic sites.

Alteration/ renovation: Castle Howard

Ever seen Brideshead Revisited? Both the mini series and the movie were filmed in this opulent mansion. It's a hodgepodge of architectural styles built over 100 years- from English Baroque to Palladian to Georgian, all visible in the facade! The owners still live in the house and they decide to update the house as they see fit. They reupholster their antique furniture in bright blue, have murals painted in the style that they think the house's architect would have approved, and allowed a digital wallpaper of dark, Catholic themed murals a la Inquisition to be plastered in a room, even though the family is not and never has been Catholic. I was able to figure out that these alterations were not historic, but would most visitors know to ask? What length should a site go to in order to inform their visitors to what is a modern alteration?
Castle Howard: http://www.castlehoward.co.uk/

Restoration: Treasurer's House

This was the first National Trust property to be donated with it's furnishings, in 1930. The eccentric industrialist, Frank Green, purchased the York property in 1897 and proceeded to "restore" the house into a series of period rooms. This included, for example, creating a Great Hall in the Medieval style without any evidence beyond his own hunch that it once existed. This was not a restoration, but a full-blown renovation by a nouveau riche international businessman with more books on economics than arts and the humanities in his library.

The National Trust is now attempting to restore the house to its 1930 appearance. This is confusing, since this includes restoring Green's "period rooms" which often lack anything truly related to the period that he attempted to convey. So just to be clear, the Trust is restoring a fake restoration, and the effect is disorienting.

I suggest that the Trust take a different approach- rather than focusing on Frank Green, the house could be a near perfect backdrop for telling the story of preservation. From the revival trends of the Victorian Era, to the formation of the National Trust, to mid-20th Century practices, to current conservation techniques, this structure possesses the narrative in its bones.
Treasurer's House: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-treasurershouseyork

Treatment Mashup: Whitby Abbey Visitor Center

This is a fascinating case: in Whitby, English Heritage gutted the 17th Century house built next door to the abbey to rehabilitate it into the (very good) visitor center. However, they chose to preserve the facade, including the crumbling pediment. Then, they restored the hard stone garden in front of the visitor center. Huh? So in one small space, we see evidence of rehabilitation, preservation and restoration, but beyond information on the excavation of the stone garden, there was no reflection on their choices or methods. A missed opportunity in visitor education, I feel.
Whitby Abbey, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/whitby-abbey/

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