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11.00  Mixing Memory and Desire: Utopian Currents in Heritage

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11:00, Saturday 4 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

There is a well-established precedent for utopian thinking around cultural heritage, particularly in the institutional context. For example, a number of writers have commented on the utopian ideal of museums, libraries, and archives to house and preserve intact cultural memory. Likewise, in his study of national identity and the heritage industry, Patrick Wright wrote that: “like the utopianism from which it draws, national heritage involves positive energies which certainly can’t be written off as ideology.” Finally, the idea of a backward-looking Golden Age utopia, a nostalgic longing for the past, is frequently evoked in relation to historical buildings and monuments. However, in this paper I will argue that there is another, distinct utopian strain relevant to cultural heritage, which can be traced through examination of the formation of principles for heritage conservation in the nineteenth century. 

This was arguably the period in which a modern conception of heritage was consolidated and became inseparable from the processes associated with its management. Among these processes, conservation emerged as a key concern and the development of conservation methods was influenced to a large extent by John Ruskin and by William Morris through his work for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). The emphasis on material culture enacted by such initiatives casts a long shadow in debates about value and authenticity and has formed part of the critique of conservative heritage tendencies in recent years. Yet a central message in Morris’s writings was that the guiding principle for conservation should not be stasis but change, and that knowledge of the past was important for recovering the hopes of former generations. Equally, the perspective of the future offered a means of stimulating the desire for something otherwise in the present. Raymond Williams hints at this utopian dimension of Morris’s thought, noting of him that although his reference was to the past, his concern was with the present and the future. 

In addressing heritage problems from both ends of time, Morris’s utopianism presents a challenge to the logic of inheritance, whereby the past is figured as a legacy to be maintained and the future, in turn, is extracted confidently from the present. Instead, it involves a mixture of memory and desire, which provides a way into thinking about expectations, alternatives, and the kinds of futures implicit in heritage practices. Indeed, if “the dialectic of remembrance and future projection (is) at the core of modern utopian thought,” as Andreas Huyssen has written, then this relationship requires further analysis. Understanding that different visions of the future might inspire different types of interventions in it is one of the most significant insights that Morris’s work can bring to the study of heritage. I will make these stakes clear in order to shed light on how contemporary practices and decision-making might hold open or foreclose possible futures.

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