May 6, 2021
Hi everyone. My name is Casey Gray and I am a graduate of the heritage conservation program in the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies, and a student in the Cultural Mediations PhD program in the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture, here at Carleton.
This is the 4th Carleton heritage conservation graduate symposium that I have attended, the 3rd that I have been a part of organizing, and the 2nd for which I have been invited to give closing remarks. Having this experience, I can say earnestly that I look forward to the symposium much in the way that I would a family reunion (and I mean that in a good way), because that is what attending the symposium feels like. I can say firsthand, from a student’s perspective, how grateful we, on the organizing committee, are to receive the continued support of the heritage community in Ottawa. This year, to be able to reach wider audiences across Canada and worldwide, has been a silver lining to the disappointment of not being able to gather together as we normally would.
In addition to commending the hard work of the student organizers, I also want to commend them for picking such a challenging and debate-worthy topic as authenticity. As we saw in the discussion period last week, authenticity is sometimes like that one sweater that we know is a bit outdated but we just can’t imagine getting rid of. Kind of like ABBA music. Yet, as the speakers for this year’s symposium have proved, authenticity has contemporary and significant relevance to a range of disciplinary and geographical contexts.
Session One was titled “Situating Authenticity,” and appropriately, in her opening remarks, Anna Hoefnagels who is Director of the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies, pointed out that authenticity and the notion of “keeping it real” has resonances with a wide range of disciplines outside of heritage, including music and culture. It is no surprise then that our first three speakers articulated three unique contexts within heritage conservation in which authenticity has useful relevance.
Christophe Rivet described how authenticity addresses big social questions. At the individual level, authenticity allows a framework for defining integrity, and assigning value, while at the collective level, it can provide an affirmation of rights, and an apparatus for social inclusion. Adrian Soble connected the possibility of the virtual to the importance of the experiential. In his research, he demonstrated the potential for simulation to approximate experiential values in heritage sites as a way of affirming that the authenticity of a space will not be impacted by intervention. And Adam Weigert explored an interdisciplinary approach to authenticity. Craft science, experimental archaeology, and reverse engineering demonstrate the essential need for heritage professionals to get their hands dirty—to understand building techniques in the past requires an exploration of bodies in the present.
Session Two, “Reorienting Authenticity,” asked not what authenticity can do, but rather questioned what source materials might demonstrate authenticity. Heather Thomson showed how oral history has played an essential role in several conservation projects by the National Capital Commission. Projects like “Voices of the Greenbelt” demonstrate that how places are remembered by the people who care about them can be different than what is documented. Heather reminds us that places are important to people, and listening is essential. Michelle Duong “Crash Landed” brilliantly to the conclusion that television dramas can offer meaningful interpretation of cultural heritage. In the South Korean Drama “Crash Landing on You,” oral history has been used to interpret an accurate depiction of life and built heritage in a North Korean village. Stories volunteered by Korean migrants indicate the complicated nature of reconciling multiple voices and truths, and the power of dramas to communicate and generate interest in the real daily lives of North Koreans. Tim Di Leo Browne reminded us not all that glitters is gold. At Dawson City, the epicentre of the infamous Klondike Gold Rush, visitors are offered a colourful reconstruction of the glory days of saloon-going and gold-panning. However, for the Hwech’in Nation, the story of the Klondike is one that painfully excludes their expropriation.
In Session Three, we “reconsidered” the notion of authenticity, and indeed, its place in modern heritage discourse and practice. Nancy Oakley highlighted the retrospective and introspective qualities of authenticity. She asked us, how can the complex and evolving nature of urban cultural landscapes be sustained? and offered us the hope that authenticity can provide supportive frameworks that sustain the Spirit of Place. Nihan Bulut made us reconsider the use of authenticity in the context of the Nara Document. Her presentation pointed to how authenticity, when considered in specific cultural context, offers to clarify and illuminate the collective memory of humanity despite rapidly increasing processes of globalization, by offering a comparative analysis of the heritage values of grain silos in Turkey and abroad. Luke McElcheran raised the issues of equity in conservation. His research draws upon the notion of ornament and crime to interrogate which cultural expressions are valid and which are not. He notes that an insistence on continuity is a challenge to the visual approach to heritage and the assumption that there is a break between the past and present. And Leigh Biddlecome asked us to reconsider authenticity, literally, in the context of intangible heritage, where authenticity as a value can be used to legitimate acts of cultural exclusion. She draws from anthropological theory to push for a dialogic and social approach to authenticity formation and offers that tolerance might be the missing link to a version of authenticity which is authentically equitable.
In Session Four we had two incredible group presentations aimed at “Unsettling Authenticity.” Cynthia Desjarlais, Jim Mountain, Teagan Hyndman, and Arkoun Merchant taught us about the ongoing commemoration and rehabilitation efforts of the former Muskowekwan residential school. With the support of the community, the residential school is being repurposed as a place of memory, healing, learning, creativity, and cultural education. Jim quoted Thomas King as saying, “stories are the key to and only hope for human understanding.” It was touching, therefore, that the student architects centred their conservation practice in understanding and respect, with the four key principles of compassion, caring, empathy, and respect guiding their understanding of authenticity. Tess Coman and Erika Colmenares, with the direction of Mariana Esponda, shared with us a project that demonstrates the informative relationship between material cultures and oral histories in understanding the intangible values of place. Their case study of Irish ancestral homes in the Ottawa valley informs us on how networking apps could be used to source and document the complex history of heritage buildings, and the communities who built them, before they are lost.
And now comes the scary part of giving closing remarks where I get to propose some questions and directions for moving forward. Many of my own assumptions and most taken-for-granted views of authenticity have been challenged by the presentations given in each week of this symposium, and for that I feel gratefully unsettled. Like many others, my introduction to the notion of authenticity in heritage was through the Nara Document. At its heart, the Nara Document is a response to the processes of globalization and cultural homogenization, which have only increased since it was first issued in 1994. The Nara Document states that the diversity of cultures and heritage in our world is an irreplaceable source of spiritual and intellectual richness for all humankind, and proposed that authenticity is a value which should be considered within particular and situated cultural context. On the surface, this posits that authenticity has a role to play in decentralizing the power of Western frameworks within global heritage discourse, and I must admit, however naïve it might sound, that I still believe authenticity has this potential. I believe this partly because when I taught the principles of the Nara Document to undergraduate students in a heritage conservation course in the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies, they responded with great interest and were eager to identify their own examples and stories.
However, as a cultural studies student, I know that authenticity, like so many other discourses related to culture, is at a crossroad. The reason that authenticity demands localized responses to globalization is because heritage has become a transnational issue. Globalization is increasingly calling into question the boundaries of political and cultural communities. This is a challenge for heritage which, as Laurajane Smith has stated, is a cultural process of meaning-making and of negotiating identity, memory, and sense of place. Anthropology, the discipline most exclusively devoted to culture, reached this crisis in the mid 1990s, the same time that the Nara Document was written. Ethnography, which has long been the gold standard for anthropological method, is dependent on the notion of “thick description” and knowing a place at its most intimate and authentically local level. But Arjun Appadurai argued that the “ethno” of ethnography, had become increasingly slippery and nonlocalized and so anthropologists had to reinvent themselves and their method to recognize that in a globalized world all communities are partly imagined and that the goal of ethnography must be to redefine itself as a practice of representation that illuminates both the global, imagined world, and local life histories.
So, here is my hope for the future of authenticity. What if the notion of authenticity was centred around proliferation instead of validation? At present we ask communities to demonstrate, on their own terms, how their heritage is authentic, but they do so against a sometimes poorly concealed backdrop of Western frameworks. In a Foucauldian analysis of power, this centres authenticity as a gambit within binary oppositions and authenticity can become a tool for governance rather than liberation. If, instead, authenticity focused on the proliferation of multiple meanings and positive differences, heritage, like ethnography, could reinvent itself. New ideas about what constitutes heritage around the world, might even allow us to imagine a transnational heritage: one that carefully tiptoes alongside globalization, keeping it in check, rather than fighting an unstoppable force.
Thank you all again for your attendance and support of the symposium.
If you would like to reach out to any of our speakers, please email us at HeritageConservationSymposium@cunet.carleton.ca and we will forward your request to our speakers. Thank you again for your continued support and we hope to see you next year.