Authenticity and Chaos Theory
I've had an interesting exchange lately with a young colleague who is working toward his degree in architectural conservation. The discussion began with a simple enough question regarding the economics of rehabilitating old buildings. One thing led another in a delightfully dialectic way and we wound up exactly where we should have -- a discussion of the role of money in authenticity. The concept of "authenticity" is, of course, core to any discussion about historic preservation; if a building is to be restored the question (which is elaborated in a long list of charters, declarations and standards all around the world) is, How do we reflect the skills and materials our antecedents were working with and, more recondite still, how do we interpret their culture and thought process through "preservation"?
The question turned local when my colleague asked how becoming UNESCO World Heritage sites had affected Taos Pueblo, which is currently occupied, and Chaco Canyon, which is not. I thought that an interesting approach, since tourism and tourist dollars are fundamental to both. But is the comparison valid? Not really, but it led to one that is. Here's the trail.
Chaco remains pretty authentic -- as a ruin. It is a ruin because their "funds" ran out ca. 1250 CE. What they left behind in retreat from a failed economy, modified by the attrition of time, is what we see. Chaco is a story with a beginning, middle and an end, all faithfully recorded in the archeology. The funds directed there now are for science (archeology and conservation) in hard service to the public.
The first puddled mud had not been laid in Taos Pueblo until 150 years or so after Chaco was abandoned. They have not run out of funds, but to be brutally truthful, they probably would have were they not subsidized. Being a World Heritage site makes more outside funding possible and was, if I understand correctly, one reason they chose to accept the nomination; by doing so they became automatically qualified for some very substantial grant money. I am not cynical about that approach because I cannot judge their motives. They made a decision and, honestly, I like it from an outsider's aesthetic/romantic point-of-view. It is a pleasant place to go, has a profound affect on those who visit and is, I assume, what the Taos people want.
Grantors, like governments, make fickle partners and subsidies in the long term will run out. In the end, everyone has to make an accounting for themselves. And, in fact the Taos people are. Along with the various subsidies, they have a casino, but that just adds another layer to the question; how does the conversion from a subsistence economy to one based on tourism, subsidies, and gambling affect culture?
To answer that question, we have to try to discard nostalgia - a state of mind I have had a real problem dealing with, having very vivid memories of the pueblos from more than fifty years ago.
Part of the answer came to me in the mid-nineties when I had an informative meeting with the Governor and Tribal Council at Acoma, another occupied, New Mexico Pueblo. I had this great idea that 1998, the 400th anniversary of Oñate's entrada, would be a perfect time, and Acoma the perfect place, to hold a symposium on reconciliation. It was there, you know, that folks were enslaved by the Spaniards; feet were cut off, etc., etc. I proposed that such a symposium should have worldwide representation and embrace matters and sites of conscience such as the Auschwitz, the gulag, Robyn Island, Heart Mountain, and a galaxy of others. As part of the run-up to that event, I suggested (even though it could not have happened for political reasons) that Acoma be nominated to the indicative list as a World Heritage site.
After making my case, the First Lieutenant looked at me very calmly and said, "Let's be clear: This is not world heritage. This is our heritage."
I have yet to recover from the fact that I could have been so arrogant.
So, how does one judge authenticity? More importantly, how does one do so without being paternalistic or nostalgic? Taos and Acoma are both largely subsidized by government, and both have casinos. One, however, is a World Heritage site absorbing revenues that the honor brings, the other not. Taos is more authentic from an architectural conservation point of view, and appeals to nostalgia because the buildings are more pleasant to gaze upon. Acoma took a stand and embraced rapid movement into the present and future and the buildings have thus become pretty familiar and not very exotic to Westerners. One has the bricks and mortar; the other has its position.
I suggested to my young colleague that I'd rather visit Taos, but I admire Acoma more. In the end, of course money affects "preservation" in living sites because money affects culture. But is one more authentic that the other because one chose to look good while the other chose (from a certain point of view) to "be" good?
Ultimately, I believe, the concept of authenticity in historic preservation can only be applied to sites like Chaco, that are static, or the Lincoln Memorial that was intended to be exactly what it is now and forevermore. When you attempt to apply authenticity to living places, chaos theory takes over. One need only observe the desperate, confused and irregular decisions by national and local planning and preservation bodies to become convinced that no one is qualified to make decisions about someone else's heritage or lifestyle when the judgments are based on paternalism and nostalgia.