More than bricks and mortar—preserving and conveying the spirit of place
We recently attended two conferences. Edwina attended The artefact, its context, and their narrative: multidisciplinary conservation in historic house museums jointly organised by ICOM-DEMHIST (International Council of Museums-International Committee for Historic House Museums) and ICOM-CC (International Council of Museums–International Committee for Conservation) and held at the Getty Centre in Los Angeles. Gabrielle went to Interpretation—future challenge which was organised by Interpretation Australia and held in Melbourne. Two conferences, different themes, yet we came away thinking about a common idea—’spirit of place’.
The notion of ‘spirit of place’ was explored at the 16th General Assembly and International Scientific Symposium of ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) held in Quebec, Canada in 2008. The term encapsulates the idea that the value of cultural and natural heritage comprises both tangibles—the things that we can see, touch and feel—and the intangibles— the way a place was used in the past, the people that used it and what they thought of it, and how the place is used today. Many of us working in the heritage sector use the terms significance and values to describe a similar idea. Fundamentally, it’s about asking the questions: what’s important, why and for whom?
At the conference in Los Angeles, Edwina found that one of the threads that ran through the discussions was the role that ‘spirit of place’ plays in making decisions about the conservation of historic buildings and their collections. Two examples led to different conservation approaches. At the JW Evans silverware factory in Birmingham in the United Kingdom, a family-run business with a collection of machinery, tools and records, it was important to preserve and communicate the continuous 120 year history of occupation and use of the site by the Evans family. The approach to conservation emphasised the preservation of the layers of use and evidence of occupation. The site managers concentrate on showing, but at the same time slowing, deterioration and wear and display only those objects that were found in the place.
In contrast, at the Darwin Martin House in New York which was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the focus was on the original appearance of the house, its specially selected or commissioned furniture and the relationship between the Martin family and Wright. Restored to its 1907 appearance with a mixture of replica and original furniture pieces and decorative objects, the vision of the owners and the architect can be experienced and understood by visitors.
In different ways, both sites explore the ‘spirit of place’, what it is about the place that is special and meaningful and worth preserving and communicating that to visitors. Both these strategies engage with extant material culture but how do we preserve ‘spirit of place’ if there has been a significant loss of material culture?
Gabrielle attended a presentation at the Interpretation Australia conference on the Needwonnee Walk, a trail developed at Melaleuca in remote south west Tasmania. This trail leads through the former homelands of the Needwonnee people. A visitor walks across moorland, through forest and around the edge of a lagoon. Sculptural installations along the way interpret some of the historic stories of the Needwonnee people. The sculptures— tools, a hut, a bark canoe— were created by members of the Aboriginal community from materials found in the local environment. Over time, the sculptures will naturally weather and deteriorate. As this happens, the community hopes to return to the place, to refresh and rebuild. And so the spirit of place becomes a message of hope, regeneration and renewal, of connection, sharing and identity.
So, in recognising, preserving and communicating spirit of place, what is the best strategy to use? Do we make ‘as new’? Do we create snap shots in time? Do we add stories? Do we reveal subsequent layers of usage and meaning? Do we allow deterioration? Inevitably, the answer is ‘it depends’. Here at our museum we use all these strategies. We are guided by the frames of reference in our Heritage Management Plan and our Interpretation Plan. Our approach is both consistent and ad hoc. The challenge lies in deciding what to use, when and where.
We are currently grappling with these ideas as we tackle a refresh of the Members’ Dining Room.