Sunday, October 2, 2011

Reconstructing the Unreconstructable

Journalist Simon Jenkins recently published an editorial in Great Britain's Guardian newspaper about the gradual disintegration of the the Roman city of Pompeii, buried in volcanic ash in 79 AD and uncovered in fits and starts over the last 250 years. Like most historic architecture, the buildings of Pompeii are a conservation enigma, but on a much grander and more precarious scale than other sites. Mud bricks, plaster, and delicate frescoes and mosaics teeter on the very edge of collapse. Jenkins argues that Pompeii is "an intellectual nonsense" of original parts, speculative reconstructions, and ruins. His suggestive course of action for Pompeii in unclear, beyond a general argument for the reconstruction of buildings without modern intrusions.

Workers excavate plaster casts of Pompeiians buried in ash

A number of things should trouble the discerning reader of this article. Not least of these is a shockingly revisionist view of the Royal Air Force's World War II bombing campaigns, which damaged part of Pompeii, as a "casual assault on European civilization." More relevant to conservation, however, is the ambiguity inherent to Jenkins's argument. In one paragraph, he suggests that the only way forward for Pompeii is as a "part-reconstruction" that evokes the city as it stood in 79 AD before the volcanic eruption. And yet Jenkins is simultaneously averse to other modern intrusions, like the modern roofs erected to save what is left of the city.

There is a wonderful but flawed idea buried deep within this article as well as the psyche which governs many historic sites: that we can somehow completely reconstruct a moment in physical time, that we can rebuild a place in such a way as to make it both perfectly accurate and conservable. The simple fact of the matter is that our interpretation of the past is drastically affected by our own times. A new and complete reconstruction of Pompeii would be no more satisfying to generations yet unborn than the renovations completed after the Second World War are to us. Moreover, the process of total reconstruction would in many cases damage the very fiber of Pompeii so completely as to make it little more than an intensified version of what Jenkins argues is already a "ruin of a reconstruction of a ruin."

So is it ever possible to find compromise between the conflicting requirements of preserving the original fabric of history while also allowing people today (and in the future) to experience it?
The answers is not simple. Soon after the discovery of the Lascaux caves in France, site of a network of caverns with paintings dating back some 17,000 years, observers noted that the growing flow of visitors was producing an atmospheric change in the caves and resulting in the deterioration of paintings and the growth of harmful molds and fungi. The government's answer was to seal the cave almost completely and construct, nearby, a painstaking replica of the two most impressive caverns, which tourists can visit at their leisure. Another French complex contains the oldest examples of human paintings ever uncovered, dating back some 30,000 years. Only a handful of individuals, chiefly artists and scientists, are allowed entry each year. Yet the paintings in all of these caves still face a myriad of threats. Once opened, these places changed so drastically that all we can hope for is to slow their deterioration.

Cave paintings from Chauvet-Pont-D'arc, France

Closer to home, American historic(al) sites like those at Jamestown Settlement and Plimoth Plantation present reconstructions of historic places at locations similar, though not identical, to the originals. In some cases this technique is the result of the destruction of the original site, or the desire to protect subterranean archaeological resources while simultaneously presenting a complete if interpretive reconstruction. Another alternative, undertaken for instance, at Colonial Michilimackinac or Colonial Williamsburg, is to conduct archaeological excavations alongside rolling reconstructions or renovations of historic structures. And yet all of these places are as much products of our time as of past times. One need look only as far as the significant changes in (and significant cultural influence of) paint schemes at Williamsburg or Thomas Jefferson's Monticello to realize that our idea of how the past looked changes with each generation and each new scientific and scholarly discovery.

So should we just allow people to experience and handle history, knowing full well that each object or structure represents a finite number of such experiences? Isn't this the most honest method? In the end, all history is fleeting. Whether we like it or not, all conservation, all preservation, is merely a battle against the inevitable. No matter how pampered, every historic thing will eventually return to dust, and can we really justify ensuring that something exists but is never experienced? My girlfriend's recent research into the history of museum education for the disabled has revealed that as recently at the 1990s a major American museum was allowing blind visitors to handle an original Paul Revere silver piece. There is something incredible here. It's the simple fact that perhaps, in some cases, the act of one human experiencing the life of another, long gone, through something they left behind, is more valuable than a religious adherence to conservation standards. When it comes to history, we are left to wonder whether we should simply revel in it, respectfully, while it lasts. Because the future will have as little use of inaccessible objects as we do.

And yet, we have a responsibility to the past and the future. It would be selfish to argue that we can consume historical resources with abandon simply because that consumption has merit. It's not much fun, knowing full well what potential these resources have and yet also knowing that it is not really our right to plumb these depths. It brings to mind fine wine collectors who carefully store and admire aging bottles and are haunted by the conflicting desires to taste and to preserve.

The question then, is not so much between selfishness and selflessness. Our stewardship of history cannot be an all-or-nothing game where we make the Right Choice or the Wrong Choice when it comes to caring for objects and places. Instead, our preservation of the past is the result of countless little choices, decisions made by curators at town historical societies and diplomats at international conferences. In the end, it's not about whether Pompeii will crumble or not. It will. It's about how we choose to share the beauty and power of these pieces of history with the world as it is now, and the world as it will be.


  1. Excellent article. I really enjoyed this, and I think you bring up some valid points. How do we go about preserving things that will eventually "crumble" anyway? How do we ensure that to authentically experience them, while still preserving them? It is an interesting discussion.

    P.S.--I love Pompeii. The exhibit in NYC this summer was good, but nothing compared to actually walking down the street of the ruined city (which is my #1 travel dream in all the world).

  2. I really enjoyed your opinion on the article. The whole idea of reconstruction is, in most part, a bad idea. When a person decides to reconstruct something those in the process tend to pick a time they believe has the most 'historical' value. Like looking back on more historical sites like Paul Revere's home, those who reconstructed actually took it back to a time before Revere had put additions on his house. His life's work on the house was lost. When reconstruction happens, the fact that at one time this place use to be a 'living' entity is lost. Also looking at the fact that Pompeii has already been frozen in time, it is its own time capsule.

    I have personally been to Pompeii, though it was nearly six years ago. I don't remember many keep out signs or construction areas and I am glad of that. The wonder of Pompeii with Vesuvius sitting off in the distance would have lost that wonder if there was all that reconstruction going on. The only thing which I can recall which was a bit, well, uncouth was the fact that they had turned one of the ruins into an air conditioned espresso shop, complete with automatic doors. The destruction of history in a blatant way is more insulting than the hopes of reconstruction.

    One final note, if you ever find yourself in Pompeii, take a trip to Naples and visit Naples National Archaeological Museum, they have the largest collection of Pompeian artifacts. There is also a room with a display (or there had been) near the back of the collection that not many people of the public (supposedly or that's what they told us) do not get to see. Try to get into it, I mean just to see it. The things in that gallery aren't what you'd bring up in polite conversation, but they are really interesting pieces to see nonetheless.