Hélia Marçal, Researcher, Instituto de Historia da Arte, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, London, Great Britain
Nowadays, heritage conservators are required to have not only a wide variety of technical but also social and human skills. The shift from a material-based conservation to an approach that focuses on subjects instead of objects (Muñoz Viñas 2004, 147) is a structural approach in contemporary theories of conservation. This tendency towards subjectivity created many possibilities by exposing the multiple perspectives that surround a conservation object. At the same time, it made very clear that conservation objects are contextual and contingent (Clavir 2009, 141). This dichotomy between the tangible and intangible features of a conservation object, however, has been successively overlooked in most conservation endeavours. Prior to the conservation decision-making, institutions usually identified the main stakeholders, with publics and communities being part of that sphere together with owners, artists, and conservators, among others. The decision-making process, however, does not engage with communities in practice. This situation is very problematic for the conservation cultural heritage objects in general, but it becomes truly hazardous for the preservation of cultural heritage with strong intangible features, such as social artistic practices, ethnographic objects, public art, participatory or performance art or even built heritage, which necessarily involves strong cooperation with communities and artists. After all, to whom are conservators preserving cultural heritage? What is the purpose of conserving cultural heritage for “future generations” if “present generations” are not called to decide in that process? The aim of this communication is to reflect upon the role of the conservator in the conservation of socially-engaged artworks, through the analysis of two case-studies. Through the exploration of these case-studies, this communication will show how community engagement might be the answer towards a more just conservation practice. It will argue that the absence of communities from decision-making circles is not accidental. It happens not only because institutions have problems knowing how to engage with the communities, but also because there is no consensus on what can be understood as communities. Waterton and Smith (2010, 5) explain that the concept of community has become problematic in heritage studies, mainly due to their heterogeneity and to the establishment of power relationships that tend to potentiate the participation of certain social groups instead of others. On the other hand, if some social groups and communities can be easily identified due to the development of formal or informal associations, in some instances the stakeholders are impossible to identify and, therefore, to reach in an effective manner. Also, it happens because Conservation is tied to what Laurajane Smith calls “authorised heritage discourse”, which translates into a tendency to enhance art-historical values instead of others. Communities can be the sustainable answer to Cultural Heritage care in present and future conservation endeavours. The decision of what can be considered Cultural Heritage is already dependent on the values provided by communities (Avrami 2009, Smith 2006), but involving communities might dislocate centres of power, which will expand conservation’s responsibility while promoting new ways of interacting with the true owners of Cultural Heritage: all of us.