Monday, 4 June 2018

Thinking and Teaching 'Conservation': balancing ethics, people, and policy


In last month's blog Kuili wrote about certain situations in the field when we as heritage professionals are confronted with differing needs of different 'communities'. These field instances stayed in her mind as they tested or maybe even challenged our professional ethics. Maybe our morality too? While I'm unsure of the latter I have no doubts that such experiences do cause us to question our disciplinary ethics. I therefore decided it was worthwhile to extend the conversation thread to this month's blog.

Some of you may wonder how or why do ethics or morals come into the picture? For example, quite often I am asked what does conservation have to do with people? Isn't it a science? This question usually comes up when I say I'm working towards a PhD dissertation on Heritage Conservation with a broad focus on how heritage and its conservation intersect with peoples' lives. The question "isn't it a science and hence nothing to do with people" is a huge issue but in this blog I stick to the topic of ethics. It comes into the picture especially since the discipline is increasingly working with people.

Recently I read an essay by Paul Drury, a heritage professional based in England. He argues that "conservation is an evolving concept...a philosophical approach" that seeks to understand what people value and that comes first, much before the physical process of repair...A couple of lines stayed with me: "practising conservation involves judgement guided by professional ethics and public policy" and further along "conservation [is] becom[ing] a more complex and public activity". I interpret these lines to mean: we are often pulled in different directions when our professional training demands a course of action that seems contrary to governmental policy and / or local peoples' wants or desires. In effect our work becomes a fine act of balancing all these varying demands while exercising our judgment - a difficult task. Are we trained enough for this? Are we prepared? Maybe its time to reflect on our training and how well it prepares us for ground realities that are far removed from the studio.

For example, we were called to 'characterise' a settlement located near a protected site. The heritage authority had received a number of applications for No Objection Certificate (NoC) from this settlement because of the rule that 100m from a protected site is a no development zone and further 200m from it is a development control zone. The authority recognised that the settlement had existed before this policy came up and wished to respond as fairly as possible to various applications that sought development permissions. Hence the suggestion that we study and interpret the local context (settlement pattern, typology, architectural style/s, materials and construction technology ...).

While walking around an elderly man started a general conversation when he abruptly stopped and said, "I would like to ask you a question, don't get offended". I replied that he was welcome to ask anything. He said: "you say you are a heritage expert, you tell me is it fair for the authority to construct new structures well inside the protected area of the site in the name of public toilets, ticket booth, visitor facilities and so on but we are denied permission to build toilets or repair our roof or add a floor just because we live close to a site that has been declared protected". 

Of course it was unfair especially from his standpoint! What is the middle path in such situations? How we do balance policy, needs of the site whose care is our professional mandate and needs of people whose lives happen to intersect with the site only because it was declared protected? More so since increasingly there is recognition that heritage is supposed to be of, for and by people.

The questions above bring us back to the statement in the beginning of the blog that conservation challenges our ethical (and maybe our moral?) judgments. How well are we preparing students to face such realities? The answer is not too well I'm afraid. When I am called to review conservation related studio work (documentation, assessment, analyses, adaptive re-use etc.,) I generally notice students being unable to proceed further with their projects as field work has brought such quandaries to light. They are unsure of how to resolve them. Maybe acknowledging that such quandaries exist and are more the norm rather than exception is the first step - than trying to set them aside in the name of 'objectivity'.