“The past…is, to be sure, largely an artifact of the present,” Lowenthal says in his book, The Past is a Foreign Country. Even if we preserve authentically and try to experience the past as it was experienced, we will still view it through the lens of our present. Lowenthal, mentions the charms of the past. The past has charms, to be sure. But its charm comes from its comparison to what we know of our present world.
Lowenthal makes a point about the difference of the past and present being the cause of the charm, and that “no one would yearn for [the past] if it merely replicated the present.” (“The Past is a Foreign Country” Introduction, xvi) It is also common to find charm in the traditional – things that have remained the same throughout longer periods of time. The charm is derived from the perpetuity. A holiday tradition, for example, can connect us to the past. It is more than a far reaching attempt to touch the nostalgia of the estranged past through a common tradition. It is an act that transcends the alienation of the past from the present.
Woody Allen’s 2011 film, Midnight in Paris, addresses this ‘golden age’ mentality, making the point that every era bears a nostalgia for one that came before it, a time period better than the one being lived in. From that we can extrapolate that a future era will look on our own time as charming because of the differences from what will be their past, our present. As preservationists we should be wary of this mindset and avoid allowing it to influence too heavily our professional decisions.
“Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.” – Midnight in Paris