Historic Preservation, Guilty Of Cultural Appropriation?

Culture appropriation: “power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” How does this controversial and often concealed phenomenon fit in the preservation field? The concept of memory, reasons to value, and assessment of cultural significance, as explored in Lowenthal’s “The Past is a Foreign Country”, led me to see certain aspects of preservation practices in a different manner.

Do we appropriate cultures when we preserve? Let’s face facts, a large portion of what is taught in the field is based on Eurocentric visions. These cultural appropriation tendencies have transferred unto the conservation practice induced by hegemonic tendencies. Hegemony  is particularly common to encounter, yet remains hushed. Basically, in order to ensure survival, a superposition of another nation is vital. Yet, this contains quite a few gray areas. A prime example of cultural appropriation, where the architecture interpreted and established by foreigners did not represent the authenticity of the culture in itself, is the preservation/restoration movement of Santa Fe, New Mexico during the early 20th century. After an extended period of enduring hardships under the spanish rule, New Mexico became a U.S state in 1912, and a new image to attract tourists was designed. This re-design ignored locals, birthed the Santa Fe revival style and redefined an already existing sense of place which led to a gentrification of the area. The appropriation took place focusing on tourism, therefore cultural elements of Santa Fe were disseminated into an americanized and marketable version appealing to foreigners. Yet, the values and significance inherited in the latter premise are precisely highlighting the struggle between the dominant american culture and the native local descendants. Slowly their traces and cultural identity are been wiped, only to leave surviving elements (materials or symbols) of the oppressed culture to be appropriated by the dominant culture and celebrated in favor of the dominant culture.

It’s landmarks like these that are notably tricky to arbitrate. Without a doubt, by attempting to restore or preserve a mix of meanings and values, preservation will always tiptoe in some slippery surface. Here values clash, more than usual. So, under what premise do we choose to preserve in these cases?This showcases yet another complex side to the preservation field.


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