Saviors, Loss, and Entropy

After talking last week of preservation as managing loss, I have spent a lot of time mulling that definition over in my head. We like to think of ourselves as saviors of heritage. We always use the language of “saving,” no matter whether we are “saving” a forgotten building, a historic detail, or some other tangible or intangible piece of heritage. Coming from this mentality, it seems a little self-defeating to re-imagine what we are really doing as just holding together all the itty-bitty pieces against the forces of entropy, which will certainly triumph in the end.

After reading Frank Matero’s “Loss, Compensation, and Authenticity: The Contribution of Cesare Brandi to Architectural Conservation in America,” I was struck by Frank’s interpretation of Brandi’s understanding of loss. In Brandi’s view, each object has an inherent fabric, physical form, and history that remain accessible even after sizable loss. Later, Frank discusses how other theorists, largely 19th century thinkers, consider physical or material loss as detrimental and disruptive to cultural property. Obviously, loss can result in “…instability, illegibility, and possible disuse or devaluation” (Matero, 50), but what about when loss is a part of the heritage of the object?

Without getting too romantic or Ruskin-esque about enjoying the cracks and yellow patina of a lacquer-soaked Flemish painting  (which is obviously horribly detrimental to the piece and its interpretation), or the cracking pages of a 16th century book (which make it impossible to use), loss can be an inherent value in itself. I think of big, war-driven examples, like the Berlin wall, which without its destruction would be meaningless. I think of symbols of national pride, like the Liberty Bell, which without its signature crack would just be another big, heavy bell. As mentioned in Frank’s article, I think of the Venus de Milo. Would she be half so striking if she has arms? Or is it her truncated body that truly captures our imagination?

If preservation is ultimately just managing loss, how can we preserve loss that makes up an object’s value? If the liberty bell’s initial crack continued to grow and widen, until the whole thing split into two, would we be justified in letting that happen, and letting its historic fracture end its life? Would we be justified in collecting all the pieces of the Berlin wall and re-assembling them to re-make the wall as it was, effectively reversing the loss? Where can we fit into this process, either as saviors or as panic-stricken fools clutching together the fragments of something that is doomed to fail? When can we save, and when can we accept the loss and let entropy do its work?

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