Replication of objects and reconstruction of heritage assets: shared principles? (by Henry Owen-John)

The publication of New Futures for Replicas: Principles and Guidance for Museums and Heritage prompted me to think about the extent to which current philosophies underpinning the treatment of replicas and the replication of objects relate to those which are advocated in relation to the reconstruction of heritage assets such as monuments, historic buildings and townscapes. While New Futures use of the term replica applies to both museum and heritage contexts, its overall balance is more weighted on the former than the latter. While some of the principles relating to replicas and heritage assets are necessarily distinct and specific there is much commonality between the two, and both have been the subject of recent debate and shifts in thinking. In the case of objects this has emerged in part from the ongoing risk that replicas may be deaccessioned or disposed of without sufficient understanding of their value and significance, while with heritage assets one of the drivers for reconstruction has been their destruction in natural disasters and armed conflict.

Significance in own right

Understanding significance and value is at the heart of the effective manufacture and curation of replicas new and old and the same applies to heritage assets. The recognition that a replica has significance in its own right, emphasized in New Futures, is reflected in the value that can attach to well-executed reconstruction. For example the post-World War II rebuilding of Warsaw, 85% of the historic core of which was destroyed, is recognised in its inscription on the World Heritage List.

Figure 1: Ruins of Warsaw in 1945, via Pikrepo (in public domain)

The Statement of Outstanding Universal Value states that ‘the city was rebuilt as a symbol of elective authority and tolerance, where the first democratic European constitution, the Constitution of 3 May 1791, was adopted’.

Figure 2: Warsaw Old Town Poland, © Andrzej_b via Pixabay

Although there is an emphasis on the degree of authenticity of the reconstructed buildings and townscape based on surviving fabric, archival evidence and a conscious decision to recreate the eighteenth-century townscape, the establishment of the value of the reconstruction in its own right is a key element of its significance.

Community collaboration and participatory approaches

Another element of common ground with the New Futures approach to replicas is that of community collaboration and participatory approaches to heritage reconstruction. The original 1994 Nara Document on Authenticity recognised that this is essential, alongside respect for international charters and conventions, where it states that ‘responsibility for cultural heritage and the management of it belongs, in the first place, to the cultural community that has generated it, and subsequently to that which cares for it’. The reconstruction of those parts of the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka destroyed by a bomb in 1998 was able to proceed swiftly because of a commonality of commitment to reconstruction from the different communities of interest with a stake in the Temple, particularly the Buddhist community, which continues to care for the site today. Indeed the project manager of the reconstruction programme suggested that it was ‘the impact on identity that underlies the argument for and justifies a physical restoration of tangible heritage at the recovery stage’ (Wijesuriya 2007, 88).

Figure 3: 1998 Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka, after attack, © SPUR Australia
Figure 4: Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka, after reconstruction, © A. Savin

Recent guidance on reconstruction

More recently ICOMOS has continued to develop its thinking on this issue and refers to the concept of popular recognition in its 2018 Global Case Study Project on Reconstruction: Matrix for the Compilation of Case Studies. The matrix provides a useful/check list/process map that helps to inform which approaches to reconstruction might work best in relation to individual places. This document was produced following the development of ICOMOS Guidance on Post Trauma Recovery and Reconstruction for World Heritage Cultural Properties in 2017, which was itself prompted by the ever increasing numbers of heritage assets suffering damage as a consequence of armed conflict and natural disasters. Although the guidance (a working document) and matrix were produced specifically for World Heritage Sites, the processes they set out can be applied to a wider range of heritage assets.

It is not surprising that there is shared thinking in the closely related and overlapping fields of replication and reconstruction. Historic England certainly felt the need to review its position on reconstruction in the light of a renewed focus on the subject in international heritage communities and advances in technology. The fact that New Futures and the advice of Historic England on the reconstruction of heritage assets were published within a few weeks of each other illustrates the contemporary relevance of these topics as museums and heritage bodies try to find a responsible way through the ethical challenges they raise. Museum and heritage contexts can engage with each other to mutual benefit in this endeavour.

Henry Owen-John, Head of World Heritage, Historic England

(Henry has just been awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2020 for his ‘services to heritage protection’ . Congratulations, Henry!)


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