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The Conservation of Heavily Visited Cultural Heritage Sites

February 14th, 2013

The Conservation of Heavily Visited Cultural Heritage Sites

Lucas Simonds

             While visiting the site of Butrint in Albania over the summer, I was disappointed to discover that one of its most stunning features, a mosaic pavement on the floor of a Byzantine period baptistery, was being kept out of sight due to conservation concerns. Like many heavily visited sites, the baptistery pavement would be prone to the wear and tear of thousands of tourist’s feet, and for the sake of preservation, the Butrint management had resorted to the rather inelegant solution of covering over the mosaic with sand. While I was upset at the thought of only seeing the mosaic through a faded picture on a nearby sign, I was reminded also of the ever present danger to such works of art, as a young couple jumped over the fence surrounding the mosaic area to have their picture taken among the columns of the baptistery.

At Butrint, as at many other heavily visited cultural heritage sites, conservators have to walk the fine line between preserving cultural heritage and displaying it to the public, for whom it is being preserved. In situations such as this it is difficult to devise a single best practice, as each site has not only different deterioration factors, but different amounts of funding available for preservation work. While the sand covering the mosaic at Butrint certainly serves as a functional barrier to the effects of trampling tourists, sites with more available funding are able to employ more labor intensive methods. At the Lascaux caves in France for instance, where carbon dioxide produced by visitors had begun to degrade the cave paintings within ten years of their opening to the public, a replica of the original caves has been made nearby to allow tourists to experience the cultural heritage without damaging the fragile original work (Dupont et al. 2007, 526). Similarly, at Pompeii in Italy the famous mosaic of Alexander the Great has been removed to the museum in nearby Naples, and replaced by an exact replica on-site. These replica solutions allow for greater access to cultural heritage by tourists while also protecting them from both those, like the couple I saw in Pompeii, who ignore barriers and trample over ancient floors without a thought, and from the inadvertent damage caused merely by the presence of tourists, such as the situation in the Lascaux caves. Although this is an effective method for both presenting and preserving cultural heritage to the general public, it also removes the key element of genuineness from the experience. While the lack of genuineness may not be a concern of the average tourist, I personally felt its absence when viewing the Alexander mosaic, and I am sure informed visitors to most sites would have a similar experience.  

            Unfortunately, authenticity is only one of the many factors which weave into the complex web of the conservation of cultural heritage on heavily trafficked sites. While the experience of the visitor must be taken into account, as it is for them that our heritage is being preserved, the preservation of the object has to take precedence, as without that, the site would not be worth visiting. Yet, as mentioned, the replacement of fragile artifacts with replicas only serves to lessen the experience for a large portion of the visitors. Even worse, however, are the simple solutions, such as that employed at Butrint, which eliminate any sort of personal encounter with cultural heritage, and are bad for all types of visitors. What then, should be done to preserve cultural heritage, while also allowing it to be viewed by as many as is reasonable?

            In an article on the conservation of rock art, Janette Deacon stresses both the complex nature of conservation on heavily visited sites, and the need for detailed management plans for such sites, which encompass all of the intricacies involved. This would include assessments of the advisable visitor capacities for each area of the sites, as well as considerations of more natural deterioration factors. More importantly, however, she advises the use of tour guides to prevent the many sorts of damage that can result from tourists interacting with the site (Deacon, 2006). While this may again cut into the enjoyableness of the experience; I certainly would have found a guide at Pompeii to be a damper to my exploration; the fact remains that staff on the ground near sensitive areas will the most effective control of visitors in that area by far. Signs can be ignored and barriers can be jumped, but an employee will be able to stop any reasonable visitor from doing something that they should not.

            As mentioned, the preservation of cultural heritage in highly visited sites is far from being a straightforward or simple issue. Natural deterioration factors such as weathering must be taken into account, and sometimes the only solution may be to remove an object, such as a mosaic, to a more controlled environment. Whenever possible, however, I believe it would be best to leave original objects on site. Of course this still exposes our heritage to the damage, both intentional and unintentional, caused by tourists, but strategic placement of staff or mandatory tour guides, can stop any reasonable visitor from touching things they shouldn’t. While this may be a more expensive solution, the fact that it can allow for genuine artifacts to remain on site makes it worthwhile when possible.

 

Deacon, Janette. 2006. Rock Art Conservation and Tourism. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 13(4): 379-399.

Dupont, Joelle, Claire Jacquet, Bruno Dennetiere, Sandrine Lacoste, Faisl Bousta, Genevieve Orial, Corinne Cruaud, Arnaud Couloux, and Marie-France Roquebert. 2007. Invasion of the French Paleolithic Painted Cave of Lascaux by Members of the Fusarium solani Species Complex. Mycologia 99(4): 526-533.

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