I am fond of saying that historic preservation—heritage conservation—is not a set of rules and regulations but a dynamic process whereby a community determines what elements of its past are worth bringing into the future. Teaching historic preservation, I focus less on the mutable and interpretable Secretary of the Interior's Standards than on the process: Identification, Evaluation, Registration, and Treatment. This process can work in any society or community with almost any sort of resource—tangible or intangible. The key is to integrate community members into the planning process from the beginning, so that they help identify, evaluate, register, and determine future treatments.
This approach reflects both the maturation of the historic preservation movement in the United States and the impact of international heritage conservation over the last 20 years. Beginning with the Nara Document on Authenticity in 1994, the Asian take on "authenticity"—which often privileged ritual and practice above fabric and design—began to be incorporated into our field. The document expanded "authenticity" to include: "a great variety of sources of information (such as) form and design, materials and substance, use and function, traditions and techniques, location and setting, and spirit and feeling, and other internal and external factors."1
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The classic examples of this are the Shinto shrine temples in Japan. The great shrine at Ise is [End Page 5] more than a thousand years old, but is demolished and rebuilt every 18-20 years. When it is rebuilt, 1,000-year-old tools and techniques are used, which means the building tradition is preserved just as it was. In contrast, in the U.S. we happily restore 300-year-old farmhouses with epoxy and nail guns, taking care of the fabric but not necessarily the building tradition. It is not a question of which approach is correct: Each culture comes to its own conclusions using the same process of identification, evaluation, registration, and treatment.
The process was most eloquently defined in the Burra Charter of 1999, which unlike the Venice Charter of 1964, recognized conservation as an active process of change. No longer are there universal standards for what is preserved and how it is managed. But there are universal principles and procedures for making that determination. These principles include an expanded understanding of documentation: "The cultural significance of a place, and other issues affecting its future, are best understood by a methodical process of collecting and analysing information before making decisions."2 The Burra Charter had its greatest impact on international practice by specifically calling for the involvement of communities associated with a place: "Conservation, interpretation and management of a place should provide for the participation of people for whom the place has special associations and meanings, or who have social, spiritual or other cultural responsibilities for the place."3 In contrast to the top-down approach inherent in the Athens and Venice charters, Burra puts the community at the center of the process.
I have been working internationally for 15 years, now through the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), which helps preserve world heritage sites in developing countries through community development. We have just embarked on a project that highlights this process in Guizhou, China's poorest province.
The Minority Villages of Guizhou, which have been nominated for World Heritage inscription, are diverse cultural landscapes that include both traditional buildings but also traditional landscapes, both agricultural and industrial. We will be working with UNESCO, the Guizhou Culture ministry, a regional conservation agency, two [End Page 6] universities, and a Chinese NGO called You Cheng, which seeks to help communities preserve intangible heritage. In Dali Dong village, You Cheng will help preserve traditional silversmithing crafts, while in Heshui village we are hoping to maintain a 600-year-old tradition of handmade paper. In each village we will also be crafting detailed plans for the preservation of buildings and landscapes, including the distinctive drum towers of the Dong people and the wooden covered bridges popular in each town.