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The Venice Charter (1964) reaffirmed the historicist principles of the Athens Charter (1931), recasting them in terms of universal values. In the intervening decades, critics of the Venice Charter have attacked many of its premises, in particular, its focus on material authenticity. In response, some representatives of official discourse have retrenched—defending the objective validity of the charter, while expanding the range of “values” that guides its application. In essence, they have attempted to reconcile notions of the monument inherited from the Enlightenment with the “postmodern” idea of multiple and shifting values. The result has been an ever-expanding definition of the “monument”—without serious questioning of the underlying principles that guide its treatment.
Alois Riegl’s classic essay “The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Origin” (1903) is often cited as the first, and most profound, formulation of values-based conservation. Yet few have analyzed this dense and tremendously influential essay in its historical context. It is rarely noted that Riegl’s essay was in fact the introduction to a draft conservation law, which he wrote soon after his appointment as Conservator General for the Austrian State. An art historian, lawyer, and museum curator, Riegl wrote his essay with a practical aim: to develop a method for managing the growing body of antiquities in the charge of the state. When studied together with the draft law, it is clear that Riegl did not intend for relative values to replace older notions of value, but rather, to supplement them. As such, the contradictions of contemporary theory and practice were inherent in Riegl’s own project. This paper argues that we must reassess this project and its legacy, if we are to escape the current quandary of conservation.