- Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving by Caitlin DeSilvey
by Caitlin DeSilvey. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, U.S.A., 2017. 240 pp., illus. Trade, paper. ISBN: 978-0-8166-9436-5; ISBN: 978-0-8166-9438-9.
Poetry plays an important role in this book on post-preservationist, post-humanist heritage, and while reading it, I could not stop thinking of this stanza from Rilke's 8th Duino Elegy:
And we: always and everywhere spectators, [End Page 91] turned toward the stuff of our lives, and never outward.It all spills over us. We put it to order.It falls apart. We order it again and fall apart ourselves.
This fragment (and it is important that it is a fragment, not a complete poem) poignantly summarizes the very failure of the preservationist and humanist paradigm: the impossibility of giving a lasting form to what is going away as well as the refusal to accept the vanishing of "the stuff of our lives." DeSilvey's starting point in Curated Decay is the growing awareness of the limits—she does not say failure, for the tone of the book is not polemical at all—of the traditional humanist preservationist ideal still dominant in Euro-American heritage policy and, more generally, in the Western relationship with the past. On the one hand, it becomes clear that preservation is becoming more and more difficult, from a material as well as a financial point of view: There are simply too many buildings and built environments to be protected, restored and managed (and their number is increasing daily), and the costs of such operations are so high that people inevitably have to make choices—painful choices, since in the humanist preservationist paradigm the loss of a thing—be it an object or a building—is experienced as the loss of one's own identity. On the other hand, preservation heritage clashes with other priorities, no less valid—even from a classic humanist point of view—than that of the material maintenance of manmade things: wildlife, plants, animals and biodiversity, for instance. Finally, it also appears that preservation does not necessarily produce or enhance what is the essential motivation of heritage, namely the establishment of a deep relationship with the past (or rather with time, for the perception of the past cannot be separated from an anticipated connection with the future).
Curated Decay makes a plea for a different take on heritage. This take is post-humanist because it looks for a new balance between the needs of human beings and those of nonhuman beings (plants, animals, buildings, environments), one that puts an end to human exceptionalism. It is also post-preservationist since it tries to make room for the creation of new relationships with the past through the (curated) use of decay, that is, of vanishing and death, addressing things no longer just as "things," capable of being kept outside the cycle of life and death, but as "processes," that is, as beings and structures having, just like human beings, their own life and death. "Heritage beyond saving," to quote the book's subtitle, is then the search for a new form of heritage that does not reject preservation but instead tries to broaden and deepen it, first by proposing forms of curating heritage that stop seeing integral material maintenance as an absolute ideal; and second by stressing the productive values of decay, which may prove much stronger instruments to give meaning and value to the past than the classic preservationist paradigm. In that regard, the positive reinterpretation of decay and entropy—the two principal notions defining what the classic paradigm wants to fight at all cost—does not come as a surprise. In the experimental heritage policy defended by DeSilvey, decay and entropy are not synonymous with destruction and loss; they instead open the possibility of seeing loss and destruction as the beginning of something new, not only in the material sense of the word but also in the cultural sense of the word, provided people manage to develop new ways of living the permanent change of things in relation to their own transience and...