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From the From the President column of the April 2005 Perspectives

Preserving the Past

James J. Sheehan, April 2005

It is hard for us to imagine that the inhabitants of Rome once quarried the ruins of ancient temples for stones to build their houses or that German bureaucrats in the early 19th century used books taken from monastic libraries to pave their roads. We always find it painful to learn that some historical treasure has been destroyed, either by war, like the great abbey at Montecassino, or by political vandalism, like the contents of Baghdad's museums, or by accident, like the Anna Amalia library in Weimar. The residues of the past, we recognize, are both fragile and precious, things that need to be protected and preserved.

This recognition of the past's vulnerability is an important part of history's cultural origins and a significant source of its endless fascination. "The poetry of history," wrote G. M. Trevelyan, "lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone like ghosts at cock-crow." The great Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz (who knew a lot about the meaning of loss), once said that "only an awareness of the dangers menacing what we love allows us to sense the dimension of time and to feel in everything we see and touch the presence of past generations."

Although a concern for the past's vulnerability has been around for centuries, it has recently been intensified by the increasingly destructive power of change that we sense all around us. Everywhere we turn we find signs that large pieces of our world are being torn down, paved over, violently extinguished. According to one estimate more than 50 acres of the earth's forests are destroyed every minute; of the 242,000 plant species surveyed in 1997, some 33,000 are supposed to be at risk; among the 6,800 distinct languages now spoken throughout the world, 400 are restricted to a handful of speakers and will soon disappear, while another 3,000 are in danger of extinction. We face, in other words, a future in which our planet's rich natural and cultural variety will steadily decline, leaving us diminished in ways difficult to measure and understand.

Because we feel so much is slipping away from us, our society devotes an enormous amount of time and effort to saving what it can from the wreckage. New museums open every day, steadily expanding their scope from art and antiquities to a bewildering variety of human artifacts and natural environments. (Earlier this year, a Museum of the American Cocktail was founded—where else?—in New Orleans.) In his informative review essay on museums in the February 2005 AHR, Randolph Starn reports that there are 25,000 accredited museums in the world, 8,000 in the United States; the total number of smaller institutions is several times larger. The museum has become our modern society's most significant cultural institution, a source of meaning, legitimacy, and, perhaps above all, of reassurance that some pieces of the past will be preserved.

There is, of course, a paradox at the heart of preservation. To protect things from the damaging forces of history, it is necessary to remove them from harm's way, which often means stripping them of their original meaning and purpose. Joseph Levenson nicely captured this paradox with the following example taken from a guidebook describing the tomb of the great Chinese patriot, Yueh Fei:

Before the tomb kneel the figures of the traitor Ch'in Kuei, his wicked wife, his accomplice Mochi Hsueh, and Chang Chun who deserted Yueh Fei at the critical moment. It was the tradition for tourists to throw stones and other objects at these figures to show their contempt for their treachery. But nowadays the practice has been discontinued owing to the need for preserving the figures which are of historical value.

— Quoted by Frederic Wakeman in his introduction to Levenson's Revolution and Cosmopolitanism (Berkeley, 1971), xiv.

Who, Levenson wants us to wonder, understood the historical value of these statues better, those who cared enough to throw stones at them or those who turned them into objects of disinterested admiration?

As old as the museum is a persistent uneasiness about the enterprise of preservation. In the early 20th century, avant-garde artists fantasized about "kidnapping" the Mona Lisa or even burning down the Louvre; museums, libraries, and archives often appear in novels and films as emblems of sterility. In his frequently—perhaps too frequently—quoted essay, "Valéry Proust Museum," Theodor Adorno called museums "the family sepulchers of works of art," and drew attention to the linguistic similarity between museum and mausoleum. The literature by and about museum professionals is filled with self-critical questions about the institution's place in contemporary culture and society.

The museum's critics usually underestimate the amount of energy and erudition required to identify, classify, and preserve the past. Nor do these critics tell us what the alternatives to museums might be. Are we really prepared to leave the sculpture at Yueh Fei's tomb to the mercy of an ever-growing number of stone-throwing visitors? And what about the great statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which were blown up by the Taliban, who thereby expressed an intense but terminal regard for their historical significance?

As the custodians and protectors of the past, museum professionals deserve our respect and support. "Museums and history are close kin," Starn eloquently argued in his AHR essay, but they tend to remain in their own separate institutional spheres. It is time we began to pay more attention to one another: perhaps, in addition to reviewing films, the AHR should review important museum collections and special exhibitions, thereby recognizing the vital role they play in both the preservation and presentation of the past.

Not long ago I heard a lecture about the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, located near Mexico City, where scientists have created a genebank that preserves an immense collection of seeds from wild and domesticated cereal plants. Their work is part of a larger scientific project to improve the yields of crops that nourish so many people throughout the world, but I was struck by how this genebank was an apt metaphor for what many historians do when we preserve residues of the past, never knowing when we might need them to nourish future generations.

— James Sheehan (Stanford Univ.) is president of the AHA.