The Venice Charter (1964) reaffirmed the historicist principles of the Athens Charter (1931), recasting them in terms of universal values. Since then, 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. Ever larger and more complex objects—vernacular building types, neighborhoods, and landscapes—are treated according to the same museological standards once reserved for monuments and art objects. This process has, in effect, frozen large swathes of the built environment in time—a situation that is unsustainable in cultural, social, and economic terms.1 Even those who are sympathetic to a more inclusive definition of heritage worry about the ‘‘rampant relativism’’ that may ultimately undermine the project of preservation itself.2
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 preservation. This tremendously influential essay is generally seen as the beginning of the modern approach to monuments.3 Yet few have analyzed this dense and tremendously influential essay in its historical context.4 The essay was in fact the introduction to a draft preservation law, which Riegl wrote soon after his appointment to the Austrian monuments commission. Informed by his training in law and art history and by his experience as a museum curator, it is a carefully crafted treatise with a practical aim: to outline a method for managing the growing body of antiquities in the charge of the state. Some scholars attribute the problems of preservation to Riegl’s successors who, they say, have misread Riegl or failed to assimilate his insights.5 This essay will argue that, on the contrary, the dilemma of modern preservation theory and practice was inherent in Riegl’s own project.
Visit Project Muse to read other articles featured in this issue.