On September 22 – 23, 2016 the Saxo Institute at Copenhagen University invited scholars from fields of heritage, archaeology, social sciences, fine arts and anthropology for a conference entitled, ‘On the Trace.’  Lectures and discussions focused on significant objects and places, and our relationship to the continued and/or diminishing traces they leave behind.  Invited speakers addressed this topic through a variety of examples such as: the heritagization of a presumably failed fission nuclear research site; the objects collected from survivors of a Nazi internment camp; and the ritual of children in several Scandinavian countries whereby they forfeit their pacifiers to specific communal trees as a childhood rite of passage.   

On September 26, 2016, Stockholm University hosted a day of lectures on the topic, ‘Reframing Heritage as Movement.’  Representative scholars and professionals from the field of historic preservation and heritage were present to speak about how objects and places have shifted meaning and significance over time, and how the field of heritage can diversify and respond to shifting contexts.  

While clearly diverse, the lectures at each of these conferences brought up discussions that revolved around several key questions:  
  • Is heritage overly obsessed with the object/tangible and should we (and can we) shift focus away from the object?
  • How can people better illustrate alternative histories? What happens with conflicting histories as we move forward?
  • How can we use traces to address the past such that it helps to create stronger, more resilient, more diverse and inclusive futures?

These questions are overwhelmingly complex.  Traces/histories are experienced in many different ways and the speakers who presented at these conferences have pulled on a number of fascinating sources to frame their discussions.  As I begin to pour through these sources and mull over my own understanding of the issues presented, these are initial reflections on the topics presented at these conferences.  


Perhaps the most densely discussed question at the conference was what value the object plays in tracing history.  Is the object overly emphasized?  Does focus on the object run the risk of jeopardizing the history associated with it?  Does focus on the object prevent growth beyond a singular lived experience?

These questions are similar to those which the field of historic preservation has been struggling with for much of its history and with an increased focus for the last three decades.  Preservation and heritage are defined by more than just a building’s or object’s age but are the cultural significance of these material objects.  In 1994, preservation professionals met in the US state of Texas to discuss the broadening understanding of historic preservation and cultural significance within the field.  The Declaration of San Antonio in 1996 was the result of the 1994 meeting and offered guidelines on how heritage and historic preservation can be framed and envisioned within shifting and diverse cultural landscapes:

“We recognize that in certain types of heritage sites, such as cultural landscapes, the conservation of overall character and traditions, such as patterns, forms, and spiritual value, may be more important than the conservation of the physical features of the site, and as such, may take precedence.  Therefore, authenticity is a concept much larger that (sic) material integrity and the two concepts must not be assumed to be equivalent or consubstantial.” (3)

There is explicit understanding in this declaration that the tangible is a marker for something more significant – overall cultural value – and the material integrity of an object is second to its significance.  During an open discussion at ‘On the Trace,’ one of the participants mentioned that the trace should be seen as a window into somewhere or something but itself should not be fetishized.  In other words, the trace without cultural significance is meaningless but cultural significance, by definition and regardless of object, is never without meaning and, as such, should be prioritized.  

Cultural significance, however, is subjective and can be ambiguous.  As a result, the object – the tangible – is often still prioritized.  This prioritization comes with several dangers including: perpetuating a dominant narrative for which there are many traces and thereby neglecting alternative histories of which there may be few or no objects remaining; or fetishizing the past at the expense of the future.  Each of these are significant concerns and ones that historic preservation has been attempting to understand for some time.  Once again, the Declaration of San Antonio addresses these issues:

“…the Americas must recognize the values of the majorities and the minorities without imposing a hierarchical predominance of any one culture and its values over those of others.  The comprehensive cultural value of our heritage can be understood only through an objective study of history, the material elements inherent in the intangible heritage, and a deep understanding of the intangible traditions associated with the tangible patrimony.” (1)

Thus, the Declaration of San Antonio does not scapegoat the object as the perpetrator in creating unilateral histories but, instead, recognizes that the object is representative of the value system of those who decide heritage preservation within communities.  These responsible parties hold the potential to overemphasize the tangible which can make creating a diverse, nuanced and representative understanding of heritage difficult. While the declaration was written in 1996, the discussion at each of these conferences shows that preservation and the other respective fields are still struggling with how to best negotiate the relay of cultural significance and expand understanding of significance while not fixating solely on the tangible.   

While the heritage discourse must be expanded beyond the object, the object does still hold great potential and should not be fully dismissed.  Without an object we risk relegating our histories strictly to libraries, books, movies, museums – places of heritage discourse.  Those heritages would possibly become isolated to where people must choose to engage in order to connect with that past.  In maintaining an object (especially with regard to urban planning and public space) we provide the opportunity for individuals to unintentionally and spontaneously connect with other individuals regarding shared and differed pasts through an object or space.  

To oversimplify, a preserved object within a public space has before it two futures: one in which it actively adapts to changing conditions (for example adaptive reuse) or one in which it is preserved as best as possible in its historic state.  Either way, that trace becomes a link between the past and present both through its progression and difference over time.  Another point brought up during a discussion at the conference in Copenhagen was that traces when placed within the metaphor of a scar are not still open wounds.  Whatever caused the trace, there is distance from it; it has, to some degree, healed.  It is not still active but is still capable of being acted upon, discussed, responded to.  

By no means does every community or person want to call attention to every trace, every scar, however, these objects and places have potential.  We are familiar with them.  They are a part of our past and have grown with us.  As such, these traces hold the opportunity to serve as indicators of growth and learning as much as high water marks we aspire to hit again.  The trace should be considered for preservation with the understanding that it is not a cure-all or the answer to a question but part of an on-going conversation.  By removing the object, demolishing the place, and starting with a tabula rasa we jeopardize ending that conversation mid-sentence rather than opening the dialogue to include more voices from the community.