Development and current principles of heritage conservation

Reverence for works of art and buildings inherited from the past and an attempt to conserve them for the future is a phenomenon that has its roots in ancient times. The greatest influence in the development of these attempts from the 15th century onwards was the Renaissance, with its interest in the works of Greek and Roman architecture and sculpture, in which Renaissance artists sought inspiration for their own work.

The growth of heritage conservation as a recognised field was boosted in the 18th century by the Enlightenment and the ensuing extension of education and development of academic study in the fields of history, archaeology, history of art and so on. A further part was played by Romanticism and its fascination with history and the art of the past, the revival of patriotism among European nations, and the historicism and stylistic revivals in architecture and art in the second half of the 19th century. Most developed European countries of the time began to build up state institutions for monument care, which today still fulfil three basic tasks. These are:

  • the survey and identification of valuable monuments that it is desirable to conserve for the future, in the general interest,
  • the search for optimal methods of caring for and conserving them,
  • their presentation and popularisation, in other words making heritage accessible to the public.

Heritage conservation is a dynamic and continually-developing field. It receives and integrates the growing knowledge of a number of academic and technical fields, and reacts sensitively to social developments and to transformations in period architecture and art.

It has been typical of the almost two-hundred-year development of heritage conservation that it has gradually widened the field of its interest, reflecting the changes in society’s interest in its past. The original focus on solitary monuments succh as castles, abbeys, cathedrals or architecturally-valuable ruins has gradually led to the appreciation and protection of whole town and village units, archaeological sites and industrial heritage. This approach is being continued in the protection of selected parts of the cultural landscape.

The methods of heritage conservation have also undergone a profound change, reflecting the development of architecture and art of the period. The purism that in the 19th century “cleansed“ mediaeval monuments of younger stylistic manifestations, in the name of a fictitious unity of style, was overtaken in the first half of the 20th century by a policy of strict conservation. It was accompanied by an analytical uncovering and highlighting of the remains of the older development of the monument and an uncompromising modernism in all completions and additions.

Compared to this (sometimes extreme) doctrinaire approach of the past, contemporary heritage conservation is pluralistic in its approaches and methods. It aims to find solutions that are individual, varying from case to case, taking into account the value and character of the historic building in question, the degree to which it has been preserved and the nature of the current needs that restoration is meant to meet. It recognises the significance of the living function of historic buildings, the need for the planned, sustainable development of protected towns and landscapes, and the necessity of continuous communication with the society whose public interest it is supposed to be protecting. On the international level it spreads respect for cultural diversity and recognises the values of the cultural heritage of all world cultures.