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"Cultural Heritage Belongs to Us All: In Search of the Preservation of Tangible and Intangible Memory."

Written by Beatriz Aguilar Sánchez

Translated by María Ritter Miravete

Beatriz Aguilar Sánchez has a bachelor’s degree in Restoration of Cultural Heritage from ENCRyM-INAH (National School of Conservation, Restoration and Museography – National Institute of Anthropology and History). She has worked as a conservator and commissary of national and international exhibition’s transit at INBAL (National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature).

Also as a restorer of the iconographic heritage of the Cineteca Nacional and currently works in supervision and coordination of conservation and restoration projects in the General Directorate of University Heritage at UNAM (Autonomous National University of Mexico).

Her approach to such vast and diverse collections has allowed her to experience the artistic and cultural wealth of Mexico, as well as the manifest challenges in handling artworks of diverse materiality and temporality.

What is implied in the restoration or conservation of cultural heritage? Certainly, the action of the restorer can become quite interpretative, since frequently, acting as an external agent, endowed with a specialized technical language, they evoke the recovery of a series of values in cultural or artistic assets, which are not necessarily the values attributed to them by the other actors on the scene: the users of the object. As mentioned by Mauricio Jiménez and Mariana Sainz, in the essay titled: Who makes Cultural Heritage? Its valuation and use, from the perspective of a field of power, although cultural heritage is recognized as the collective property of citizens, "its access is generally mediated by institutions or cultural apparatuses designed for its presentation, interpretation and consumption" (Jiménez and Sainz, 2011). So that in the intricate process of the interpretation of cultural heritage[1] there is a "predominance of objectivist discourse, whether scientific or rhetorical, in which professionals constitute an "expert zone" that inhibits social participation in the decision making process" (Pasco, 2015), altering the link with the group that consequently is heir to such cultural capital.


The consolidated existence of Conservation and Restoration as disciplines in charge of the care, safeguarding, and dissemination of the cultural heritage of different cultural groups is relatively young. Its context of origin is embedded in the European vision of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries specialists such as Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, John Ruskin, Cesare Brandi, Paul Philippot (Muñoz Viñas, 2003) to mention a few, which gave way to the consensus and definition of ethical codes, technical and methodological approaches to be used for the intervention of artistic and cultural property.

Since its conception, aided by the vision of multiple disciplines inserted in the anthropological, social and exact sciences, Conservation has been gradually building the guidelines, criteria, laws and conventions that allow us to define the broad universe of what we call heritage, and in that sense to clarify which objects, monuments, spaces, knowledge, documents or memories should be preserved and why it is important to do so[2](UNESCO, 1972).

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Image 1. View of the work "L'Exécution de Maximilien" by Édouard Manet, in the permanent exhibition of the National Gallery, London, UK. As a curious fact, it is known that after the artist's death, the canvas was cut into smaller fragments and sold separately. The painter Edgar Degas bought all the preserved fragments and reassembled them into a single canvas. Photograph by Beatriz Aguilar.

Now, from the perspective of academic training, specialists are made aware of the legal and ethical guidelines that must accompany the technical practice regarding the intervention of heritage objects. The various Letters of Restoration written throughout history[3] are part of the formative lectures imparted at the schools and universities that enroll us in this discipline; but they’re not limited to this, since they become guiding instruments that define (mostly in the West) an ethical praxis, attached to the agreed international guidelines. In this manner, due to the complexity circumscribed in the study of objects understood as cultural heritage, it is also vital to consider the detailed analysis of other characteristics related to these assets, such as: the context surrounding the object per se, its origin, its function, its meaning, who produced said object, the time-space context, as well as the value or series of values conferred by the society that holds or safeguards it; this, in short, determines the relevance of the conservation and safeguarding of an object.

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Image 2. Conservation status report of the artwork "Portrait of Pope Julius II" by Raphael Sanzio, during its temporary loan as part of the exhibition "Leonardo da Vinci and the Idea of Beauty" and "Michelangelo Buonarroti. An artist between two worlds" at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City. Photograph by Beatriz Aguilar.

Image 3. Professional practices of the ENCRyM students, where they carried out  detailed observation of the polychromy inside the Chapel of the Litany, in El Llanito, Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato. Photograph by Itzel Sánchez.

However, a phenomenon that is frequently replicated as a result of the super-specialization inherent to the study of heritage, or due to the restrictive agenda of the institutional framework, is the lack of a panoramic and comprehensive analysis that incorporates the role of other social agents that play a fundamental part in the conservation and recognition of cultural heritage: the users with non-specialized discourses. It is clear that all of us, as entities related to a social structure, endow objects with values, create stories around them, attribute symbologies and codes to them; we mythologize them and insert them into an intricate network that sustains the construction of our cosmogonic vision. Objects function as tangible evidence, which is frequently used for the reinforcement of ephemeral or intangible knowledge and wisdom; through their recognition and diffusion within a social group, we seek to replicate and decode their content in the collective memory, and thus prolong their existence for future generations. Nevertheless, it also happens that, in the vortex of the times, whose naturalness is change, this recognition or significance also tends to be transformed, and sometimes lost. Therefore, a vital part of the conservator's work and of the projects that seek, on the one hand, the recovery of the material stability of the property, as well as the values contained in it, is the dissemination of the object to promote a re-linking of its content with the society that surrounds them. Meanwhile, on the other hand, the users or observers should act from their point of view, questioning themselves to recover the significance given to an object or even bringing it to the most current one and contrast if this object fulfills the same function for which it was created.


The positive link between an object and its depositary/ies can be dynamited from aspects as universal as: a personal association towards the object, the significance of the object as a symbol or representation of a value sustained in a social and ritual framework. As an example of this positive relationship, I can recall my participation in the evaluation of the piece "Las tres edades" by Saturnino Herrán[4]; during which Patricia Ledesma, the staff of the Museum of Aguascalientes, shared with us, with a hint of tears in her eyes and great emotion, the aesthetic experience that this work generated in her. It is equally amazing when these emotions develop exponentially throughout an entire community; such is the case of El Llanito, the town where the Chapel of the Litany is located (INAH, 2014) and where it was possible to coordinate activities aimed at the inhabitants to set a guideline to reaffirm their commitment to this property. Thus, during my time at STROM (Mural Restoration Workshop Seminar)[5], in addition to professional restoration practices and exhaustive scientific research aimed at its material stabilization, the reading of the Rosary was organized, corresponding to the iconography captured in the mural painting inside the Chapel of the Litany, officiated by the expert speakers of the town before the attending community, while the images captured in the chapel that illustrated the litany were illuminated. The result was sensational: astonished faces of children and adults admired the images to the rhythm of the Rosary, as if the scenes of the Virgin Mary were demonstrated with real images in front of all the attendees.

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Image 4. Patricia Ledesma great admirer of the painter Saturnino Herrán, next to the work "Las tres edades”. Photograph by Beatriz Aguilar.

In this case, we can observe that objects function as mediators "of experiences regarding the way our world is articulated" (Heidegger, 2016). For those who make use of cultural heritage, they see in the transmission of ancestral knowledge, a guide that gives meaning to their vision of the universe, objects being an important medium (not the only one) through which memory can be captured and inherited to progeny. According to the philosopher and sociologist Jean Braudrillard, objects are bearers of a social function, and significance, since they are elements that allow narration, that remember, testify, document and archive (Bahntje, et al, 2007). Hence their relevance as elements of identification for an individual or a society.

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Images 5 and 6. Members of El Llanito’s community inside the Chapel of the Litany, during the recitation of the Rosary of the Virgin Mary, organized by the students of STROM as part of the second season of  the conservation and restoration of the mural painting in 2013. Photographs by Daniela Ortega and Luanda López.

As Jiménez and Sainz comment: "The conservation of an object depends to a large extent on the possibility of identifying in it some value for a community that makes its preservation desirable" (Jiménez and Sainz, 2011, p.16). Based on the argument above, it is relevant to wonder: Why is something restored or preserved? What makes a particular object worthy of being rescued as opposed to other human productions? Also, on a deeper level: For whom and for what purpose are such objects restored and conserved?


For example, how could it be explained that even when the infrastructure for the conservation of a mural exists, a user carelessly places their foot on the recently restored pictorial surface? This is what happened during the restoration of contemporary mural work in the facilities of a public education center, as part of the actions of the conservation program. Almost at the end of the intervention (which was carried out by specialists in mural restoration), the resident of the project casually observed when one of the users of the building put their foot on one of the recently restored walls. This was unheard of in the eyes of the resident since part of the work equipment and scaffolding were still placed next to the area where the user was resting absentmindedly. The resident then decided to talk to the observer, emphasizing that the mural was important not only for the institution as part of its artistic heritage, but also because this artistic asset serves as a testimony of the history of the campus and as an element that links knowledge with the enjoyment of it.


At the time, this episode, although bittersweet but extremely didactic (and in that aspect enriching), made us rethink how the student community configures and assimilates the elements or objects that personify their cultural heritage, one that is not configured in their imagination. Questions arose such as: Who is in charge of linking this particular society with what is already prescribed in the precincts that serve as formative spaces? What is the current recognition and function of this mural in the everyday life of the academic community, and should we consider the dissemination of heritage from the point of view of the people who are directly related to its use and consumption? The truth is that although there is a specialized care apparatus, which is responsible for the conservation of the heritage of this site, the dissemination and active connection between all actors remains an essential strategy to achieve some awareness in the immediate users, and thus contribute to the conservation of cultural property such as this mural.


In an ideal situation where the intervention of an object would not be subordinated to the economic scope or the work schedule, conservation specialists should promote in the society that is the immediate user of the heritage, its recognition and appropriation. But not through the legitimization of an official discourse, sterile and alienated from memory and social use, "if the observer questions not what an object of the past means to them, but why is it there, then we could think of a break in how they incorporate it into their cultural horizon" (Jiménez and Sainz, 2011, p.19).


Although we are far from the desired archetype of comprehensive heritage conservation, the challenge is precisely to work with the cases where the detriment of cultural heritage, as well as the relevance of its conservation and restoration, are the usual scenario; to propose discursive approaches that are current, those that strengthen the conscious and voluntary exercise in the communities about the irreplaceable relevance of art, culture and its role as a component that contributes to the identity and wealth of a space and sometimes of the communities per se.


What fibers would have to be touched to achieve the great orchestration that involves heritage conservation work and be worthy of the attention and appreciation of all participants, users and specialists? Perhaps we could begin to reinforce not only the methodology and tools that are in charge of material recovery according to a single doctrinal and institutional reading, but we should also develop parallel instruments to transmit or facilitate in our communities the potential aesthetic experience that artistic and cultural objects have in store for them?

[1] Which includes recognizing, interpreting, conserving, intervening, distributing and reproducing the content of such objects.

[2] According to the 1st Article of the 1972 UNESCO Convention concerning the Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage; heritage is defined as monuments such as "monumental works of architecture, sculpture, painting, archaeological features or structure, groups of features, which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science... including archaeological sites which are of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view".

[3] The Athens Charter, 1931; The Rome Charter, 1931; The Venice Charter, 1964; The Rome Charter, 1972; The Burra Charter, 1979; The Krakow Charter, 2000.

[4] Evaluation made for the curatorship of the exhibition "Les Mexique de Renaissence", which took place at the Clemenceau Galleries of the Grand Palais in Paris, France between October 2016 and January 2017.

[5] Mural Restoration Seminar Workshop at the National School of Conservation, Restoration and Museography – National Institute of Anthropology and History.


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