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In Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving, Caitlin DeSilvey takes an experimental methodological approach to heritage practice, examining a series of projects and sites where the appropriate course of action may in fact be minimal intervention, if at all. While not fully convinced by the notion of ‘curated decay’, Andrew Molloy finds that DeSilvey’s self-reflexive exploration raises vital questions for the heritage sector regarding the tendency towards preservation at all costs. 

Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. Caitlin DeSilvey. University of Minnesota Press. 2017.  

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‘We are meddlers born’ (130), asserts Caitlin DeSilvey in discussing our relationship to cultural heritage sites. As a trainee Conservation Architect, this notion strikes at the heart of what I do, and what I hope to do more of in the future. My day is full of discussions relating to what is significant about a place, what is the appropriate thing to do to a building and how its integrity can be retained. Not only am I a meddler born, but I’m actively learning how to meddle even more. In Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving, cultural geographer Caitlin DeSilvey questions the value of this meddling instinct, examining a series of projects and sites where the appropriate course of action appears to be to do very little, if anything at all.

From the outset, DeSilvey makes it clear that the techniques and approaches described in the book are experimental and that she intends to ‘follow experimental practice to the point of failure’ (21). This, coupled with the awareness that these ideas may not be well received in some quarters, lends the book its structure. From her ‘poking about a derelict homestead in Montana’ (23) as a research student in Chapter Two to the bittersweet demise of Orfordness Lighthouse in Suffolk in Chapter Seven, a personal narrative arc is presented showing how the author has developed her thesis and continues to do so. Making use of reflective storytelling and poetic rumination, a set of theories emerges which prove to be nuanced and philosophically rich rather than the profanity against normative heritage practice they might initially appear to be.

The author’s work in the Montana homestead – described as an ‘ad hoc archaeology of the recent past in a place not yet old enough to be interesting to (most) archaeologists’ (23) – establishes the main themes explored and developed throughout the rest of the book. The consideration of an encyclopedia dated 1888, found amidst the tattered remains of other books constituting a mouse nest, reveals a tension between examining such an object as an archaic social artifact and what DeSilvey refers to as an ‘ecofact – a relic of other-than-human engagements with matter, climate, weather and biology’ (28). With this comes an appreciation that man-made elements are unstable arrangements of natural matter, and their unmaking allows us to live with the tension between natural and cultural elements. The question then emerges as to how to deal with these artifacts in a way that maintains this tension. The esoteric and eccentric practices divulged in the homestead – including the creation of ‘found’ Dadaist poetry from fragments of decaying literature – shows how an appreciation of objects caught in the transition from the cultural back to the natural can be reached using ‘serious play’ (43).

Image Credit: Demolished Building, Woodstock Road, Belfast (Andrew Molloy)

Chapter Three takes the ideas developed in the relative seclusion of the homestead and applies them to a place not only under the statutory protection of the National Trust, but also deeply cared for by local residents. It details the arguments surrounding Mullion cove in Cornwall and the National Trust’s decision to undertake a ‘managed retreat’ from caring for the nineteenth-century harbour walls in the face of their unmanageable destruction precipitated by climate change. DeSilvey describes how, on first encountering the harbour in 2007, she saw it as an ‘opportunity to scale up the ideas (she) had been developing through (her) work at the homestead’ (47). ‘The conundrum facing the National Trust at Mullion’, the author explains, ‘was as much about how to tell the story of the harbour and its future as it was about how to manage the eventual demise of the physical structure’. The story of the harbour, built in the 1890s, is one of the constant destruction and rebuilding of a structure which was intended to be sacrificial: it would bear the brunt of the storms rather than the precious fishing fleet within the breakwaters. Therefore, the eventual destruction at the hands of the turbulent Atlantic was always an important part of the story. DeSilvey’s argument here is much more nuanced than simply permitting the decline of the site, instead questioning the practice of preservation of such a structure.

The chapter goes on to describe the author’s fascination with the harbour and her run-ins with a local activist whose interpretation of the story of Mullion was ‘evidence not to prepare for the harbor’s (sic) future unmaking but to shore up the case for investment in its continued persistence’. This disagreement never quite reaches a resolution and the chapter finishes with a sense of frustration. This is not due the continued efforts to maintain the harbour, but rather the author’s feeling that the arguments for managed decline – with regards to both contributing to the site’s story and recasting nature as something to be worked with rather than against – were yet to be fully articulated.

The debate around neglect versus interference and the possibility of balancing both continues in Chapter Five with the examination of two sites: Duisborg Nord, a former ironworks in western Germany, and the abandoned St Peter’s modernist seminary in Kilmahew on the outskirts of Glasgow. Both sites were being subjected to radical experiments in ‘counterpreservation heritage practice’ (100). Here, the concept of entropy is extended to describe not just what is occurring physically to the sites in question, but also as a methodological approach. Conservation and preservation, so often concerned with preventing the loss of physical fabric, could not apply to either of these sites: one a post-industrial brownfield site and the other a modern ruin riddled with asbestos. Both sites actively resist traditional approaches to conservation and reuse and, as such, are ripe for experimentation as a ‘tentative procedure […] adopted in uncertainty’ (99).

At the end of these experimentations, however, the author feels unsatisfied. The management of both sites endeavours to preserve the unmaking of their man-made elements while also permitting the spaces to be used to a certain degree, and DeSilvey’s belief appears to be that this tension should be acknowledged and highlighted, but not overcome. As such, the Duisborg Nord site is viewed tentatively as a success in establishing a ‘model (of) entropic heritage practice’ (130), whereas the approach to Kilmahew is perhaps more concerned with the appearances of the entropic, as opposed to authentic entropy. Despite the feeling of deflation and disappointment evident at the end of the chapter, it is obvious that DeSilvey still views the experimental practice, successful or not, as of immense value to the development of the concept of ‘curated decay’.

DeSilvey’s thesis certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes: indeed, I was highly dubious on starting out. Invested as I am in ‘normative’ heritage practice, however, the book poses a series of extremely pertinent questions which are not easily answered. The notion that such sites ‘are not being saved because they are valued, but are valued because they are being saved’ (178) was at first mildly disturbing. The mechanics of heritage practice have quite possibly overtaken common sense in their absent-minded reflexive reliance on preservation at all costs. Applying this notion, however, to individual cases as they arise holds the possibility of setting aside this reflex and gaining a more nuanced appreciation of the value of the site and the range of potentially appropriate responses to its significance.

On the other hand, one of the primary purposes of preserving heritage sites is to permit an understanding of the past to extend into the future and create a sense of temporality for generations to come. Where it is certainly true that observing the inevitable corrosion of sites such as Mullion Harbour creates a more acute awareness of our temporal nature, it only does so for those lucky enough to be present at that specific time. However, the arguments are incredibly well-constructed, particularly as we are carried along with DeSilvey’s own narrative arc as she tests her methodology to breaking point. Therefore, while I may not be entirely convinced of ‘curated decay’ as methodology, I believe the fundamental questions the book asks of the heritage sector are worth paying attention to.

This review originally appeared at the LSE Review of Books.

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the reviewer

Andrew Molloy
Dr Andrew Molloy received his doctorate from Ulster University in 2017. Over the course of his DPhil he developed a practice-based mixed methodology allowing the city to be considered as a process rather than a product. In developing a non-ideological approach to urbanism highlighting the importance of tacit poetic interpretations when it comes to spatial understanding, Andrew both examined a series of mappings of his home city of Belfast and attempted to map the city himself. Andrew is currently undertaking his professional studies to become a chartered Architect. Read more reviews by Andrew Molloy.