What's the Point of Preservation?

What's the Point of Preservation?

Philosophy February 16, 2012 / By Erich Matthes
What's the Point of Preservation?

Thinking about how to prioritize engagement with value over our knee-jerk reaction to preserve.

It is common to think that we ought to preserve valuable things. Indeed, one might say that having a reason to preserve what we value is part and parcel of the very idea of valuing. As Sam Scheffler puts it: “[I]t is difficult to understand how human beings could have values at all if they did not have conservative impulses. What would it mean to value things, but in general, to see no reason of any kind to sustain them or retain them or preserve them or extend them into the future?”[1] We see this observation borne out in everyday life—we seek to protect and nurture the things that we value, whether we’re dealing with bicycles, artworks, lakes, or relationships.

However, when people become too concerned with preservation, we tend to think they have made a mistake. Consider an automobile aficionado like Cameron’s father in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” When a person becomes so obsessed with the preservation of a Ferrari that he stops driving it, something seems to have gone wrong in his evaluative thinking. The problem is that despite the importance of preservation, it actually isn’t as fundamental to valuing as it initially appears. So long as a Ferrari is still valued as a car, and not merely as an object of visual beauty or contemplation, part of its value should reside in the experience of driving it. Cameron’s father seems to be missing one of the essential features that makes his Ferrari worth valuing, something that is of course not lost on Ferris (or the joy-riding parking attendants).

In fact, preservation has a specific purpose, and when that purpose is frustrated, the importance of preservation fades away. What is most important about the things that we value is that we have the opportunity to experience them, to engage with them, in ways that are sensitive to the kind of value that they have. As Joseph Raz remarks: “…[T]he point of values is realized when it is possible to appreciate them, and when it is possible to relate to objects of value in ways appropriate to their value. Absent that possibility, the objects may exist, and they may be of value, but there is not much point to that.”[2]

This point is brought out most clearly when we consider valuable things that we associate with specific modes of engagement. Think of cooking a delicious meal: obviously we experience the value of food through gustatory and olfactory modes of engagement. If someone demanded that you refrain from eating a meal in order to preserve its value (and we’re not talking about pickling here!), you would think that person was nuts! He or she would be missing what is valuable about delicious food. Or to take another example: it is natural to think that our primary way of experiencing paintings is through visual engagement. We think that the preservation of great paintings is important, but only insofar as our methods of preservation still allow us to view the paintings. It may be that cloistering paintings in pitch-black rooms would best allow us to preserve them, but this would undercut the point of preserving paintings in the first place. A facility that prioritized preservation of artwork to an extent that precluded opportunities for engagement would be like a tomb for the living.  

What we can see, then, is that it is engagement with value that is truly fundamental to our evaluative thinking, and preservation is only important insofar as it makes engagement possible. We are usually proficient at balancing preservation with engagement, so the question of their relative priority does not often arise. But the issue becomes muddled where the modes of engagement appropriate to a given value are not as clearly defined as they are in the kinds of cases we have considered so far.

The impulse to preserve is particularly apparent when it comes to things that we value for their histories. Museums are engineered so as to keep historical artifacts in pristine condition, and buildings are designated as historic sites in order to prevent their destruction. However, unlike the way that we taste food, or study a painting, it isn’t quite clear how we are supposed to engage with the value of the past. Despite the prevalence of history museums, engagement with the value of the past doesn’t seem to be a merely visual enterprise. Yet in the absence of a clear understanding of how to engage with the past, preservation becomes our default response to historical value. The historian David Lowenthal has noted critically: “preservation has become our principal mode of appreciating the past.”[3] For an extreme example, consider recent efforts to promote historic preservation on the moon. Is ensuring that every lunar footprint remains unmarred important to our appreciation of Tranquility Base’s historical value? Why? Almost no one will ever even see them. And even if we imagine Newt Gingrich’s sci-fi fantasy of colonizing the moon, how would running a velvet rope around the Apollo 11 landing site help lunar denizens understand its importance? There may be good answers to these questions, but they are questions that need to be asked.

In order to balance preservation with engagement in the context of historical value, we need to think outside of the box about how it is appropriate to engage with and appreciate the value of the past. One thing it seems we can safely say up-front is that engagement will likely require access. In this vein, the recent renovation of the New York Historical Society offers a wonderful example of an effort to counteract an unhealthy emphasis on preservation. “‘It was designed as a vault, to keep treasures safe, not to invite the public to enjoy them,’ said Louise Mirrer, the society’s president and chief executive, during a recent tour of the work. ‘We feel very differently about the public. There’s really no point in having these extraordinary collections if people can’t learn something from them.’”

In future articles I will be exploring possible methods for how we might successfully engage with the value of the past. In the meantime, please feel free to leave your own ideas below.

[1] Samuel Scheffler, "Immigration and the Significance of Culture," Philosophy & Public Affairs 35, no. 2 (2007): 106.

[2] Joseph Raz et al., The Practice of Value, The Berkeley Tanner Lectures (Oxford, New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 2005), 27-28.

[3] David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge Univeristy Press, 1985), xxiv.


comments powered by Disqus