The Past is a Foreign Country

Lowenthal, David, 1985


  • ‘None of the past definitively eludes our intense involvement. What we are now indifferent to once meant much or may later do so. That being so, I survey the past not only through lenses of memory and history but also through present-day perspectives – impassioned views of right and wrong, good and evil, ownership and alienation, identity and entitlement. We descry the past both for its sake and for our sake. Neither historian nor layman is ever aloof or detached from it. To know is to care, to care is to use, to use is to transform the past. Continually refashioned, the remade past continuously remoulds us.’ (Lowenthal, 2015)
  • ‘But I also consider invented heritage, no less than revealed history, both inescapable and indispensable. In fabricating the past ‘we tell ourselves who we are, where we came from, and to what we belong’.’ (Wood, G.S. quoted in Lowenthal, 2015).
  • That they did indeed do things differently is a quite recent perception. During most of history scholars scarcely differentiated past from present, referring even to remote events, if at all, as though just then occurring. Up to the nineteenth century the historical past was generally thought much like the present.
  • This outlook had two particular consequences. Past departures from present standards were praised as virtuous or condemned as depraved. And since past circumstances seemed comparable and hence relevant to present concerns, history served as a source of useful exemplars. A past explained in terms similar to the present also suited common views of why things happened as they had.
  • Only in the late eighteenth century did Europeans begin to conceive the past as different, not just another country but a congeries of foreign lands shaped by unique histories and personalities. This new past gradually ceased to provide comparative lessons. Instead it became cherished for validating and exalting the present. This aroused urges to preserve and restore monuments and memories as emblems of communal identity, continuity, and aspiration.
  • Growing global participation likewise broadened UNESCO’s World Heritage Site
    designations, while cosmopolitanism spurred revision of the canonical 1964 Venice Charter. That document had accorded prime value to western Europe’s surviving marble monuments and stone and brick buildings. Less durable wooden architecture predominant in Norway and Japan led conservators to focus on rebuilt form rather than original substance; I joined the 1990s Bergen workshop and the Nara conference that rewrote criteria of authenticity accordingly. A decade later other cultural differences in heritage fuelled a similar drive to celebrate and protect intangible heritage. Where structures and artefacts soon decayed or were customarily replaced by new creations, what truly mattered was the maintenance of traditional skills and crafts, arts, and genres de vie.
  • Various academic initiatives – at UNESCO, ICCROM, the Getty Conservation Institute, and elsewhere – foundered for want of institutional support, in a budgetary climate that confined past-related benefits to immediate economic payoffs.
  • I had already penned a book that took off from where The Past Is a Foreign Country ended.24 In it I distinguished the rising cult of heritage – partisan manipulations of the past – from historians’ impartial and consensual efforts to understand it. Appropriating the past for parti pris purposes, heritage purged its foreignness. The past’s growing domestication now threatened to subvert this book’s premise.
  • This book comprises four broad themes: wanting, disputing, knowing, and remaking the past. Part I reviews how the past enriches and impoverishes us, and why we embrace or shun it. Part II surveys competing viewpoints about things past and present, old and new. How we become aware of and learn about the past, and how we respond to such knowledge, occupies part III. Part IV considers how we save and change the received past; why its vestiges are salvaged or contrived; and how these alterations affect the past and ourselves. I show how the past, once virtually indistinguishable from the present, became ever more foreign, yet increasingly suffused by present hopes and habits.
  • Chapters 5 and 6 explore responses to ageing, decay, and marks of use and wear, as distinct from indicators of a historical past. Artefacts and institutions are commonly assigned lifespans analogous to our own, their ageing likened to human old age – a condition usually dismayingly repellent, as shown in Chapter 5. Decay suggests not only enfeeblement and incipient demise, but corruption and evil, caricatured in venomous portrayals of senile impotent geezers and withered witch-like crones. Although medical advance has multiplied the numbers and political clout of the elderly, age-averse stereotypes and nursing-home horrors show geriatric animus unabated. Bias against the fact and look of age extends from humans to other creatures, natural features, nations and states,
    and most artefacts. Almost all are beautiful and virtuous when young, ugly and depraved when aged and decrepit.
  • Ageism is far from universal, however. Chapter 6 details how marks of age are felt to enhance the beauty and value of certain artefacts – notably buildings and paintings. Long ago admired in China and Japan, wear and tear became widely prized in Europe in the sixteenth century, first for confirming and authenticating antiquity, then as attractive in their own right. Monumental ruin and decay first acclaimed as memento mori later betokened picturesque aesthetic. Age appreciation earlier progressed from long-buried Chinese bronzes and neo-Romantic fondness for fragmented sculpture to time-softened varnished paintings. Today it includes Cor-Ten structures and sculptures meant to rust, artworks admired as they evanesce, and corroding industrial and military ruins. But the public in general shuns the appearance of age. Teddy bears and retro pubs aside, most old things should look new-made. But impassioned differences between friends and foes of the patina of age surface in continuing controversy over cleaning buildings and restoring
  • Memory and history both derive and gain authority from physical remains (Chapter 9). Tangible survivals’ vivid immediacy helps assure us there really was a past. Physical remains have limited evidentiary worth: themselves mute, they require interpretation. Moreover, differing rates of erosion and demolition skew the material record. But however depleted by time and use, relics crucially bridge then and now. They confirm or deny what we think of the past, symbolize or memorialize communal links among generations, and provide archaeological metaphors that illumine history and memory. Locales and relics are objects of curiosity or beauty, historical evidence, and talismans of continuity reified by
    visceral contact with the past. However ill-informed our responses, they bespeak our concern with what has been. All knowledge of the past requires caring about it – feeling pleasure or disgust, awe or disdain, hope or despair about its legacies.
  • Surviving relics and recollections undergo ceaseless change, much of it of our ownn making. Even when we strive to save bygone things and thoughts intact, we cannot avoid altering them. Some changes are made unconsciously, others reluctantly, still others deliberately. Chapters 10 to 12 examine how and why we transform the past, and how such changes affect our environs and ourselves.
  • Simply to identify something as ‘past’ affects its ambience: recognition entails marking, protecting, and enhancing relics to make them more accessible, secure, or attractive. Preserving things (Chapter 10) inevitably transforms them, often in unintended and undesired ways. Appreciation if not survival may require moving relics from original locales. Enshrined in historical precincts yet immersed in the trappings of present-day management, vestiges of the past seem newly contrived. Present choices – whether to retain relics in situ or to shift them, to leave them fragmented or to make them whole again – vitally affect how the past is experienced.
  • Imitations, fakes, and new works inspired by earlier prototypes extend and alter auras of antiquity. The fame or scarcity of originals begets replicas that copy, emulate, or echo the old. Creations that hark back to or reflect some attribute of a bygone era have for two millennia dominated the cultural landscape of the Western world. Modern awareness of classical architecture derives from an amalgam of Hellenistic, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romantic, and Victorian works, in which extant Greek and Roman remains are sparse. Frequently mistaken for originals, copies and replicas may be preferred to them for their completeness, their freshness, or their accordance with modern taste and expectations. Originals often seem less ‘authentic’ than current views of what things past should have been.