Authenticity Versus Longevity for Preservation: Which Matters More?

The city of Venice, all but completely submerged in water, so that tourists are greeted by a maze of planks and boardwalks that make it possible to see the sites but only from a distance. Easter Island, its iconic statues whittled away by watery erosion. The Statue of Liberty, her great American torch of hope chipped from storm damage.

These are the very real threats of climate change staring at the world’s most memorable sites. There are myriad more challenges facing lesser-known places of deep cultural importance in the U.S. alone, from waves battering coastline cottages in North Carolina to flooding rivers sweeping away archaeological digs in North Dakota and forest fires literally burning history to ashes in California.

While preservationists have long fought nature in trying to protect monuments, the signs of escalating climate change are now adding fresh urgency to an old debate: How to balance the desire to restore sites as closely to their original forms as possible with the need to ensure that they survive decades or centuries longer. For generations, conservationists have trained in the art of ensuring near-perfect authenticity in their restoration work. Now, leading minds at universities and nonprofits, from groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists to UNESCO, are recognizing that a new approach might be needed. One, where restoration using climate-friendly and sustainable materials and technology are given precedence over the urge to use the same materials and approach as was originally done — even if the monument looks slightly different as a consequence.

There is just this growing awareness on multiple levels.

Erin Seekamp, North Carolina State University

It’s a strategy North Carolina State University’s Erin Seekamp calls “transformative continuity,” and it involves altering sites to better protect them for the future while still preserving the central elements that make those sites culturally significant.

“There is just this growing awareness on multiple levels … of people hearing this need to get ready and prepared to learn how to deal with loss,” says Seekamp, who published a paper on the subject in August.

A fallen basketball hoop lies on the gro

A fallen basketball hoop lies on the ground in front of a house in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.

Source NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty

It’s an approach that conservationists in different parts of the world are beginning to embrace. A 140-year-old building in Brussels has been refurbished with insulation on the facades and the roof and improved ventilation. Centuries-old hammams — public baths — in Morocco’s Fez have been retrofitted with solar panels so they can double up as giant batteries. Chan Chan, an earthen city in the Moche Valley desert of Peru that served as the capital of the Chimor empire, is at new risk from erosion caused by intensifying storms from the El Niño weather phenomenon. There, the Peruvian government is spending millions of dollars to preserve the city’s drainage systems while installing roof coverings and erecting protective scaffolding.

To be sure, approaches to preservation vary from place to place. There’s a school of thought, for instance, which argues that restoration by its very nature alters the way nature has ordained a structure to evolve, endure wear and tear, and eventually collapse. Questions of cultural sensitivity also often crop up in debates over whether it’s OK to adapt the original monument to a new look just to preserve it.

But experts say they’ve increasingly found local communities ready to see their monuments adopt climate-friendly technologies and materials. Seekamp interviewed locals while working with the National Park Service to protect historic beachside buildings in Portsmouth and Cape Lookout Villages. She asked them whether they would prefer elevating the buildings or picking them up and moving them farther in shore.

“The communities … did not want to see them moved at all,” Seekamp says, particularly because the people who lived in those homes, dating as far back as 1753, understood that change would be necessary given their existence in a low-lying region.

Many old buildings were also constructed using traditional technology or ideas that also inherently give them better ventilation and make them more climate-resistant. All that’s needed is an upgrade. Take the structures Seekamp is working on. The buildings had floor plugs that helped ensure the building didn’t move from its structure during storms.

Still, incorporating local input is vital, especially with communities that for decades or centuries haven’t been adequately heard. That includes monuments on indigenous lands. “People are coming together to think about these things in a deeper way,” says James Rattling Leaf, a member of the South Dakota Rosebud Sioux tribe and a liaison with the Northeast Central Climate Adaptation Science Center. “My only thing? Make sure to include indigenous people.”

After all, many indigenous artifacts are today already outside of their original environments and in museums that never sought permission to take them. It’s the same with artifacts from Asia, Africa and Latin America stolen by colonial powers that now sit in European museums. Now there’s a growing movement for repatriation of these items. But for local communities, preservation often comes down to resources. “It’s always an issue of funding, in terms of how we make decisions about what we save and what we don’t save,” Rattling Leaf says.


The ancient archaeological site of Chan Chan in Peru is at new risk of erosion due to intensifying storms caused by El Niño.


Technology too is modernizing preservation. Seekamp created a data-driven model for determining the significance and vulnerability of Cape Lookout Village buildings, which was then used to help National Park Service managers prioritize more cost-effectively. Rattling Leaf has also seen his work increasingly involve analytics as he decodes the impact of climate change on historical sites. He is especially excited about the prospect of digital inclusion — the ability for tribes to choose artifacts to digitize through imaging tech, which would allow them to be replicated: “If you have an artifact or item to preserve, you could use 3D imaging to replicate those items, where you don’t have to touch the original or affect them.”

To be sure, there are risks. Changing the soil structure under and around a monument to help structural stability may have other unforeseen consequences, for instance. Future generations might have little or no memory of the original look of monuments that are adapted. Still, more and more conservationists are pointing out that those challenges pale in comparison to the more dire threat that without change, those monuments might simply not exist some years from now. To them, that’s what makes this a gamble worth taking.

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