Throughout my schooling in heritage, I have been presented differing and sometimes conflicting viewpoints about conservation. Initially, when I started my coursework, I dreaded taking the conservation course. As someone from an arts background, the idea of scientific material intimidated me. However, throughout my learning I uncovered that the science is just one facet of this complicated subject. In fact, there is a philosophical component that has presented itself throughout my readings that has come to intrigue me. This blog post will discuss some of these thoughts to present a more encompassing view of conservation. White Otter Castle will be used to illustrate the points addressed. For historical context, please refer to my blog post True North Strong: White Otter Castle.
For Present and Future Enjoyment
Conservation is an integral aspect of heritage and museum work. Conserving, protecting and restoring objects and buildings allows for their enjoyment by present and future generations. Engaging with historic objects helps to form a strong connections to place. Throughout my blog you will notice my numerous nods to the importance of visible history. Being able to hold an object or stand in a physical space evoke strong sensory reactions that makes it easier for a connection to be made. It also stokes the imagination. There have been many poets, for instance, who have sat on the shores of White Otter Lake recounting Jimmy's myth in verse. To be able to imagine him walking about the property touting 1600 pound logs, is more memorable than gleaning this information from a book. It is also a way of incorporating your own memories into the story, entangling the two into a new personal narrative. And what better way for children to become interested in history! I still remember my first visit to the local museum when I was four. They asked me to brush roving between two big paddled brushes. I thought that it was the coolest thing ever. I remember that for a week afterward I brushed cotton balls between my hair brushes. In my adult life I now spin my own yarn and knit. And it is safe to say I am also a history lover. This experience sparked my interest in both. If the museum did not preserve these artifacts, or this earlier way of life, perhaps I would not be spending my evenings with my drop spindle. Likewise, the standing Castle induces myth, stories, songs and poems. The story may very well have been lost to time, if not for this strong physical reminder.
Change as Part of an Object's Story
When I first stepped foot into White Otter Castle, I was appalled by the numerous signatures and markings throughout the structure. It has become somewhat of a tradition for visitors to add their name to Jimmy's walls. This can be thought of as an irresponsible act, especially considering that lots of money and time goes into periodic restoration projects. Didn't visitors want to help preserve the Castle? Don't they respect the myth the Castle tells? How could they want to deface a structure that has stood proudly in nature for all this time? However, these markings can be seen in a slightly different way. Everything in the world is in constant flux, or in other words, forever changing. This is true of stories, physical objects, ideas and people. If we are to accept that objects have dynamic and multiple layers of meaning, then we must accept that any additions (or subtractions) are incorporated into their story.
For White Otter Castle, this means that these markings are seen as adding themselves to the life of the structure; incorporating themselves into the mystique of the story. These names also speak to the idea of evanescence. People are penning their names down on a structure that will most likely stand longer than they will. It is a way for people to become part of Jimmy's story as well as let future visitors know that they have once stood there. Graffiti such as this also gives a physical reminder that White Otter Castle is a lively meeting space, drawing people from all over to share in its story. Seen this way, removing the names would alter the constantly and forever changing story of White Otter Castle. Heritage scholar, David Lowenthal paints this picture when discussing archaeological objects. He states: "Conservation, however careful, may destroy evidence vital to site or artifactual provenance or add taints that subvert authenticity or ambience." He goes on to say, "Marks of age and decay integral to every object need to be seen not just as losses but as gains. Esteeming evanescence can make us wiser and more caring stewards." 
Photographer and writer Clarence John Laughlin also finds life in old structures. When discussing abandoned Louisiana plantations he poetically surmises that:
In houses which are old- the forms of whose very walls and pillars have taken body from the thoughts of men in a vanished time- we often sense something far more delicate, more unwordable, than the customary devices of the romanticist: the swish of a silken invisible dress on stairs once dustless, the fragrance of an unseen blossom over the years, the wraith momentarily given form in a begrimed mirror. These wordless perceptions can be due only, it seems, to something still retained in these walls; something crystallized from the energy of human emotion and the activity of human nerves. And, perhaps, it is because of this nameless life of memory and desire and, correlatively, because of the superior power of suggestion, that, for those who are sensitive, the ruined houses have a fascination far exceeding that of the intact, and inhabited structures. 
His statement attributes a certain mystery and beauty to the abandoned and long-forgotten structures dotting the state. Like those individuals at the banks of White Otter Lake, he too finds poetic vision in the imagined past.
Ultimately, this discussion calls into question:
Conservation and Authenticity
If historical objects pass through various conservation processes are they still considered authentic? For instance, White Otter Castle has undergone various changes throughout its life, including:
Conservation is a more complex concept than just understanding basic scientific tests and principles. This blog post picked out just a few items to discuss amongst a plethora to choose from. Surprisingly, conservation ended up being one of my favourite heritage courses, and the information I learned informs everything I do in my museum work, from working with the collection, doing interpretive programming, or tackling ethical issues. I hope to continue to ponder the more philosophical aspects as well as learn more about the scientific practices in this field.
I will finish on a more contemplative note, with a quote from Lowenthal:
Our successors are better served by inheriting from us not a bundle of canonical artifacts but memories of traditional creative skills, institutions in good working order, and habits of resilience in coping with the vicissitudes of existence.[iv]
[i] David Lowenthal. "Stewarding the Past in a Perplexing Present." In Values and Heritage Conservation: Research Report. Los Angeles: Getty Trust, 2000, 19-20.
[ii] Clarence John Laughlin. Ghosts Along the Mississippi (New York: American Legacy Press, 1988), 7-8
[iii] Jim Mahon, Jim McQuat’s Castle: White Otter Lake, Architectural Report (Ministry of Natural Resources, 1972)
[iv] David Lowenthal. "Stewarding the Past in a Perplexing Present," 20.
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