Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Preservation and Respect

Today, I am reading Norman J.G. Pounds' The History of the English Parish: The Culture of Religion from Augustine to Victoria (2000) and enjoying it very much. If you ever wanted to know anything about medieval/early modern English parish churches — from how the sextons were paid to where the stones were quarried — this is a good place to start. I'm finding Pounds' systematic explanation very helpful for reconstructing the church that New England's emigrant generation would have known.

Like any good British historian of a certain generation, Pounds sometimes interrupts his history with a bit of armchair pontification. While I appreciate the detail work he has done in recovering the history of the English parish, I disagree with many of his pronouncements, some of which seem reactionary and shallow. For example, Pounds says of the erosion of inscriptions on church floors:
The parish church is the community's mausoleum. The floor of its nave might have been covered with slabs and monuments to its departed members, but the tramp of feet has over the centuries dislodged the brasses and worn inscriptions smooth. Effigies, sculpture and heraldry have been mutilated or removed. This is a tragedy and a violation of the rights of the dead. It is also an act of vandalism, destroying historical evidence which deserves to be protected for its own sake. For every church there should be a careful record of its monuments and of the persons commemorated, both within it and in the enclosing cemetery.
I've discussed this attitude before — particularly in regard to the preservation of grave offerings at Arlington National Cemetery. As an historian with a particular interest in material culture, I love old things, but the idea of preserving objects by removing them from their contexts bothers me. I'm all for documenting objects — photograph them, record the names on the old gravestones, etc. But should we "protect" them by alienating them from their original purposes? That strikes me as selfish.

In the case of the Arlington offerings, I argued that preserving artifacts is not inherently more respectful than destroying them. Should a letter left on a loved one's grave be preserved for the eyes of future historians? As an historian, I say yes, please say everything! As a person, I say no — that object isn't meant for me and I do a sort of violence by claiming it. I feel the same about putting gravestones in museums.

In the case of the worn inscriptions in the English churches, I don't agree with Pounds' accusation that erosion is "an act of vandalism." In fact, I think it's lovely that the congregation has shuffled over those inscriptions for so many years that the words have worn off under their feet. It's not that someone stole the plates for personal gain or destroyed them out of malice. Things decay. It's part of their existence. And trying to forestall that decay by "protecting" them seems to miss the point. You could install a plexiglass floor over the memorials in these churches so no one could actually touch them or remove them from their places and put them in a museum, but why is that better than preserving their place in the life of its community?

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