The animals. That’s how they spot me, the locals I mean. Stroking a feral cat which I am fully aware could riddle me with rabies in a blurred second of diseased saliva on teeth tips; they know I’m English and spot me a mile off, how could they not? But their sad, neglected little faces (the animals, I mean). Their mangy forms hobbling along towards an inadequate patch of ground shaded from the burning sun. It is a familiar and enduring sight of the which I will I never get used to seeing in other countries. But despite my very British show of pet empathy, on my first trip to the Greek ‘Athens Riviera’ in June of this year the fate of these multitudinous weary strays managed to distract me only momentarily from those extraordinary Athenian ruins of classical antiquity which tower over the city, abiding endlessly as lives begin, are lived and end all around them.
The Acropolis remains are overwhelmingly huge, dominating the city skyline in a way that I felt was more powerful than seeing them at close range. In some cases the sculpture is powerfully enigmatic, the guarding Caryatids evoking in me a childhood memory from the Neverending Story of those two stone oracles, their power and character fascinating me then at six as these beautiful, frightening forms do now at thirty. I inherited an interest in history from my mother, although my thirst for knowledge does not extend to the same reaches nor inhabit the same form as her – ie. sitting up late at night head buried in 3000 page epic overviews of Russian revolutions. My own curiosity takes far more of an immediate form; suffice it to say lengthy summaries of fact spattered with anomalous pellets of prose do not engage me for long, but I would still consider myself a history fan, shall we say. I chose my holidays mostly according to whether there are sites to visit nearby. I sketch the ruins and read the leaflets. So why do I always find myself questioning our obsession with preservation?
I suppose I’m playing devil’s advocate to an extent, but do find it disturbing how we actively remove significant objects and artefacts from the public reach, particularly those which were created with the proletariat in mind. It embodies the modern edict of look, but don’t touch. It’s a relatively new phenomenon (in the scale of the lives of these buildings) and one whose aspects I do understand in principle; vast increases in visitor numbers and so the inevitability of damage, the fact that to save these artifacts we have to stop direct visitor engagement at some point so why not now, the advances in technology meaning we can now see in more clarity the damage being inflicted etc. Ergo, we have to preserve these artefacts for the future. But do we? Is modern society a bit over obsessed with preservation and conservation, to the point at which we have almost become hoarders on a mass ideological scale?
Ironically of course our consumer culture evidences quite the opposite, most of us are hesitantly complicit in the growth of plastic mountains and new landfill land masses. On the whole we generally attribute little value to objects. Not in the case of historical value though, this attribution transforming something from disposable to preservable. Uniqueness is often the main factor, or its rarity, but our desperation to ensure that the originals of these objects are not lost have led us to sometimes devalue them through corrupting their original public purpose and right to be used. Walking around the Acropolis was a perfect example of this; barred at every corner from experiencing the structures as they were meant to be experienced, I admit I felt cheated. Public structures built as open areas for the people, for the masses to participate in community gathering, now reduced to purely an externally aesthetic pursuit for all except a privileged few specialists. This restriction tarnishes it, sullies the beauty and purity of the architecture and essentially just isn’t fair. But far from this behaviour being unique to what is now ancient construction, we regularly apply it to new, modern creations. ‘Do not touch’ goes without saying in virtually every instance. In artistic terms it does in fact now seem to psychologically add value to something. To be told we can touch instinctively means so can everyone else and the thing is reduced to consumable as opposed to preservable.
I freely admit I do not have an opposing solution to the issues of why we do preserve and am here merely provoking consideration of a concept we all take very much for granted. You could indeed say that if we gave free reign access to works of art or historical artefacts they would be smashed and graffiti covered, but consider that many have been standing there for over 2000 years, significantly damaged primarily due to brutal wars and not local hoodlums, with do not touch rules only being implemented in the last 50 or so. Speculate on why we feel we need to preserve them in their perfected original form at all. Does not time decay and weather all things? With modern technology we persist in working against natural evolution, to stultify it and challenge its process of degeneration. In this case, to what end? Our ability to further our knowledge through them is limited and can be recorded with a variety of techniques, so why not allow the structures to become communal, as a vast amount of them were intended to be? Laying them open to potential damage is a worrying prospect, but to leave them as they are, alien and untouchable, may be even worse. Perhaps it’s time to allow the public to experience the key to why these structures are so amazing and despite what the brochures may want you to think, the answer isn’t in the gift shop.