Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Thinking Conservation: What is documentation? Who documents a site / structure?

This month's blog is the result of a chance remark. Some of us were interacting with a group of professionals interested and working in, though not trained in built heritage conservation or with extensive field experience in the discipline.

In the course of conversation a member of the group rather proudly declared: "we have completely documented xyz [a historic settlement]". I was excited over the statement as I was personally interested in that settlement and requested to see their work whenever convenient.

When I finally did get to see it though, I was disappointed to note that the settlement had been measure drawn (some parts thoroughly and some imaginatively, much like we all do, when time and resources are a constraint) but not documented.

Thinking through I realized this is the typical or general approach to and understanding of documentation. First, it is usually equated with measure drawing and second, it is relegated to "juniors": in work hierarchy some what lower than say sitting at a desk, for example, and analyzing cum compiling.

Quite often conservation experts do not visit or they are not given time / resources to visit the site / structure under question. Instead "less expensive" students, interns, juniors are sent to site to "document" and the expert is given the photos and drawings required to assess the conservation status of the structure / site back in the studio.

In effect, voluntarily or involuntarily, side-stepping a necessary, important step in diagnosing the problems affecting a heritage site / structure first hand, which would lead to an understanding of the larger issues that affect the site / structure's heritage values (whatever they maybe).

What then is documentation?

As noted above it is a necessary part of diagnosing the issues affecting a heritage site. Ideally it is a combination of drawings, photographs, archival work to trace its historiography (not just how it looked, but who used it, how and for what periods of time) and first hand accounts from current users / guardians. All put together they help thoroughly understand the site / structure.

To take an example as a way to stress the nuances of the process - drawings are not one type or of a standard model. Depending on need they could be a record of as-is where-is condition of a site: showing collapsed sections, off plumb columns, missing parts and all. Or they could be a recreation of what the structure did look like when intact (based on an understanding of art and architectural history of course, no guesswork here). Or an overlay of existing condition on a recreation. Or a series of rendered images to satisfy clients and / or funders. All equally valid parts of the documentation process. See examples below.

Image above: partial drawings of a ruined temple structure. One cell (red dotted line, marked no.5) is completely missing, only the pranala (of the lingam) remains as a clue to help us understand where it once stood. 

Image above: part photograph of one of the partially collapsed shikaras of the same temple complex

Image above: archival record of the plan layout of the same temple complex 

Do all sites / structures need all types of drawings to be made or does it depend on need and resources? This is down to the expert, who generally calls on experience to address this question.

Why do I think it important to raise this topic?

Heritage advocates and enthusiasts, much like the group I mentioned in the beginning of this blog, are increasing day by day. Most of them are passionate about heritage which is great. However, in the long run, lack of adequate information and training in the nuances of built heritage conservation, among such groups, might end up harming the conservation discipline as we understand it. An integrated interdisciplinary process, where each necessary step forms an important part of the whole.