Systems of Decay: Cultural Reconstruction in the Global South
Princeton University, Princeton, USA
Insects began to appear in manuals of architectural conservation in the early 1960s, as international development agencies reoriented their programs of “cultural reconstruction” towards the nations of the global South. Wood-boring moths, stone-molding lichens and paper-eating worms had always been objects of preservationists’ scientific discourse, bearers of tectonics as meaningful as windows and pediments, grout and cement, structure and form. But in these manuals designed for use in newly decolonized nations, these “unwanted tourists” became political actors: obstacles to the establishment of new systems of cultural administration, and symptoms of “the problem of climate” that afflicted all cultural media in the tropical zone. For the next fifteen years, the project of cultural continuity in post-colonial nations was entrusted to a force of cosmopolitan experts trained to battle swarms of tropicopolitan pests—and other similar systems of decay.
This paper addresses the architectonic tropes that were designed to homogenize cultural systems across new member states of the United Nations, in this period when museums were reconceived as “systems of mass-communications”, and monuments as “touristic circuits.” Training manuals, expert missions, administrative templates, regional training centers, museum renovations, and monument restorations—none performed as systematically as the logic of matter they were meant to resist. Belgian plans for African museums flattened the hierarchy between mineralogy and easel painting; modernist displays in pop-up museums exposed the non-linearity of ethnographic narratives, and the cleaning of “richly sculptured” monuments like the Taj Mahal threatened to erase the fine line between ornament and decay.
These projects belong to the prehistory of the distinction between “tangible” and “intangible” heritage; historiographically, they also challenge us to rethink the hierarchy between matter and information that legitimize some cultural projects as central and others as peripheral.