Background

Central to William Morris’s 1877 SPAB Manifesto,  and an article of faith for modernity, is a belief in a radical discontinuity between the modern world and the cultures of tradition. Stemming from the Enlightenment antipathy to tradition and the ‘invention of the historic monument’ (Choay 2001), it is only modernity that attempts to reduce historic buildings to art or art history. Any conservation professional understands that the unthinking use of modern materials can actively destroy historic fabric, as when cementitious pointing erodes adjacent masonry; fewer acknowledge that the application of theory born of modernity to historic fabric born of tradition can be similarly toxic, destroying the very heritage it is meant to safeguard.

It has been said that one can judge the civilisation of a society by the way it treats its old people. Modern societies tend to hide the elderly away in ‘care warehouses’, where physical needs may be catered for but, too often, all sense of life is extinguished long before physical death. By contrast, traditional societies tend to prize the contribution of the elderly in the centre of the family, in the continuity of intergenerational community. Too often, modern conservation makes the analogous error, believing it is sufficient to cater for a building’s physical preservation, while detaching it from the cultural context that gives it meaning. In this way, the living building becomes the dead monument. And that is unsustainable in every sense.

Following Morris’s example, the formation of SCARAB is proposed to safeguard not only the past and present, but also the future of historic buildings. For the ancient Egyptians, the scarab (Scarabaeus sacer, or dung beetle) symbolised the solar deity Khepri; scarabs form balls of dung, which they roll along, much as the gods were believed to move the sun through the heavens. Furthermore, scarabs lay their eggs within these balls of dung, from which the young beetles emerge fully formed, suggestive of resurrection and new life. Drawing on this rich symbolism, amulets in the form of scarabs were widespread; they were used as seals for commercial exchange, and many survive to this day.

All references to the SPAB manifesto are intended in homage, not parody. SCARAB has no intention of challenging the national amenity societies, least of all SPAB, which does such valuable work. Rather, the purpose of this manifesto is to challenge thinking across the conservation sector; 140 years on from the publication of Morris’s original it is offered as a conservation manifesto for the twenty-first century.