Lowenthal observes that our concept of the past is one that evolved in the late 18th century. “During most of history men scarcely differentiated past from present, referring even to remote events, if at all, as though they were then occurring.” The continuity and relevance of the past as a source of knowledge, models and “comparative lessons” gave way to a past valued for its “emblems of communal identity.” I recall my shock at learning, in an architectural history course, how marble, statuary and other precious fragments of ancient Rome were regularly salvaged and reused by artists and architects of the Renaissance. “Preservation has deepened our knowledge of the past but dampened creative use of it. . . Our own more numerous and exotic pasts, prized as vestiges, are divested of the iconographic meanings they once embodied. It is no longer the presence of the past that speaks to us, but its pastness. Now a foreign county with a booming tourist trade, the past has undergone the usual consequences of popularity. The more appreciated for its own sake, the less real or relevant it becomes.”
What is the use of the past?