Has industrial archaeology lost its way?
Some years after Tom Rolt’s death, Kenneth Hudson, regarded as the first promoter and communicator of industrial archaeology in Europe, if not its actual founder, was asked to hold a Rolt Memorial Lecture, which he called “Has Industrial Archaeology Lost Its Way?”. Ann Nicholls, his assistant for a long time, kept a typescript of it, that was found later among the many works he left – more than 50 books published, and many more articles, essays, interviews and radio and TV broadcasts. After almost 10 years, this typescript paper still is very stimulating reading. Kenneth dealt with some basic issues concerning the beginnings and aims of IA, and the “esprit” of what he never wanted to call an academic subject, but rather a path for social action and cultural direction common to diverse fields of study.
25 years after the first Italian event concerning industrial archaeology – the 1977 Milan International Meeting held at Rotonda della Besana (in which a very interesting discussion took place between Kenneth and Eugenio Battisti who also popularized the notion of industrial archeology in Italy) during the exhibit “San Leucio: archeologia, storia, progetto”-, Kenneth’s comments in this Rolt Memorial Lecture still provide a valuable intellectual provocation. The author describes the curve of development of British industrial archaeology, from its pioneering times until its mass-popularization and finally, to its establishment as an academic subject – the same happened, with some differences, in other European countries, and partially in Italy as well.
In Italy, the phrase “industrial archaeology” came into current use following a period of time in which we find a proliferation of surveys of industrial monuments in several regions; the collection of photographic works – all of them basically inspired by Gabriele Basilico’s work –; as well as a myriad of TV and photo productions featuring industrial archaeological sites as expressively powerful settings for fashion, cars, drinks commercials and so on. Even in movies, industrial derelict lands often became the symbol of existential suffering (“Maledetti vi amerò” and “Nirvana” are just two cases chronologically and thematically very different from each other).
We find other examples in art: Arte Povera (Kounellis for instance) and painting (the “pittura-pittura” movement), that has dealt with the subject of historical, real or fantastic industrial buildings since the end of the 1980s, either in hyper-realistic terms (Arduino Cantafora), in De Chirico style (Paola Gandolfi) or in romantic-symbolic terms (some of Raffaele Bueno’s works). These artistic representations differ greatly in meaning and aim from those of the industrial landscape made by Futurists and Neorealists – a landscape that was monumental as well, but not decaying and obsolete. The industrial and modernistic narrative of these cultural movements was gradually replaced by the physical and visual representation of a neglected industry past its prime. Or to put it more harshly, of dead industry.
Therefore, in the public consciousness, the idea of the industrial archaeological site as a landmark has grown more as an aesthetic issue than as a conveyor of technological, historical or social values. Evidence of this can be found in Italy, where trade unions have seldom promoted initiatives for the preservation of industrial archaeological remains (except in the case of records heritage, especially archives, which have received special attention), in sharp contrast to other countries such as Sweden’s Bergslagen Eco-museum or the Workers’ Museum in Copenhagen, both founded with strong support by local trade unions.