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Re-perception of the past

Oration honouring David Lowenthal
Tuesday, May 27, 10 a.m.

A scholar with an encyclopedic knowledge and a remarkable capacity to use that knowledge in the maiming of sacred cows is a rare creature, but in David Lowenthal we have found one of the species. His territory is the cultural landscape and humanity’s responses to that landscape. Staking that territory with his wonderful biography of George Perkins Marsh, the man who formed the notion of environmental conservation in the 19th century, Lowenthal is best known for his magisterial The Past is a Foreign Country, a book that examines our attitudes to and relationships with the past as they have developed over the course of history. Later he took a wry, but equally encyclopedic look at the whole heritage movement in a work whose title gives a full sense of the tone: Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. This book forced those who worked in the field – at best a humourless crew of zealots - to reconsider their certainties. What is remarkable about Lowenthal’s books and essays is not just their content but also their style. Look at a draft of any one of his papers and see a pen seeking after the right word – and more – the pungent metaphor. His prose weaves great patterns of point, of idea, of information into a text that moves with a wonderful smoothness, with sharp observations lit by deft remarks, by undercutting jokes that slide beneath the prose.

In this new found land where schoolchildren can recite the crimes of Confederation and of the Upper Churchill contract better than the Ten Commandments; where any person in the street can talk of the heroism of Beaumont Hamel and the perfidy of the animal rights groups; in a place so marked by history as ours is, it is appropriate to have someone who challenges those received historical truths and, indeed, the very celebration of the past. But we have to be careful of him and remember how provocative he can be as he was during a music colloquium in Banff where he asked the participants, “Why do you need your Canadian music?” It is unclear whether he has been allowed in Banff since. He is also the man who asserted a decade ago that heritage “thrives on historical error,” on the fabrications we use to develop our identities. Yet, in a more recent piece he has argued that, “We feel called on to secure past residues against the fragile forgetful future. In contrast to the unreliable shifting present, the past seems securely fixed; that is one reason we prize it for its authenticity.”

Lowenthal recognizes the difficulties of accommodating past and present; that our arguments for standards and practices change with the years; that what we now dismiss as modern trash we will revere as ancient relics tomorrow. But, he insists, “The past remains vital to our utmost being … is essential to civilized life.” Five hundred years of being North America’s nonentity has made Newfoundlanders very alert to the interpretation of their past and their present. It has also made us quite adept at using that past. We need to be careful that we do not treat our past as we treated our fishery and so exploit it that its value is extinguished. And here we have the man who can guide us. David Lowenthal’s whole academic career has been taken up with examining such issues and his place before us today becomes all the more appropriate when we realize that he is a scholar not only of conservation and preservation but also of islands.

David Lowenthal is among the most protean of professors for he has held positions not just in geography but also in disciplines as wide-ranging as landscape architecture, political science and psychology. One has to ask whether this indicates a freedom from disciplinary boundaries or merely a lack of discipline. His distinctions supply the answer. Now professor emeritus of geography at University College London he is also a senior fellow of the British Academy. Holder of Fulbright, Guggenheim and Leverhulme fellowships, Lowenthal was given the University and Professional Publication Award in the UK and the Historic Preservation book prize in the U.S. as well as the medals of the Royal Geographical Society, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and the American Geographical Society. His biography of George Perkins Marsh was shortlisted for the British Academy Book Prize in 2001. For his incisive contributions to a significant re-perception of the past, Vice-Chancellor, I present to you for the degree of doctor of letters (honoris causa), David Lowenthal.

Shane O’Dea
Public orator

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