By Jerry Podany
The first sentence of the cover page for David Lowenthal’s most recent book The Past is a Foreign Country: Revisited, an updated version of his 1985 seminal work, notes, “The past is past, but survives in and all around us… .”
Indeed, that might be said of David himself who, on September 15, 2018, at 95, died at his home in London. He is gone, but survives in and all around those of us fortunate enough to have benefitted from his profound insights and in those yet to discover his writings.
David Lowenthal was Emeritus Professor of Geography and Honorary Research Fellow at University College London. He graduated from Harvard University with a history degree in 1944 and then saw military service in Europe. Toward the end of the war he was assigned as a geographer to document roads, bridges, and buildings predominantly in France, Germany, and what is now the Czech Republic. Perhaps this led him to complete an MA in geography under Carl Sauer where he first came across George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature; this lead to a PhD in history, his thesis on Marsh in 1953 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
As a geographer and historian he explored how the personal perception of nature and the environment affected its conservation, which then led to his later work on landscape tastes and cherished environments and how those formed personal and community identity. To record, and perhaps to better understand, his own perceptions of such places he delighted in photographing them while on his many travels.
With a lifelong concern for both the environment and heritage, David followed George Perkins Marsh as a strong advocate for the conservation of natural resources and a chronicler of the impact of human activity on nature. Like Marsh, David saw these concerns as comingled, and early in his career he formulated insights into the shared challenges of preserving both natural and historic resources. Those insights would form the core of his thinking and writing over his lifetime.
He taught geography and history at Vassar College in New York before joining the American Geographical Society as a research associate in 1956. The 1960s brought associations with the University of the West Indies and the Institute of Race Relations in London under a Fulbright grant.
David established an influential presence in two countries, his native United States (New York) and his beloved England. In 1972 he was named Professor of Geography at University College London, a post he held until his retirement in 1986. During his time at UCL he expressed his deep interest in the conservation of historic features of the West Indies (his interest in small islands continued throughout life) and was a pioneer in recognizing the importance of soundscapes from daily life in many parts of the world, all while authoring well over 200 journal articles and countless lectures that influenced generations of thinkers. That influence extended to heritage professionals and he is often credited with being a driving force in establishing heritage studies as an academic discipline in its own right.
David was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 2001 and received the British Academy Medal in 2016 for The Past Is a Foreign Country – Revisited. In 2010 he was honored by the International Institute for Conservation and was asked to deliver the Forbes Prize Lecture at the Istanbul Congress.
His influence went well beyond the walls of the lecture hall however. He was called upon as an advisor to numerous heritage agencies, including UNESCO, the World Monuments Fund, English Heritage, the US National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Trust of Australia.
At his 95th birthday celebration in Berkeley California he spoke enthusiastically about the completion of his upcoming publication Quest for the Unity of Knowledge which explores new territory that fed his boundless curiosity, intellect, and thirst for knowledge. It was just published this November.
Some in the professions of conservation and heritage preservation considered David Lowenthal’s publications and research too “cerebral.” But those who made the journey into his world were rewarded with insights addressing the very nature of why we struggle to protect and preserve both tangible and intangible evidence of the past—not so much the “how” but the “why.” His 1996 publication, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, published a dozen years after the first printing of his 1985 seminal work, The Past Is a Foreign Country, showed his tenacity and willingness to face, if not initiate, controversy by probing even our most cherished constructs. Up to the end, he continued to explore and clarify his concerns that heritage, defined in the widest and most popular way, is increasingly at odds with history, in that, as he saw it, it seeks to exaggerate or omit certain aspects of the past in order to support prejudices we may harbor and to “attest our identity and affirm our worth.” He raised concerns that the popular understanding of the past, which years before he had championed, was now overwhelming the accuracy of the historical record. He agreed that this should raise a flag of caution for conservators and conservation professionals who seek to preserve the tangible and sometimes intangible evidence of the past since conservators and preservationists remain susceptible to influences of fashion and contemporary interpretations of the past. While some saw this as a reversal of his earlier enthusiasm for all of us to embrace history, it was in fact consistent with David Lowenthal’s restless intellect as he continued to explore, to debate, and to mine the ever changing relationship of the present with the past.
David Lowenthal, historian, geographer, and lover of puns, born April 26, 1923, died September 15, 2018, is survived by his wife (and often editor) Mary Alice Lamberty and two daughters Eleanor and Catherine, a granddaughter, and a grandson.
IIC President Emeritus