The historical and cultural importance of industrial heritage in Mexico


Studies on industrial heritage are recent - an area of work barely explored - so it is important to introduce ourselves into them to recognize and acknowledge ourselves in this heritage based on what Werner Jaeger describes in his Paideia as "the communication of knowledge and professional skills, the whole of which, insofar as it is transmissible, the Greeks designated with the word techné". In its modern meaning, heritage implies the collective appropriation, in the form of a legacy or common good, of a select set of vestiges and products of the past that can be material as well as ideal and intangible, natural as well as cultural.

Although it may seem a simple thing to talk about industrial heritage, it is a concept that, despite having emerged just over 50 years ago, is still under construction, mainly because this aspect of cultural heritage is made up of many elements, both tangible and intangible, which are difficult to understand as part of the culture. Basically, we could say that industrial heritage refers to the remains of industries in the world, which brings with it many implications and even doubts regarding the importance or the need to preserve these remains, since the industrial activity is always related to aspects of pollution and destruction of the environment and damage to the health of workers, among others.

Industrial heritage background

Awareness of industrial heritage and the importance of the historical heritage contained in the remains of activities related to the industrialization of production processes arose in Ironbridge, England, in 1950, as a result of the first industrial archaeological work in that area, where later, in 1967, the first historical and industrial museum, the Ironbridge George Museum, was established.

As such, the concept of industrial heritage emerged in the mid-twentieth century when it was first used in a publication entitled The Amateur Historian, which basically spoke of the heritage of the Industrial Revolution in England and its historical importance, also raising the need to preserve, protect and restore the industrial remains as a primary source of information of the history and as a faithful testimony of the industrial past. The stage of industrialization of productive processes known as the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-18th century in England and gradually spread to the rest of the world, first in countries close to Great Britain, such as France and Germany, and then to many others, including, of course, Mexico. This process has had great economic, political, social, and cultural impacts.

Basically, the industrialization process consisted of the use of new metallurgical materials, such as iron, in the construction of tools, machines, and structures of great size and resistance, which brought with it an increase in production levels, the intensification of labor, an increase in trade, an increase in the efficiency of transportation, the need for greater monetary mobility, the development of new systems of labor organization, among many other effects, including the accumulation of wealth, with which social, labor, commercial and economic relations were modified.

It can be said that this industrialization process is the one that opens the door to capitalism in its maximum expression, which determines how the world is currently shaped from the economic point of view since, for many years, industrialized countries have been considered developed and first world countries while non-industrialized countries, or those with little industry, have been considered developing or third world countries.

This important historical process has left traces, both material and immaterial, of its impact and of the development of an industrial culture that not only has to do with buildings, machines, or production processes, but also with ways of life and human relations, as well as with the specialized knowledge of various industrial processes that show the skills that human beings can develop in their work and in the technological aspect, and that can help us to understand the society of the past and explain some things about the society of the present.

These traces or pieces of evidence are known as industrial heritage, which, according to the Charter of Nizhny Tagil (issued in Russia in 2003 after the meeting of The International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage) is defined as follows:

This heritage is constituted by the remains of an industrial culture that possess historical, technological, social, architectural, or scientific value, whether buildings or machinery, mills, and factories, mines and sites for processing or refining, warehouses and depots, places where energy is generated, transmitted and used, functional services in social and productive processes - such as means of transportation and all their infrastructure - as well as sites where social activities related to the industry, housing, religious worship or education take place. It includes, in short, the assets generated in the historical development by the productive and extractive activities of man, as well as those expressions related to the influence of these activities on society. Regardless of its state of conservation, it is particularly important as a vehicle for the transmission of ways of seeing and understanding the way: intangible heritage. Industrial heritage is, therefore, a testimony of everyday life and, above all, a collective memory of work and place.

Industrial heritage in Mexico

The industrialization of some productive processes arrived in Mexico in the first decades of the 19th century, almost 100 years after having emerged in England, and was received by many internal conflicts after the War of Independence; however, it can also be said that it found an ideal field to develop, since the country was in need of resources and wanted to start the machine of progress, and industry promised to help achieve it in a short time.

Industrialization began to take place mainly in the mining areas of the country where the use of machines for the extraction and transportation of various minerals such as gold and silver was implemented. Almost at the same time, the railroads, which are one of the most important representations of what was the Industrial Revolution and are the symbol par excellence of progress, begin to establish a transportation network within the Mexican territory, with a great impact on the geographic, economic, political, social and cultural conformation, which even today is present in the country.

It is important to mention that during these early years of industrialization in Mexico is when the national banking system also began to develop, mainly due to the flow of money needed for the construction of buildings in the mines and transportation, which tells us about the importance that industry has had in the country.

Currently, the remains of various industrial activities throughout the country are part of our industrial heritage that must be identified, rescued, preserved, protected, and disseminated, not only as historical evidence of an industrial past and present but also as an important part of the country's material culture; likewise, this evidence can help us understand many cultural elements that are present in our days and that are derived from industry-related activities.

However, explaining to people the concept of industrial heritage and the importance it has for Mexico's historical and cultural memory is not easy, since industrial remains are very difficult to understand as cultural assets, as Miguel Ángel Álvarez, president of Industria, Cultura y Naturaleza in Spain, tells us:

To speak of conservation, rehabilitation, and valorization of industrial heritage, the current version of the term industrial archaeology, is not an easy task, first of all, because of the meaning of the concept itself, which is still not very well understood. The ruins of Pompeii, the Pyramids, or the Parthenon can be assumed by the citizen as part of universal history; a derrick of an old coal mine, a spinning and textile factory, a power plant or hydroelectric plant, an iron bridge, a steam locomotive of an old train, a hardware store or a hydraulic system are more difficult to understand as heritage elements or assets of cultural interest.

Briefly, and without going into much detail, we can say that in Mexico the concern and interest in the conservation and rescue of the country's industrial heritage arose in the 1970s, but it was not until the early 1980s that the first project of "Conservation of Industrial Heritage in Mexico" was carried out in a textile factory in Metepec, in the state of Puebla, which today is still used as a museum and cultural center.

After this first achievement, during the 1980s work continued in isolation and without much success in the enhancement of various industrial sites, and it was not until 1995 when one of the most important efforts to achieve recognition of the importance of industrial assets as part of the cultural heritage of the country was formed, with the creation of the Mexican Committee for the Conservation of Industrial Heritage (CMCPI A. C.), from the efforts of a group of researchers from various academic institutions interested in the conservation of this heritage and concerned about the destruction of the sites, mainly due to the lack of knowledge of their historical and cultural importance. C.), from the effort of a group of researchers from various academic institutions interested in the conservation of this heritage and concerned about the destruction of the sites, mainly due to the lack of knowledge of their historical and cultural importance. This Committee is formed with the following objectives:

A permanent promotion of the rescue and conservation of industrial zones.

Archaeological, historical, and social research on industrial processes.

Creation of a national network of researchers and institutions interested in industrial heritage.

To date, the CMCPI has worked unceasingly for almost 20 years in research, rescue, and, above all, protection of industrial sites, through publications, events, agreements with universities, creation of inter-institutional networks, and various activities focused on the valuation of Mexican industrial heritage.

In the last decade, the work of the Committee was reflected in the work and emergence of other organizations that have the purpose of valuing industrial heritage, as well as the promotion of greater interest on the part of some educational institutions that have paid more attention to certain topics related to this heritage. However, despite more than 30 years of work on the subject in Mexico and 20 years since the founding of the CMCPI, there is still little recognition of the importance and historical and cultural value of industrial remains. This lack of knowledge has led to the disproportionate destruction of places and objects related to this heritage, so it is necessary to seek new forms of awareness, dissemination, and education so that people recognize the importance and cultural value of these assets.

A sample of Mexico's industrial heritage

According to the classification we have, on the one hand, tangible industrial heritage, which is composed of movable industrial assets and immovable industrial assets; and, on the other hand, intangible industrial heritage, which, in turn, is divided into direct and indirect.

Industrial real estate

Industrial real estate refers to buildings, factories, farms, sugar mills, train stations, constructions such as chimneys and bridges, workers' housing, and even chapels or religious centers linked to the production process.

Industrial furniture

As regards movable industrial goods, we have machines, tools, work material and equipment, furniture, archives, documents, and utensils.

Intangible industrial heritage

The intangible part of the industrial heritage manifests the relationship of man with his work and his tools, either individually or collectively, but also represents the socio-cultural relationships that arise around industrial activity and that allow us to contextualize this tangible part of the heritage, since thanks to the knowledge and know-how of the workers we can understand the operation of the machines and production processes, which is why this aspect is divided into direct intangible and indirect intangible.

Direct intangible

This part refers to specialized knowledge and know-how directly related to the industry and production processes, materials, techniques in the use of tools, the manipulation of machines, as well as the organization and the way of relating inside the factories, the bond of the workers with their work and with their co-workers.

Indirect intangible

This part has to do with the customs, traditions, rituals, way of life, way of dressing, food, beliefs of the people around a factory or a particular industry, things that go beyond the industrial processes themselves, and even the workers themselves, reaching their families and friends, and whose evidence can be found in the various regions of the country.

This intangible aspect of industrial heritage is directly related to the workers of a particular production process and corresponds to a specific space and time, which ends with the closure of a factory, a mine, a farm or a railroad station, because with the passage of time new forms of production and organization are implemented that displace the old machines, the old processes and, therefore, also displace the hands of the human being who knows and manipulates those machines.

Concluding remarks

This work offers only a small sample of Mexico's industrial heritage and emphasizes the importance of its conservation. Throughout the length and breadth of the national territory, there are countless places, factories, and remains of industrial activity that are important to preserve and protect as part of our cultural heritage. Much work is still needed around the rescue of industrial heritage; it is necessary to develop research methodologies in line with current times and also forms of heritage education around this topic that cause people to approach their industrial heritage, to know it, to value it, and, above all, to understand it as a document of the past that gives us information about our present and our future.

Author: José Ricardo Gómez Magaña,