Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Who owns our heritage? Protecting resources outside the cultural heritage institution

Last week, an article I wrote for HNN called "Collaborating to Preserve Our Cultural History" focused on the desirability of collaborating to ensure that comprehensive documentation of our culture is preserved for posterity. The first comment I received to this article stated:

I am wondering if the author is equally concerned about the preservation of "their" culture. I refer to white invaders from Classical civilisation to the present who have removed indigenous artifacts and placed them in either private collections or white cultural zoos(museums)and then charged outlandish admission fees for their patrons. Much of what is preserved of "our culture" is simply stolen and rarely returned unless public outcry is sustained over a period of time.

This is an aspect of cultural heritage that deserves deeper consideration. Who owns our heritage? How can cultural heritage institutions best help preserve heritage? Is it necessary to expropriate materials to ensure their protection?

I responded to the commented in the following way:
It is my intention to encourage people to make sure that items are preserved for posterity. This does not mean removing items from their communities. Cultural heritage institutions can play a significant role in helping communities preserve their own materials within their own localities. We can help raise awareness about the importance of safeguarding documentation. The expertise of professionals can help communities survey their resources, identify vital historical items, create appropriate climate controlled environments, learn about proper storage materials, and create appropriate access tools for information. Working together, larger and wealthier cultural institutions can provide support for smaller communities... Even with the best intentions, when organizations seeking to build collections act to "save" materials they often stir up other issues. True collaboration encourages all those with an interest in materials to speak up about them and decide the best way to keep them. This includes professionals and non-professionals alike...One organization or group of professionals should not "expropriate" thinking that they know best and can make best use of the resources for their people. And to add to that idea, I think it should always be a goal to keep materials local, to the extent that is possible. I am specifically thinking of Afghanistan's collections that were removed from the country for their safety with the goal of returning them when it is feasible.

Returning to my own consulting work within communities this kind of thinking also applies. When I begin a collaboration project with clients, one of the first things I warn is the possibility of someone feeling like we are "stepping on toes" or trying to take away items that others feel they have a right and desire to keep. While museums, libraries and archives seek to make their collections stronger, great care must be given to a larger picture. It should be a prime goal to make a strong network of documentation, creating awareness about what materials exists, who owns them, and helping everyone gain the tools necessary to preserve them for posterity.

But, when an institution does not have "ownership" how do they benefit from cultural heritage materials and valuable troves of informational resources in the hands of others? Why should a strong repository embrace a responsibility to collaborate, aiming to keep materials close to home and sometimes within repositories that may not have expertise and funds equal to their own?

The Hudson River Valley environmental collection at the Marist College Special Collection and Archives is an example I continually return to. I wrote about this extraordinary group of records in my book Cultural Heritage Collaborators and my article for History News that is due out this Autumn. The Marist archivist developed a small collection about a proposed power plant in the Hudson River Valley into one of the most revered environmental collections in the country. Through collection development, the college gathered resources related to the controversy. In the process, the archivist worked to identify all documentation he could about the subject. When appropriate, identified materials were accessioned into the College's collection. However, in some cases (and for various reasons), the archivist informed record holders of the significance of materials in their possession and their relationship to the Marist collection, but left documents with their original owners. The archivist taught the record holders proper preservation methods when necessary. He returned to his own institution with the knowledge that the records would be kept safe and accessible because of the information he shared. He became the "go-to" person for researchers seeking information on the subject and helped establish a national recognition of his repository's expertise in this area.

Cultural heritage institutions do not need to own materials to take interest in them. One may benefit from knowledge gained about available resources. Collaborating helps gain trust, boosts all participants, and provides each with something of value. For the more established cultural institution, the knowledge gained and public recognition that you are the "expert" on a given topic will give you enough of a boost to strengthen all your activities. Ownership is not everything. We must see our role in protecting resources related to our organizational mission within and outside of our institutions. We all own our heritage and must work together to ensure its safety.

1 comment:

  1. This is a powerful post and deals very sensitively and sensibly with a difficult issue. It's easy to forget how many of the objects in our nations museums were either acquired or became available to be acquired through means that were illegal, immoral or simply a reflection of man's inhumanity to man.

    After reading this post, I can't help but think of two diametrically opposed ideas. The first is from the book "Give Me My Father's Body" by Kenn Harper, which chronicles the story of Minik, the so-called "New York Eskimo." It highlights the arrogance with which we have sometimes operated when it comes to anthropology, history and cultural heritage.

    But then I think about the "Tragedy of the Commons," which I was first introduced to in college. The tragedy of the commons is the dilemma arising when multiple individuals, acting independently and in their own self-interest, deplete a shared limited resource -- even when it is not in anyone's long-term interest to exhaust that particular resource. When we all own something in common, it is easier to fail to see the entire picture and there is no external source to manage the resource.

    Our shared cultural heritage is a valuable resource. And there is no easy answer to how we can best protect, enjoy and celebrate it. One thing we can do to help the process is to talk honestly and openly about our thoughts, fears and ideas. Thank you, Melissa, for starting and setting the tone for that dialogue.