Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Meaning of Culture

In my September 27th blog post, Archives and Community, I discussed what a community is and how cultural heritage institutions reflect communities. In that post, I mention the word "culture" without explanation. Here I wish to more fully explore the concept of culture and how it relates to individuals and memory institutions.

Anthropologist Raymond Henry Williams called culture “one of the 2 or 3 most complicated words in the English language." It involves overlapping disciplines and concepts related to both material items and shared traditions. As such, it is a reflection of societies, focusing on the designs of humankind, and the ways we order and relate to our world.

The Role of Archives

Archival repositories aim to document and preserve the combined experiences and shared stories that lead to the development of cultural heritage. This endeavor can be quite complicated. For one, culture develops over time based on gained group knowledge, beliefs and customs that communities develop together, and the creativity they let loose in the things they make. Archivists must try to track these changes in society to ensure they are creating a complete and accurate historical record that is reflective of community development. Additionally, culture is both tangible and intangible. An archivist must ensure that culture, in all its forms, is properly recorded for posterity. Furthermore, culture is a complicated web of communities and ideas. An archivist must work to understand connections and interactions to best reflect reality in their collections.

Definitions of Culture

Texas A&M provides some great definitions of "culture" that can help one shape their understanding of this broad-reaching term:

  • Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.
  • Culture is the systems of knowledge shared by a relatively large group of people.
  • Culture is the totality of a person's learned, accumulated experience which is socially transmittedbehavior through social learning.
  • A culture is a way of life of a group of people--the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.
  • Culture is the sum of total of the learned behavior of a group of people that are generally considered to be the tradition of that people and are transmitted from generation to generation.
  • Culture is a collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.

You and Your Cultures

One identifies with particular cultures associated with the various communities in which one takes part. Sometimes you can choose to adopt a culture, finding elements created by a community that suits your particular outlook on life. You can move to a particular place, associate with particular people, celebrate certain traditions, create or buy certain items to secure your connection to a specific culture. Other times a specific culture is just part of you because of your existence and relates to where you were born, to whom you were born, and during what era.

We can reject certain communities, but take the cultural identity of that community with us. For example, I was born in New York, but I have not lived in that state for twenty-two years. I still identify with the culture of my childhood that sometimes expresses itself through my speech (the words that I use and the way that I say them,) my actions, my memories and my sense of self. Sometimes it is easier to reject a community than to reject the culture of that community for when we form a cultural identity, parts of it stick with us for long periods of time or for a lifetime.

Communities, Connections, and Culture

A culture can be made up of individual communities or individual communities that overlap. Sometimes the culture of these smaller communities enhance our personal values. Sometimes they do not, but they still have some affect on us. For example, consider my rural / suburban chosen hometown in New Hampshire. My family and I participate in the school system, as local volunteers in various groups, in girl scouts, and we associate with our neighbors. My daughter and I have library cards. We frequent local shops and make use of town parks... All of these small communities in which we participate together make a larger community. I primarily value a few parts of my local culture. One element I particularly value is the "culture of education" my town usually tries to embrace. In fact, that is one of the main reasons my husband and I moved here -- to adopt that culture that will help us build values we already possessed and transfer them to our child. That does not mean that the educational system is what all members of my various local communities value. My neighbor may value sports culture over education for example, but their kids go to school with my kids so certain things are expected of all them. We are all influenced by each other and our local "culture" and various community cultures are influenced by the connections.

The Importance of "Culture" to Cultural Heritage Professionals

As cultural heritage professionals, it is useful to define the various communities we wish to document and our various audiences. I think it is also particularly valuable to try to understand the diversity of various community cultures and the ways they interrelate. We should consciously think about the meaning of culture when collecting objects (material culture) or creating documentation methods for things that are not as easily passed down such as dance, music and language (intangible culture.) This will enable us to provide better access to the information we've accumulated by allowing us to point out connections across collections to the public. Using the idea of preserving "culture" in all its forms will enhance what we do and how we portray ourselves to the world.

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