Cultural Heritage in the Age of Museums

Cairo Museum - photo courtesy of Flickr user archer10

This week, we focused on modern European history and the politicization of culture.

The combination of western European ideas like museums with local concepts of culture and sensibilities about local culture history creates an interesting dynamic. Although Mariette opted not to play a directorial role in the Egyptian government, he imported the framework (precise spatial measurements, a sense of linear time, a sense of Otherness imposed upon the culture under study) that structures how ancient Egypt is accessed, interpreted, and understood by the local population, tourists, and scientists around the world. This is not a value statement – indeed, who is to say what would have developed without Mariette’s stabilizing influence! More material evidence of an ancient culture would have been flung to the corners of the world. Nevertheless, this imported structure must influence the material.

National Museum of the American Indian, photo by Flickr user Jeff Kubina

As “kendella” mentioned earlier this week, the issue of cultural heritage is commonly discussed in the context of Native American skeletal remains and material culture. Unlike the at-the-time-lawful agreements that Western powers had with the Egyptian government, which created some semblance of an even relationship, nearly all early American archaeology was done without the permission of indigenous people. Perhaps a greater ability to control and display (or not) this material on a large would empower local groups. The National Museum of the American Indian is a step in the right direction here – it was created by an act of Congress in the late 80s in response to the fact that the Smithsonian possessed thousands of Indian remains in storage.

Cultural heritage and the right to control one’s own history are issues around the world. It is the responsibility of archaeologists to be sensitive to these issues and respect the claims and policies of local groups and governments.