Critical-Analytical Reflection: How We Value Our (And Others’) Heritage

Note: This post was written by a student in the course and reposted here. Source: How We Value Our (And Others’) Heritage

I want you, the person reading this, to think of one of your favorite songs. Now, what if I sat down and told you, “I know for a fact that the primary reason you like that song so much is because of how well crafted the lyrics are.” Perhaps that statement rings true, but I know that someone reading this likely picked a song that they like primarily because of how fun it is to dance to or because it has a killer guitar solo. Maybe you picked a song that doesn’t have lyrics at all. Who am I to tell you why it is you like something that you do?

The concept of how to properly value something (if that’s something we can do at all) has been a pervasive one throughout the semester. In one of my blog posts prior to midterms, I wrote about how important I think it is for scholars in the humanities fields to think about how they privilege the “scholarly” vs “non-scholarly,” as doing so without good reason risks discriminating against groups who choose not to or lack the ability to express themselves via methods that fall into the former category. I think that this topic falls into a similar category insofar that it requires us to realize our limited viewpoint when interacting with communities outside our own.

Imagine you know very little about Christianity, but you have found an artifact of a cross that you wish to display in a museum. How would you display it? The answer seems obvious to us: the right way. But without that cultural context or anyone to correct you, you might think that the proper way to display it was sideways or upside-down. The former might simply look silly, but the latter could be offensive or even blasphemy to those who are aware of the context.

This is exactly what constantly happens to many items from underrepresented communities displayed in museums or similar. Take for example the Sioux Winter Count that we examined in class. In the essay by Jennifer Guiliano and Carolyn Heitman, the two refer to a specific winter count completed by the Sioux that is currently displayed at the Smithsonian as a single object. However, the nature of the winter count as a collaborative project with multiple authors as well as the nature of each picture depicting a specific event, Guiliano and Heitman argue, means that the count would be better displayed as a set of multiple pieces of cultural heritage rather than a single, homogeneous work. In their words, “While it may seem trivial to continually refine the metadata associated with artifact to this level, what it in fact demonstrates is the complicated nature of Indigenous data that has been collected by non-Indigenous institutions. Lone Dog’s Winter count is not a singular data; rather it is a plurality of data points that the Museum elected to present as a singular artifact” (11).

Lone Dog’s Winter Count – Photograph by Garrick Mallery – CC-BY-SA-4.0

Once I realized this central problem to the way we are often representing the cultural heritage of other groups, I began to see it everywhere. However, I have the privilege of needing to learn about this. Early in the semester, we looked at the Colored Conventions Project (or CCP) and their statement of principles. One of these stood out to me as particularly applicable to this discussion. Principle 5 reads, in part, “We seek to avoid exploiting Black subjects as data and to account for the contexts out of which Black subjects as data arise. We seek to name Black people and communities as an affirmation of the Black humanity inherent in Black data/curation. We remind ourselves that all data and datasets are shaped by decisions about whose histories are recorded, remembered, and valued.” (Emphasis mine.)

The way we go about valuing CH shows up not only in conversations about ethics, but in preservation as well. For our class we examined Palmyra and the efforts toward its reconstruction and preservation. In his essay “The Problem with Printing Palmyra,” Roshni Khunti argues that the use of Italian marble in Palmyra’s construction, stating that, “The choice of stone contributes to the inauthenticity of the entire reconstruction,” (2:8) and, “If the cultural significance of the original arch is to be maintained and conserved in the reconstructed arch, the IDA should have aimed to recreate the authenticity and integrity of the original arch in their reconstruction” (2:8). So now we apply our question: is the type of stone used significant to the value of Palmyra as an object of cultural heritage? Khunti certainly believes so, but I’m not sure that either of us are fully qualified to claim that we know exactly where the value of Palmyra comes from and if that value is diminished by its restoration. (Additionally, the question of whether an imperfect restoration is better than no restoration at all could fill an entire Critical-Analysis reflection on its own.)

This issue again came up in our discussions about digital “public squares,” such as Wikipedia. In their paper “World Heritage Sites on Wikipedia,” Ben Marwick and Prema Smith articulate the demographics of the majority of Wikipedia editors: “Factors that strongly predict if a user has ever edited Wikipedia include their gender (male), age (younger), education level (has BA), Internet use frequency (higher) and Internet use skills (higher). Hill and Shaw (2013) similarly found that among U.S. adult contributors to the English-language edition of Wikipedia, at least 75% are male” (2). Looking at this through the lens that we have created, how can such a narrow demographic be trusted to accurately represent all items within a global encyclopedia? Not only does it leave the door wide open for misrepresentation within articles, but as we saw with the Sioux Winter Count, are the way pages and metadata are set up inherently misrepresenting items of cultural heritage that fall outside the typical Wikipedia editor demographic?

While this problem has no easy solution, realizing that it is an issue that exists across the entire spectrum of cultural heritage is an integral step in tackling it. Many follow up questions like, “How do we know the proper people to consult in cases of disputed heritage?” or “What happens when a community disagrees on how to display an item?” are incredibly difficult to give a concise and reasoned answer to, but I believe the fact that we are discussing this as a problem in the first place is a major step in the right direction. Asking these questions and engaging frankly with all communities involved is the only way we can prevent displaying the cultural heritage of other communities as “upside-down crosses.”

Works Cited:

Guiliano, Jennifer and Heitman, Carolyn. “Difficult Heritage and the Complexities of Indigenous Data.” Journal of Cultural Analytics, Vol. 1, Issue 1, August 13, 2019.

Khunti, Roshni. “The Problem with Printing Palmyra: Exploring the Ethics of Using 3D Printing Technology to Reconstruct Heritage.” Studies in Digital Heritage, Vol. 2, No. 1, September 2018.

Marwick, Ben, and Prema Smith. “World Heritage Sites on Wikipedia: Cultural Heritage Activism in a Context of Constrained Agency.” SocArXiv, 1 June 2020. Web.

Source: Critical-Analytical Reflection: How We Value Our (And Others’) Heritage