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Ownership and the Reasons for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage

January 30th, 2013

Ownership and the Reasons for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage

 Jeremy Borrelli

            One of the most frequently asked questions I receive from family and friends is why do archaeologists do what they do? This is a central theoretical question all members of the field inevitably ask themselves and leads to much debate within the discipline. The most useful answer describes members of the anthropological community as stewards or ‘interpreters’ of culture and cultural heritage. But what about the people whose culture is being ‘interpreted’?

In an article discussing the politics of cultural heritage management in Australia, Smith (2000) argued that as scientific experts, archaeologists were often seen by governments as the `rightful’ body of people to act as stewards for heritage, disregarding Aboriginal and other interest groups (311). Aboriginal control of their own heritage was dismissed by policy makers in favor of a body of ‘experts’ who made claims to objectivity and the production of value-free knowledge. In this case the author leads the reader to question the role archaeologists play in management strategies for cultural heritage, and how stakeholders have been incorporated into those strategies.

            This issue plays into the managerial debate between governments, stakeholders and international organizations like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that recognizes cultural heritage as an essential human right (Logan 2012:235). Archaeologists and the conservators who maintain and preserve cultural heritage are needed to play a key role in the management of cultural heritage as they are trained to manage that material for a broader audience. It is important not to overlook the reasons why these people are employed, which is to serve as the intermediary between different cultures. To own one’s cultural heritage is a human right, and it is part of the ethical guidelines for all people who make their living dealing with culture to respect those rights of the people whose culture is being displayed or examined. The role of the archaeologist is then to find the balance between respecting the rights of cultural heritage and interpreting or presenting that heritage in a way that makes sense to others while maintaining minimal deviations from what that culture means to those who participate in it. Archaeologists, conservators, and all who deal in culture are trained experts in managing this balance and should be used to do so. Therefore, the use of these professionals by governments or international organizations is justified so long as the archaeologist remembers their role as mediators between cultures and adheres to the ethical principles that govern the discipline.

Ethics and Theory

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