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Can’t Buy Me Love

February 18th, 2013

Can’t Buy Me Love: Tourism Dollars, Cultural Property Management, and Activism

Jeneva Wright

On my first trip to Paris, I decided to visit the catacombs. As a claustrophobe with a vivid imagination, the winding underground tunnels were challenging, but manageable. The careful stacks of remains displayed more macabre market appeal than educational interpretation, but they caused me no distress—until I watched a group of American tourists grab several human skulls. After playing around with the bones, one man nonchalantly dropped them to the ground. I do not know what appalled me more: the desecration of human remains or ancient history, but I ran for the exit, revolted.

Cultural heritage needs people. National parks, landmarks, and museums all compete for audiences, frantically trying to get people in their doors, vying against the magnetic pull that alternate entertainment sources assert on our society. Even when an individual opts to prioritize intellectual engagement over the mindless buzz of sitcom shows, museums still must compete for that person’s attention—after all, they can visit the Louvre online, watch a documentary from their computer, or download a book to read on their tablet. Even if they get off their couch, the museumgoer still has their pick of which venue to choose and which collection to support. In many ways, our museums, deposits of cultural heritage artifacts, are just like every other for-profit business: reliant on money, marketing, and superb collections to keep their doors open.

            It remains also that the use of capitalistic formulas (more traffic=more money=successful museum) can also have disastrous consequences. The prioritization of public approval can influence which pieces are accessioned, lead to dramatized exhibits derailing academic integrity, and can endanger the artifacts themselves. As Caple succinctly states, “Those who care for historic buildings and artefacts have a love-hate relationship with visitors” (2003:22). The finances associated with visitor management are an inescapable reality for cultural heritage managers. There is yet another element, however, the primary reason for cultural heritage’s significance: its ability to teach people about their past. 

            If those tourists had been educated about the significance of the human beings who lined the Paris catacomb walls, would they have shown respect or interest, and thus acted like more civilized human beings? If education has the potential to improve the human condition, then we must consider conservation to be a form of activism. This concept conceivably strengthens the case for public education and outreach beyond its financial benefits, even when weighed against the evident threats that such interactions pose to artifacts. Perhaps that is why UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, denotes cultural heritage as a fundamental human right (UNESCO). We as conservators have an obligation to try, to the best of our abilities, to convey that heritage and preserve an object’s integrity, so that we might continue to educate the public—and just maybe, better our species in the process.


Caple, C., 2003, Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 22.

Logan, W., 2012, “Cultural Diversity, Cultural Heritage and Human Rights: Towards heritage management as human rights-based cultural practice.” International Journal of Heritage Studies. 18. no. 3, pp. 231-44.



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