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Cultural Preservation: A Growing Imperative

World Cultural Preservation: A Growing Imperative

(A conversation with the Smithsonian Institution's Richard Kurin) (2277)

Richard Kurin, under secretary for history, art, and culture at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, sat down with the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs for a discussion on protecting cultural heritage. Kurin overseas numerous museums, including the Hirshhorn Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian Latino Center and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.

Question: How would you define culture and why is it important that the United States play a role in its preservation globally?

Kurin: As an anthropologist by trade who has worked in many countries around the world, I'm proud to represent not only the cultures of the United States, but indeed the cultures of peoples and regions around the world.

I define culture really as a way of life, as the things that are important to us, the values and beliefs that make life meaningful. Culture is expressed through song and dance, through architecture, through literature, through our aspirations, through our religions, through our craftsmanship and artistry. Culture is obviously important because it defines who we are in respect to our fellow human beings, to our neighbors, and indeed to people around the world.

We have a tremendous ability to learn each other's cultures, to learn them the same way we learn languages. Now that said, we do speak a lot of different languages - some 6,000 on the planet right now. And, as we know, the planet has become a lot smaller. Our cultures are in much greater contact every day with each other. So it's imperative that we, as citizens of a planet, understand each other. Maybe we do not need to speak each other's languages, eat each other's foods or sing everybody else's songs, but we do need to taste them and experience them. And I think that this experience makes us rich as human beings and it increases our understanding of each other.

Q: Can protecting culture play a role in advancing human rights, particularly for minorities and indigenous populations?

A: There is a long history of confrontation between cultures, and this confrontation continues in the present as well. In some cases, we see a lot of intolerance, where people look at other human beings and think, "Well, we don't really understand their culture, we don't believe in what they do and therefore they're inferior." But when anthropologists, historians and others look at the achievements of other cultures, they find not ignorance but often insight, understanding that brings benefit to their own culture as well.

At one time, everybody's culture was innovative. It's hard to say where the next insight will come from, where we'll solve the problem of cancer, for example. It may happen in the medical laboratories of the United States, it may happen in the laboratories of China or India, but it also may be in the folk knowledge, of a healer, a practitioner from the Amazon rain forest or central Africa. So I think we have a great deal to gain from each other's cultures. I look at culture like a living library - an archive of the past, but also a living laboratory for the exploration of creativity and innovation. It can be of tremendous benefit to all of us.

Sometimes we think that heritage is something that belongs only to specific peoples living in specific countries. But the whole world mourned when the Bamiyan Buddhas were blown up. At the time, the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, and they regarded these Buddhas as valueless or indeed as a desecration of their own beliefs. This was quite tragic because these Bamiyan Buddhas stood for the beliefs of hundreds of millions of people. They were poised on the historic Silk Road that united people. They were a treasure and a part of the cultural heritage of all human beings, not just the heritage of the people who lived in Afghanistan, and certainly not of the Taliban. We have to do more in terms of inculcating the idea that heritage transcends any one regime or any one government.

Look, you may not like my song, you may not like my statues, you may not care for my art, but at least you should respect it. That's the biggest thing that the United States stands for, actually.

In order to have a civil society, we've learned over the period of a few hundred years that respecting people's beliefs and cultures is incredibly important. Sometimes we've learned that lesson in a hard way, as we have grappled with our own issues of cultural intolerance, of not respecting the views and cultures of certain people, such as in the case of Native Americans. Earlier in our history, the government was trying to wipe out and destroy their culture. Now we have the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. So I think the U.S. has learned a lesson about the respect for culture, respect for minority and majority and diverse groups. And I think that it is a lesson that is well-respected by the rest of the world and could be emulated by the rest of the world.

Q: Cultural preservation is expensive. Is there an economic incentive for a country to preserve its culture?

A: When we think about culture, we think primarily about two aspects of it. One is the creative aspect of culture, the living culture that is ongoing and innovative. The other is the heritage aspect of culture - the architectural sites, the artifacts, the things in our museums that remind us of our past. While it is very expensive to preserve artifacts and architecture, it is an investment in one's cultural capital. Those sites, monuments and artifacts give people a sense of continuity of their identity. History has a way of both legitimating the present and giving it meaning. How did we get here? What did our ancestors do to make life meaningful? What's important to us?

As we look at the preservation of architectural sites, the preservation of artifacts in museums, of great artworks of the past, we find that those things are alluring. They're alluring to tourists; they are a part of the ongoing cultural economy, which draws one's own citizens. They're very important for the educational mission of a country. I think of our museums in Washington, where we get millions of schoolchildren, where they learn not just about the past but also educate themselves for the future. We have to look at the involvement in cultural heritage as an investment. It's an investment in the sense of purpose and pride that citizens will have in who they are as a people.

Q: Has technology changed the way we approach cultural preservation?

A: There has always been an interesting relationship between the preservation of cultural heritage and technology. In the late 1870s, Thomas Edison developed the first sound recording machine. What was it used for immediately? Anthropologists from the Smithsonian went out to various Indian tribes and communities across the United States and Canada and recorded songs and stories because the new technology was viewed as a way of preserving that past and that heritage that would be important for people to know.

Similarly, when video, and film, and other technologies get developed, while they spur us on to create new industries that are regarded as avant-garde or technologically sophisticated, they are almost always applied to cultural heritage preservation work. I think of the great work in the Middle East, where sensing aerial photography has been able to unearth ancient archeological sites, ancient roads and ancient trading routes. It gives us an explanation of the relationship between different societies. New technology will always be used in that way because we're always looking to coax out more meaning from our past.

The Internet, for example, is a fantastic tool for people around the world to communicate about their culture. The interesting thing about the Internet is that you don't need to have hundreds of millions of dollars to build magnificent museums. You can share your culture with people around the world in a matter of seconds. I think the Internet provides a way in which different minority populations, different small populations, can have their voice heard and can communicate with much larger populations. The Internet is developing means of translation so that we can move from one language to another more easily, and that's a marvelous innovation for cross-cultural collaboration.

A few years ago, many countries got together and did a Silk Road project, working pan-nationally across the breadth of Asia, Europe, even North Africa and the Americas because it was those trade routes that really connected the whole world. The Silk Road was one of those trade routes that brought together music, culture, ideas and foods, and really connected people around the world. I look at the Internet as a modern-day version of the Silk Road.

Q: What can the United States and other countries do to stop the illegal trade of stolen artifacts?

A: Most nations in the world have signed on to treaties which recognize the value of artifacts and cultural property to the very people who nurtured them and that draw meaning from them. Those treaties require governments and various other organizations to guarantee that those cultural properties will not be traded, will not go across boundaries and will not be sold surreptitiously. Many museums and organizations are participating in a number of ways that help people protect against that.

The Smithsonian Museum and the American Association of Museums are very involved in doing what we call "provenance research," that is tracing the biography of various objects that might have been produced, traded or acquired, for example, during the Nazi era. We trace these biographies of literally thousands and thousands of objects. Where did they come from? When were they traded? Was that trading legitimate or was it indeed something that violated one of the treaties and was done illegitimately? I think it's important to make citizens aware of the importance of these objects and the ethical obligation to preserve them.

Q: What do you think we have to lose if we fail to protect our cultural heritage?

A: I believe that when people lose their cultural heritage they lose their moral grounding, their connection to their own past. If you look at populations that have been displaced by war, or refugee populations, or people that have been subjected to all kinds of intolerance and persecution, very often you see a draw to something that is theirs and that no one can take away from them, and that is their sense of history and a sense of who they are. People die over that. People have gone to the gallows and concentration camps over the issue of who they are. It's very hard to take away their culture. But if you lose that, I think you lose a whole sense of self - individually, as a community and as a nation.

There are also political and economic consequences of a people losing its culture. Culture is a resource, a distinctly human invention that has enabled us to survive. Culture has a practical, utilitarian value. When you look around the world today, you look at the vast cultural economy. The cultural economy has grown extraordinarily in the last several decades, and I think nowadays it is actually the largest part of the international economy. When you think of people writing books, or producing television programs, or producing things on the Internet, if you think of everything from video games to song, if you think of theater and movies, if you think of tourism and people going to observe cultural sites, it is the largest industry in the world. So imagine that we take all that away. Take Angkor Wat out of Cambodia, take Machu Picchu out of Peru, take the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, and probably most of New York City and Washington out of the United
States, and you lose millions and millions of visitors. I think France gets tens of millions of visitors every year that contribute to that economy. If you lose or wipe away a culture, I think you not only lose a sense of meaning, both individual and national, but you have vast swaths of the economy just totally gone.

Therefore, it is very important to invest in culture, give it value, give it a place, and nurture it, not just for its intangible qualities - the aspects that give meaning to life - but also for its very tangible benefits, which are sometimes economic, sometimes political, sometimes even medical and scientific. We at the Smithsonian have an Air and Space Museum that has a moon rock and satellites that went up into space. We weren't the first nation on Earth to contemplate the cosmos or think about the nature of the universe. That stirring to explore outer space is very deeply held and goes back to the roots of human beings when people were coming out of the savannah in Africa and looking up at the stars and trying to figure out the significance of all that up there for us down here. That's culture. So it's those musings that propel us on to greater heights and will continue to do so. If we lose cultural heritage, we lose meaning, we lose economy, but we also lose our imagina


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