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Interview: Culture in Peril

Posted by Amanda Gustin on January 10, 2011 in interview series |

Welcome to a new occasional series on the Tufts Museum Studies blog. We’ll be interviewing all sorts of interesting people with intriguing perspectives on museums and issues that touch upon museums. If you would like to conduct an interview or suggest someone to be interviewed, let us know!

First in our series is Nicholas Merkelson of Culture in Peril. Nicolas holds degrees in religion, archaeology, and cultural heritage. He’s worked with both the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museums of Kenya, and is currently interning at Adventures in Preservation, a non-profit sustainable historic preservation company specializing in hands-on volunteer opportunities to conserve the world architectural heritage. His blog is a fascinating overview of preservation issues faced by cultural sites around the world.

Without further ado, let’s get to the questions!

The title of your blog is “Culture in Peril.” How do you define culture, and at what point do you consider it to be in peril?

I realize that after nearly a full year of blogging at Culture in Peril, I haven’t yet provided my readers with a definition of ‘culture.’  Frankly, I’ve never felt obligated to endorse a single definition or even to come up with one of my own.  I’ve read Geertz and Levi-Strauss and Durkheim, so my thoughts draw heavily from social-cultural anthropological theory, and I’ve also practiced field archaeology and studied material culture, which demands a more objects-based perspective.  I hope my readers recognize that ‘culture,’ as it’s used in the title of my blog, applies to both tangible and intangible human creations (or “cultural property,” as it were).  If I had to give you the most simple of definitions for my blog, ‘culture’ is constituted in “things and thoughts.”  These “things and thoughts” become imperiled when one or more factors compromise their status, quality, or nature — e.g. a historic building collapses, a language is lost, a painting is stolen, or a tradition is no longer practiced — the end result being a loss to all of humanity.

What do you see as some of the biggest issues worldwide facing cultural objects?

The issues facing the world cultural heritage are interrelated, so it’s difficult to pinpoint a single one, but I think one of the biggest problems is that of loving it too much — by which I mean humans are the greatest threat to protecting our past.   As with the condition of the physical landscape and the environment, humans are hugely responsible for degrading our heritage landscape in irreversible ways.  We visit archeological sites, we photograph street performers in foreign cities, we purchase reproductions of museum objects — no doubt, as a global population, we are ravenous consumers of heritage resources.  These acts are socially, economically, and culturally virtuous, but the opportunity for genuine appreciation to become mass exploitation is too real.  Today we can find observable proof of our over-consumption in the form of unsustainable tourism, illegal production and distribution of property, and a global market for stolen and fake artifacts.  Combine the exhaustion of heritage resources with a seemingly willful ignorance of the harmful affects we inflict on sites and communities and you find us in our present state.

How do you see museums helping to save cultural objects?

I don’t necessarily think museums “save” cultural objects, because one might infer that everything in museums is in some sort of danger.  This is clearly untrue.  For centuries museums have been excellent at gathering objects (collection) and either conserving them in an archive (storage) or displaying them to the public (exhibition).  But in the last few decades, with the passing of major international legislation on rights to cultural property — a very basic human right, I think — museums are increasingly seen as institutions for the masses and not just the wealthy and the educated.  Museums are very democratic like that, so as much as we say they are “saving” objects museums are also responsible for establishing identities, engaging principles of humanity, and conveying who we really are.

What do you think the next big step needs to be? How can we help?

The next big steps involve money money money — or is that too obvious?  Not enough funding is devoted to cultural heritage preservation and education initiatives.  I suppose you could say the same of a lot of things, but there needs to be a more substantial investment of human and financial capital from both the private sector and state governments.  Our heritage resources will literally continue to crumble without the support of a well-funded, sustainable, long-term management plan.

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