Don’t Go There: The Commodification of Cultural Heritage

One of the challenges of preserving heritage in a capitalist society is the inevitable commodification of cultural heritage. In an earlier post, I talked about how seeing objects of cultural heritage can create a sense of ownership in people who view those objects and the impact of that feeling on issues of repatriation. In this post, I will be revisiting some of those topics, and also discussing some issues that occurred to me the in the last couple of weeks as I’ve been reading a few news articles related to Native American heritage.

Men of the Docks by George Bellows (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Men of the Docks by George Bellows, the first painting acquired by the Maier Museum through student and local fundraising, was deaccessioned under then President John Klein for sale in 2007. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

For better or for worse, one of the main ways that capitalist societies determine value is by assessing monetary worth. The highest value a painting can have, for example, is to be “priceless,” something we associate with paintings like the Mona Lisa. While some of this value is conferred by the painting’s quality and rarity, it is also derived from its exposure to the public. Pricelessness can be relative. I have to admit here that I am somewhat biased on this front; I am a graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and along with a number of my fellow alumnae, I was outraged when the college made the decision to sell several masterpieces from the Maier Museum’s permanent collection to replenish coffers damaged by the Great Recession. Though the college has since changed its name and begun admitting men, for me at least, the decision about the art remains for me the most tangible demonstration of the administration’s profound disregard for our legacy. Though the paintings were owned by the college, it still feels to me as though they belonged to the alumnae and the people of the Lynchburg who were able to see and enjoy these masterworks free of charge.

With my own perspective well and truly noted, I wanted to discuss something far more significant: Native American heritage. In 1990, the United States passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which required federal agencies and institutions receiving federal funds to restore items of cultural heritage to their appropriate Native American tribes, organizations, and/or descendents. The law and its enforcement have not been uncontroversial, but on the whole it seemed to be a step in the right direction in terms of respecting the cultural heritage and cultural sovereignty of Native Americans. In the past week or so, however, I came across a couple of articles that brought home for me how far the United States government and its citizens still have to go.

The first article comes from NPR’s fantastic Code Switch blog and discusses the sale of Hopi artifacts at auction in Paris and a US Appeals Court decision upholding the right of the Arizona Snowbowl (a ski resort) to spray artificial snow made from treated wastewater onto the San Francisco Peaks, a sacred site for a number of tribes including the Hopi and Havasupai. The second article is an op-ed piece in the New York Times on the growing preservation problem facing Pueblo ruins in the Navajo Nation caused by tourists who feel that having GPS coordinates for these sites entitles them to sneak out to the sites and explore them (and then post photos on Flickr, naturally).

The San Francisco Peaks (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The San Francisco Peaks (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

These articles bother me because they indicate not only a disregard for the cultural heritage and beliefs of Native Americans, but what seems to me to be an apparent unwillingness or inability to even consider those matters. The cultural value of these objects and spaces cannot be quantified in dollars and cents, and yet because some individuals or institutions are willing to put a price tag on them they are instantly commodities. In the court case on the mountain issue, for example, the Court acknowledged that spraying treated wastewater onto the sacred space was offensive, but decided it did not pose an undue burden on the Native American tribes concerned. The wastewater, however, was not being sprayed for some ecological purpose or stop a wildfire that threatened nearby homes, but to provide snow for a ski resort–a purely commercial enterprise.

This ongoing legal disregard for the cultural value of spaces sacred to Native Americans has broader implications for how non-Native American citizens treat the cultural heritage of Native Americans. Sneaking into Pueblo ruins, for example, and then blatantly posting pictures showing that you visited the site and damaged it with your presence is galling. It reminds me of a story that one of the narrators I interviewed in Selma shared. She described being at a mass meeting on voting rights in First Baptist Church when Sheriff Jim Clark and several deputies entered the church and arrested two leaders who had been leading prayers at the pulpit. The violation of this sacred space was still viscerally painful to her even fifty years later.

The damage we do to cultural heritage is not always visible. One of the challenges of intangible heritage is that it is difficult to quantify; its value is what it means to the people who care about and for that space, and we have to both accept and respect their claims. We also need to bear in mind the context in which these claims emerge. The US Government has a deplorable record when it comes to respecting the rights of Native Americans, and if we truly wish to rectify the situation, both the government and individual citizens need to do what they can. While individuals can do little about court decisions, they can certainly educate themselves and others on how to respect sacred spaces and objects. They can not buy sacred objects at auctions or sales. They can visit appropriate parks and follow the rules for viewing or accessing sites. They can refuse to patronize businesses that do not respect the rights of Native Americans.

As public history and heritage professionals, we make our living from cultural heritage and thus have a special obligation to educate ourselves and the public about these complicated issues. While these articles (and this post) merely scratch the surface of the ethical challenges of cultural heritage, I hope that it can contribute to a broader exploration of the subject that seems to be taking place both formally and informally in popular culture and academic spheres.

Suggested reading:
Caring for Country: Aboriginal Australia

One thought on “Don’t Go There: The Commodification of Cultural Heritage”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *