When does “Cultural Preservation” become “Cultural Taxidermy”?

I’ve been thinking a lot about modern engagement with heritage sites lately, specifically beyond the “museum model” that most are presented through. These are the heritage sites that allow for much more engagement, if not actual interaction, between the heritage site and the visitor – most of these are in the form of free-standing spaces, such as the numerous heritage sites that can be found throughout the Orkney Islands of Scotland.

The Standing Stones of Stenness, in Orkney, Scotland

I love these sorts of sites – I love being able to briefly feel how the space may have felt for past peoples, to look up in awe at impossible-looking architecture made of time-defying earth and stone.

But there’s similar sites that are much more restrictive, that keep their heritage treasures under lock and key, sometimes even literally. This restrictiveness can vary in severity – sometimes it’s a simple rope that keeps visitors from wearing down the ancient material, other times entire monuments have been transported (kidnapped, in some cases?) to a new place, to be exhibited in sterile environments that can be controlled and, more importantly, contained.

And I understand the impulse to do so – heritage can be a fragile thing, and many of us who work with the past find ourselves becoming rather protective of it. Who wouldn’t want to spare these sites the cruelty of time and nature, to allow our great great great grandchildren to experience them as we do today?

What do we decide can be exchanged for preservation? Because there must be an exchange, something must be given up for the price of preserving something else – a site, an artefact, a body…these must all be given strict conditions in order to preserve it, which will necessitate restrictions on the ways in which others engage with it. So these pieces of heritage become roped off, or sealed away behind glass, or only recreated through virtual or otherwise augmented realities. And yes, perhaps we still maintain its existence on within the material realm and allow others to experience some aspect of it, but what are we also removing from the experience?

It becomes something that I think of sometimes as “cultural taxidermy” – in which something that once was alive within the cultural of a community is preserved in death, frozen for aesthetics but lacking in anything more tangible, more engaging. And perhaps this is a harsh way to phrase it, but this is something I think about a lot when I wander through the “cultural” parts of museums, where bits and pieces of other peoples’ cultures are kept frozen in time, placed in some sort of tableau that implies a living essence that has long been taken from it.

And this leads to another question that I have: How do we ultimately cut off these spaces from the people who gave it life and meaning? This is obviously a vital question that needs to be considered as museums and other heritage institutions become more scrutinised as spaces of continuous colonialism in an allegedly post-colonialist world. It’s a question that doesn’t get consider when repatriation becomes part of the discussion, that’s for sure – it seems that most folks who are staunchly against repatriation of artefacts and other material culture often see this as an unfair exchange, that they (the institution, the museum, the Western culture) are losing something valuable that will in effect be “squandered” or “wasted” because it is no longer in their hands.

When these items and spaces are removed from their cultural contexts and placed behind glass, how are these lines of living culture interrupted? Why do we think that these things need to be preserved over all other uses? Again, to return to the taxidermy metaphor, it’s hard not to see some aspects of cultural heritage as intriguing and exotic animals to many heritage workers, who decide that to taxidermy it and preserve it forever is the only way for it to continue “living”, rather than allowing it to remain alive and flourishing in its original context and space.

So, what’s the point to all of this rambling? Is there a way to “fix” this, if it even is an issue at all? How do we shift the focus from “preserving history” to “preserving and restoring history”? As always, I have no idea! But I like asking these questions, because asking them means that they’re being scrutinised and considered – and so, if you’re someone who works in heritage (particularly Western institutions), I hope you begin to consider them too.

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