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.

The Sadness Of Skin: Emotional Reactions to Remains

Content Warning: This post will be talking a lot about death and the emotional resonance of dead bodies, both human and non-human. No images of human remains will be shown, but there will be images of non-skeletal (mummified) dead animals, so if this may be upsetting, please skip this post.

I was on Twitter the other day when I came across a Tweet about the recent archaeological discovery of the well-preserved body of a dog that had recently been recovered from permafrost in Siberia (Siberian Times Reporter 2018). Looking at photos of the dog’s paws, which still have some fur, I thought, “Oh, how sad.” And yet, I work with animal remains all the time! So what is so different about these remains?

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One of the preserved paws of the Siberian dog (Photo Credit: Sergey Fyodorov, NEFU)

This dog is one of a couple of recent, well-preserved finds in Siberia – in August, a preserved body of a foal (young horse) was recovered (Associated Press 2018), and just weeks after the dog recovery, the well-preserved remains of a 50,000 year old lion cub was also found (Gertcyk 2018). Note the language and imagery used in these articles – Gertcyk refers to the lion cub as “cute” with significant emphasis of how young the lion was at death, the Siberian Times article on the dog makes certain to stress how some of the fur is still present, and an additional article on the foal by Michelle Starr (2018) utilises up-close photos of the hooves, face, and nose of the foal which were especially well-preserved.

Focusing on the young age of the animals – and how this increases the “cuteness” factor, so to speak – is arguably a tactic to incite sympathy and emotion, as well as relatability. This is also seen in human advertisements, especially regarding charity and other social activism for the sake of the living – this phenomenon has been widely studied, with many philosophical and psychological explanations given for why this is both so widespread and effective (Seu 2015). With regards to the dead, emphasis of youth also invokes an emotional reaction akin to something like grief – a life not fully lived, innocence struck down too early.

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The head and front limbs of the preserved foal (Photo Credit: Michil Yakoklev, NEFU)

What is more interesting, and perhaps more effective in evoking an emotional reaction is the constant emphasis of preservation. The ability for viewers to see the recognisable, the things we associate with the living, is what helps in empathising with the body.  A very evocative example is the bog body (which you can read more about here, CW: for a photo of actual human remains). The high level of preservation caused by bogs results in such a recognisable appearance that it creates a sensation that Wright (2017) refers to as the “sublime” – an interplay between empathy for the recognised humanity and also a sort of horror at the personification of death. It can be argued that it is this unique ability of bog bodies to invoke such an emotional reactional that led to the numerous art and prose inspired by  them – take, for instance, Seamus Heaney’s work.

The power of such reactions may also be evident from the response to a lack of recognisable features. Mummies, for instance, are technically well-preserved bodies. Yet the concealed nature of most mummies creates a need for additional elements to invoke more empathy and relatability; this is further explored by Day (2013), who questions the necessity of facial reconstructions of Egyptian mummified bodies in order for Western audiences to “relate” better to them.

Of course, this is not to say that just “fleshy bits” – skin, hair, fur, etc. – necessarily equate to instant empathy. There is an element of “intactness” that also must be present. The preserved animals that have been previously discussed in this blog post have all been more or less completely intact, again a testament to their preservation. Separating an element, like a limb, from the body would most likely invoke a reaction closer to horror, as we often associate such separation with mutilation and other acts of violence, even if the separation is caused naturally by more taphonomic means.

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Close-up photo of the preserved hooves of the foal (Photo Credit: Michil Yakoklev, NEFU)

So, if we accept the argument that having these “preserved” elements causes empathy and emotional reactions, then perhaps we must also accept that there may be some truth to the reverse of this – that skeletal remains, both animal and human, are more difficult to empathise with. To an extent, this is certainly true for animal remains – skeletal animals are often see without issue at museums, in decoration and jewellery, and in the past sometimes utilised for tools and materials. The caveat to this, of course, is the last few decades during which animal rights activism has become more prevalent and acceptable in the public eye.

As for human remains, there is a long and lengthy history regarding the ethicality of display that is also intertwined with colonialist and racist scientific practices. It has only been recently that the repatriation of human remains – specifically those of Indigenous peoples – have become generally accepted as the “right thing to do” by the general public, although of course there remains some within anthropology, archaeology, and museums who fight against the act of repatriation in the name of “scientific process”, despite the horrific racial and colonial implications of said process. Even more recently, this debate has turned towards exhibitions that utilise real human remains to educate others about the body – touring exhibitions such as BodyWorlds have been as extremely controversial as they have also been extremely popular (Redman 2016).

Perhaps another blog post is necessary to further explore the ethicality regarding human remains, both in display and in analytical practice.As technology and preservation practices continue to advance, what new obstacles will we face with regards to our ability to preserve and display the dead? Redman (2016) perhaps offers the best glimpse at what troubles might be ahead, mentioning that BodyWorlds often runs into the issue of displaying the human body like an art piece, rather than an actual person. May there be a time when our conception of the body becomes so far removed that we no longer empathise with the dead, even as well preserved as they are? What does this mean for the future of ethics?

References

Associated Press. (2018) Ancient Horse Found Perfectly Preserved in Siberian Permafrost. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/foal-permafrost-1.4797543?cmp=rss

Day, J. (2013) Facing the Mummy: Physiognomy, Facial Reconstruction, and the ‘Delirious Biographies’ of Egyptian Mummies. 8th International Congress on Mummy Studies.

Gertcyk, O. (2018) Cute First Pictures of 50,000 Year Old Cave Lion Cub Found Perfectly Preserved in Permafrost. The Siberian Times. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/cute-first-pictures-of-new-50000-year-old-cave-lion-cub-found-perfectly-preserved-in-permafrost-of-yakutia/

Redman, S. (2016) Reconsidering BodyWorlds: Why Do We Still Flock to Exhibits of Dead Human Beings? The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/reconsidering-body-worlds-why-do-we-still-flock-to-exhibits-of-dead-human-beings-57024

Seu, I.B. (2015) Appealing Children: UK Audiences’ Responses to the Use of Children in Humanitarian Communications. The International Communication Gazette. 77(7). pp. 654-667.

Siberian Times Reporter. (2018) ‘Sibling’ of Oldest Mummified Puppy in the World Found Preserved in Permafrost. The Siberian Times. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/n0386-sibling-of-oldest-mummified-puppy-in-the-world-found-preserved-in-permafrost/

Starr, M. (2018) Incredibly Preserved 40,000 Year Old Extinct Baby Horse Has Been Unearthed in Siberia. Science Alert. https://www.sciencealert.com/extinct-equus-lenensis-lena-horse-pleistocene-foal-found-preserved-near-perfect-permafrost

Wright, P. (2017) Empathising with Bog Bodies: Seamus Heaney and the Feminine Sublime. Brief Encounters. 1(1).

Troweling Theme Parks: Monoliths Of Memory at Disney’s EPCOT Centre

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The “Leave a Legacy” monoliths nicely framing the bottom of the Spaceship Earth attraction and icon of the park (Photo Credit: Werner Weiss 2007)

The dawning of the year 2000 was a big deal for everyone, but perhaps most especially for Walt Disney World. To mark the new millennium, the resort set up a series of new events and attractions as part of their “Millennium Celebration”; this included a new parade called the “Tapestry of Nations”, a new evening fireworks show called “IlluminiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth”, and a new interactive pavilion called “Millennium Village”. The overall theme of this celebration was “celebrating the future hand in hand”, emphasizing and celebrating global cooperation into the future (Soares 1999).

It’s no surprise that EPCOT, otherwise known as the “Experimental Protoype Community of Tomorrow”, was chosen as the home for these festivities. Originally conceived as an actual living community by Walt Disney in the late 1950’s, EPCOT would eventually become a theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida after Disney’s death (Patches 2015). Although not exactly what Disney had originally pitched to investors in the early 1960’s, EPCOT would be a theme park focused on discovery, “edu-tainment”, and eventually, on celebrating international relations and cultures with the addition of a “World Showcase” that highlights 11 different countries. Perhaps it was explained best by  Al Weiss, then president of Walt Disney World, who said: “Walt Disney once referred to EPCOT as a ‘living blueprint of the future’ and it is in that spirit that we welcome to the world to celebrate the millennium at this, our discovery park” (Soares 1999).

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A closer look at the individual monoliths, covered in etchings of guests (Photo Credit: Allen Huffman 2006)

Another addition to the theme park for the new millennium was called “Leave a Legacy”. Although at heart a means of generating a profit from the empty space at the front of the “FutureWorld” park entrance, these slabs of granite also allowed diehard theme park fans to leave their mark – or, more specifically, their faces – at EPCOT forever. By paying between $35-38 per space, up to two people could have their faces etched into these monoliths during the “Millennium Celebration”. This installation is guaranteed to be standing for at least twenty years, although there has been no plans to remove the monoliths once this period is up. Fans ultimately appear to be divided about the “Leave a Legacy” installation – although many believe it to be an eyesore and not enough spaces were bought to fill up the entire allotted space in the installation, many still appreciate the ability to have their legacies memorialised, with over 550,000 people etched into the monoliths  (Weiss 2012).

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Megaliths located in Laman Megalit, or Megalithic Park, in Putrajaya, Malaysia (Photo Credit: Drew Parsons 2017)

Archaeologically, we can see that these monoliths must draw some inspiration from prehistoric megaliths. Megaliths are defined as usually prehistoric stone monuments, sometimes used as tombs, that range from simplistic to more elaborate set-ups (monoliths, on the other hand, are specifically a singular block of stone or material, but mostly refer to more historic and modern installations due to the use of cement or some other kind of binding ingredient). Megaliths can be found around the world, with some of the more famous ones located in Europe (for example, Stonehenge). Interpretations of megaliths are hot topics of debate among archaeologists, and often have become the breeding grounds for pseudoarchaeological theories (Renfrew 1983).

Some archaeologists have theorised that the key to understanding these megalithic structures is memory (Holtorf 1996, Cummings 2003).  Cummings (2003) in particular has argued that the focus on megaliths should be less on their construction and more of how the experience of running into similar structures across Britain may be tied into an idea of spatial memory and how these megaliths ties these spaces together.

So while the “Leave a Legacy” monoliths may have been, at heart, a money grabbing venture to top off the celebration of a new millennium (this is, after all, the place where you can’t leave an attraction without going through a gift shop!), they also are a testament to this sort of sentiment that is seemingly timeless – of leaving behind something that inspires memories that are tied to a specific place, of having some sort of established legacy to be found by others thousands of years later. Perhaps we can even say these monoliths are proof that, when it comes to monuments, our prehistoric ancestors had the right idea!

References

Cummings, V. (2003) Building from Memory: Remembering the Past at Neolithic Monuments in Western Britain. Archaeologies of Rememberance: Death and Memory in Past Societies. Kluwer Academic Publishers. pp. 25-29.

Holtorf, C.J. (1996) Towards a Chronology of Megaliths: Understanding Monumental Time and Cultural Memory. Journal of European Archaeology. pp. 119-152.

Patches, M. (2015) Inside Walt Disney’s Ambitious, Failed Plan to Build the City of Tomorrow. Esquire. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/news/a35104/walt-disney-epcot-history-city-of-tomorrow/

Renfrew, C. (1983) The Social Archaeology of Megalithic Monuments. Scientific American. 249 (5). pp. 152-163.

Soares, S. (1999) The 15-Month Walt Disney World Millennium Celebration: A Celebration Just Too Big for One Night. WDW Entertainment. http://wdwent.com/EPCOT.htm

Weiss, W. (2012) Leave a Legacy. Yesterdayland. https://www.yesterland.com/legacy.html

Preserving Play: Video Games as Digital Artefacts and the Status of Games Preservation

Archaeology and video games have been a hot topic in the past few years – not only is it a growing sub-discipline of its own (for more information, check out archaeogaming.com or the new Archaeogaming book that has come out of that website), but we also seem to talk about video games and archaeology a lot on this blog (see: Fallout, Skyrim, Dragon Age…plus many more in the near future!). However, this all utilises the video game as its own digital space, inside which archaeological theory can be applied. But what about the video game as an actual artefact?

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(Image Credit: Nintendo of Europe)

Like any artefact, video games have been the focus of preservation efforts for some time. Not only is preservation vital for digital academics and historians, but many game enthusiasts appreciate the ability to play games from their childhood that may be inaccessible any other way. Two of the main methods of preservation have been migration and emulation. Migration refers to the movement (also known as ‘porting’) of a game from an older and/or obsolete gaming system to another, more recent/active one. Emulation is arguably a more popular method, where a program is created to emulate both the game and the original software it ran on, creating a more “accurate”, preserved version of the game.

Video game preservationists include designated research groups, such as the Preserving Virtual Worlds Project. It has also become an industry in its own right, with new re-releases of classic games and systems and large scale conventions becoming more popular as “retro gaming” and nostalgia become extremely marketable to the general public. However, most preservationists consist of hobbyists and fans who seek to not only preserve video games, but to make them accessible to everyone, usually by making emulated games and emulators free to download online.

This latter group of video game preservationists have found themselves in hot water recently, as Nintendo, a popular video game company, is taking legal action against two major emulation websites for illegal distribution of their copyrighted games. While this may seem understandable, it should also be noted that many of these emulated games have not been in distribution for a long period of time and will most likely never been regularly distributed again in stores. So the situation is slightly more complex – how can we preserve these games if the game companies will not?

So, what is in the future for video game preservation? Some propositions for going forward with a more “formal” (read: without breaching copyright or including illegal downloading) preservation approach include utilising the museum approach and returning to more backwards compatible consoles (in other words, allow for newer consoles to play older games on them), as well as a more organised push towards migration/emulation of all games.  However, the heart of game preservation will arguably remain with the hobbyists and fans who will continue to produce downloadable versions of well-loved games online, regardless of the legal issues ahead.

Perhaps archaeologists and heritage specialists should consider video game preservation as part of our respective fields? After all, if we consider the video game as a historical/digital artefact, doesn’t that deserve saving as much as the more physical artefacts? With the growing popularity of “archaeogaming”, it seems like more archaeologists might find themselves looking more into preservation techniques of ATARI games instead of looking at pottery! And to be honest…that sounds awesome. Maybe I got into the wrong archaeological field?

References

Barwick, J. et al. (2011) Playing Games with Cultural Heritage: A Comparative Case Study Analysis of the Current Status of Digital Game Preservation. Games and Culture. 6 (4). pp. 373-390.

Guttenbrunner, M. et al. (2010) Keeping the Game Alive: Evaluating Strategies for the Preservation of Console Video Games. The International Journal of Digital Curation. 1 (5). pp. 64-90.

McFerran, D. (2018) The Retro Gaming Industry Could Be Killing Game Preservation. Eurogamer. https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2018-02-09-the-retro-gaming-industry-could-be-killing-video-game-preservation

McFerran, D. (2018) What Does Nintendo’s Shutdown of ROM-Sharing Sites Mean for Video Game Preservation? NintendoLife. http://www.nintendolife.com/news/2018/08/feature_what_does_nintendos_shutdown_of_rom-sharing_sites_mean_for_video_game_preservation