Marketing Heritage: Archeology and the Consumption of the Past
This is a collection of 19 English-language essays on archeological and historical sites across the planet, and the ultimately beneficial impact of bringing tourism to those sites. All contributors are either American or hold their degrees from the United States which lends a shadow of bias to the work. For example, the studies do not cover the Terra Cotta warrior sites in Xian, Western China, which I visited in the summer of 2004, and which was the chief reason I picked up this book, so stunned I was at the impact of tourism on this ancient Muslim centre of trade and civilization.
In the editors’ own words, the studies in this volume "delineate how 20th century states employed archeology for fostering national identity, in terms of presenting a positive portrayal of the nation and obscuring other histories that exist within the state boundaries." One example is the Maya culture – or its absence – in the archeological tourism of Mexico writ large. The conclusion is that the marketing appropriates the Maya culture with unfair, commercial consequences.
But ultimately, the works reveal an obvious penchant for the status quo, as is the case for the debate of the so-called Elgin Marbles taken from Greece´s Parthenon in 1804. Morag Kersel, the author of this particular study, which retraced the marbles´ travels and eventual, safe and well-monitored resting place today in the British Museum, concludes that the argument to return the marbles to Greece is an emotional one. Why does each country want the marbles? Because, ultimately, in England, and in Greece millions – mostly foreigners – visit the British Museum, and at least some do so to see the Marbles. What generates a Pound in England is sure to generate a Euro in Greece. But using a floodgates argument, Kersel concludes that if the marbles were to be returned to Greece, "they are establishing a precedent that will inevitably be exploited without scruple and result in the impoverishment, even the dismantling, not only of the British Museum, but of all the major Western museums ?"
Interestingly, this apologetic reasoning is not applied consistently in the works, since the in description of French author and historian André Malraux’s alleged removal of a tonne of antique materials from ancient Angkor Wat Cambodia in 1924, nothing there is said about its eventual resting place nor maintenance of the antiquities in French museums.
Jonathan Golden in a final chapter draws some striking parallels between the sacred sites in Israel, the Nablus tomb which has been the target of target of attacks, and the symbolism of New York’s Twin Towers, which once may have held little historical value, but which overnight in 11-12 September 2001 became a series of symbols of America: its victimization for some, its success, or arrogance for others. Kitsch and U.S. representations of archeology and history are also part of this curious collection of essays, where we learn of the Holy Land site in Florida, and archeology beginnings in national American parks. Other issues also touched on are looting in war, the sale and black market of archeological relics, and the United Nations’, and world regulation movements to curb these growing problems.
The senior contributor Philip Kohl argues in the end that marketing heritage is not so bad. What’s more, he adds, given that we are bound to lose forever some historical and cultural heritage – the Buddha statues in Afghanistan is the example cited – it may even be useful to rebuild these, trace decent roads to them and regulate tourism to these newly-built sites, so as to not lose track of histories. The Terra Cotta site comes to mind, since the bus-routes to the Chinese archeological are lined with clay replicas in no way different from what you get to gawk at 200 kilometers later, at the official site.
As a postscript, my son’s and my visit to the Terra Cotta warrior site outside of Xian, China, where thousands of ancient Chinese clay warriors are buried, and which has become a "must see" for tourists in China, is sound evidence that the marketing of national heritage is not a commercial field reserved for capitalists to plough. The Terra Cotta site was equipped with subway like turn-stiles, gigantic bus parking lots and hordes of hawkers and ambulant gismo sellers. The only cultural/historical location where I felt more like a member of buffaloed horde was in Zhang Jia Jie, where we visited a sacred mountain site revered by many Chinese, but where the authorities finger-printed all visitors.
The archeologist and writers in "Marketing Heritage" are surely on to something, when they argue that tourism may well be a positive force in the protection of these historical works and education of visitors; however much more than the combination of loose global conventions on the protection of these works and archeologists’ good will is necessary to achieve these lofty goals.
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