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Museums are the repositories of culture, but there’s only so much you can put into them. How should a society go about protecting the rest of its heritage: everything from historic buildings to traditional foodways to the way a tour guide frames his stories for tourists? Those are some of the questions that motivated the establishment of the new Cultural Heritage Center at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Funded by the Provost’s Office and private donors, the Center has two aims: to explore intellectual and academic issues related to cultural heritage, and to be a practical partner to communities and countries that aim to preserve their own cultural property—whether it be in museums or anywhere else. 

“What responsibilities do academics and museums have toward indigenous, scholarly, and public constituencies?” asks Center director Richard Leventhal, who resigned as the director of the Museum last year. “What is the future of heritage policy and of economic and cultural development? … These are the kinds of questions we will be addressing.”

In September, the 
Gazette caught up with Leventhal to ask him a few more. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

So what is cultural heritage, or cultural property? And who gets to decide what counts?

Those are exactly the questions we want to examine. We are constantly destroying the past. For example, the Philadelphia Convention Center expansion is going on downtown. The decision was made to destroy a number of buildings, some of which were in fact supposed to be preserved. One weekend the bulldozers came in and destroyed two or three facades of buildings that were supposed to be protected. We made a decision to destroy a part of our past. Who got to say that, how they got to say that, and how they got to do it was interesting—whether you’re talking about the Liberty Bell or the President’s House in Philadelphia, all the way to Mali or Central America or China.

That debate is what we’re interested in, both at an intellectual level and at a practical one. We want to work with communities to help to identify what is perceived to be important to them, and then figure out how to preserve it, and then maybe use it—whether it’s for tourism or other things.

Where is the Center working to address some of these issues?

We already have been asked by the minister of culture in Mali to help him think about preservation of cultural heritage and economic development. We are sending a team to Montenegro, in Europe, in October to do some initial assessments for the country. We’re in initial discussions with a variety of other countries including Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. 

What is the Center doing in Mali?

They came to us and said, We are representing ourselves as a post-colonial community, and we don’t want to be that. We want to be Mali; we don’t want to be ‘Mali, an ex-colony of France.’ And when we were there, we did see how they were presenting themselves, in their tourism business and the representation of places like Timbuktu, in this sort of post-colonial framework. We’re making some very simple suggestions about how to get away from that. 

Like what?

We’re thinking about schooling.  We’re thinking about how tour guides in Timbuktu take people around. The first thing they did was to take us to the house of the German explorer who “discovered” Timbuktu. Timbuktu wasn’t discovered by a German; it was there! It had a lot of people there! So even these very simple things. All the way to their national museum, which doesn’t have a picture of a living Malian in it.

An American consumer of media probably doesn’t think much about museums as places where culture is really being hashed out. We’re conditioned to think that the real action is on TV or the Internet or what have you. 

What’s interesting about museums is that to a large degree they’re not perceived to be where the action is, but in fact they are where the action is. When I go on to the CNN website, the blogs, and so forth, I find that you’ve got a bunch of people who are sort of yammering away and it gets so boring and tiresome after a while. 

The question is: where can you really have a debate in our society? Where can you really have a disagreement of ideas? You don’t do that in religious establishments. You’re doing it less and less within political establishments. I actually think that the potential lies in museums, where we represent ourselves—sometimes in what appears to be very quiet locations, but we are representing ourselves and who we are. That’s where the debates can and should take place. I think the Smithsonian is a classic example. The millions of people who go to the Smithsonian certainly make those museums not a quiet or stultifying place, but rather a very exciting set of places. The question is, do we want to represent the United States, and who we are as Americans, in the same way that the museums are doing it these days? When you read about people donating money to the Smithsonian, and then demanding that it be used in a certain way, and then the fight over how that’s used—that’s about who we are. 


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