The preservation of cultural history entails maintaining the traditional practices and artifacts of a community when there are forces attempting to change them. However, as new technological and architectural capabilities develop, land becomes more valuable, and fewer members of historical communities are present around the world, cultural history is continually erased.
If we allow landmarks and other artifacts significant to our ancestors to deteriorate, we risk losing not only history, but the invaluable lessons it can provide. Cultural history, as claimed by the Yale Department of History, “is invaluable for rethinking our own historical movement”, and a proper appreciation and education of history allows for beneficial shifts in perspective.
Reasons for Cultural Loss
For the majority of historical groups, cultural damage occurs simultaneously with change in one’s environment. Cultural damage can often result from immigration, in which an individual’s new environment is no longer amenable to aspects of their previous culture. After immigration, it is common to experience a drastic cultural shock, which refers to feelings of uncertainty, confusion, or anxiety when experiencing a new culture or surroundings.
Following cultural shock is cultural adjustment, or when assimilation drives immigrants to lose their cultural diversity and traditions from their countries of origin. Feeling like a minority in a population can lead to a shunning of an immigrant's own culture to fit in with the majority. Individuals who have migrated can experience detrimental impacts to their well-being in relation to loss of cultural norms, religious customs, and social support systems. The commonality of these experiences translates to a wide scale loss of culture post-immigration.
Artifact Recovery and Restoration
Through artifact restoration, historians have been able to piece back together the histories of cultures who either did not have a written language or were otherwise not able to record their existence. Artifacts serve as an important reminder of the existence of the cultures that came before. The problem is caused when ownership of artifacts is called into question. Who has the right to possession of artifacts: the colonized or the colonizers? Any answer to such a question must be prepared to address the many different situations presented.
French President Emmanuel Macron supports returning stolen cultural artifacts back to their countries of origin. As Macron stated in 2017, “I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France. There are historical explanations for this but there is no valid, lasting and unconditional justification.”
However, regardless of to whom the ownership of such artifacts belongs, it is vital that whoever has possession also has the resources to keep the antiquities from decay. The owners must also display them in a manner that accurately reflects their history and significance.
Cultural Heritage Institutions
During war or other times of political and social unrest, historical institutions can often become a target of those wishing to express their discontent. Invading forces seek out places of cultural and historical significance in order to assert their dominance in the conquered territory. Wartime agreements would have to be formed in order for all countries to preserve historic institutions throughout conflict. At other times, the biggest risk to cultural history is those wishing to preserve it.
One such incident occurred in colonial Spanish Guatemala. Archivists constructed archives that held records of the Spanish colonial period in Guatemala’s history. However, in an effort to reorganize the institution, archivists were allowed to choose what to dispose of and what to save, causing an entire generation of legal paperwork and private documents from that period to be lost to present day historians.
People must work harder to ensure that nothing of historic significance is lost to such events. In order to accomplish this, historians, archivists and others concerned with documenting the past should utilize technology. Recording historic documents digitally can guarantee that a record of them will last, even if the physical copy cannot.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a heavy strain has been placed on efforts to protect and preserve cultural history. The lockdowns and quarantines, now a trademark during this time, have brought critical restoration and rehabilitation work to a stop. Numerous restoration projects, such as the Topdara Stupa in Afghanistan, the Tomb of Askia in Gao, and the Sagrada Familia in Spain, have all been put on hold.
Without a way to determine when construction will be able to resume, these pillars of cultural history remain empty. Furthermore, given reduced travel— a consequence of COVID-19 lockdowns— the tourism industry has faced devastating budget losses and closures. Many countries are mobilizing funds to ensure the closure of these institutions is not permanent. However, job and revenue loss harm not only local communities, but cultural institutions, associations, archeologists and artisans.
Throughout the pandemic, as people have become more isolated, the importance of connecting with one’s cultural heritage has become increasingly apparent. Shared culture provides a sense of camaraderie among that cultural community. Methods are needed so people can engage in dialogue concerning history and tradition, share similar and diverse experiences, and visit national memorials in a COVID-safe manner.
What You Can Do
It is a common belief that the effort to preserve culture is a duty of which one person alone is not capable. While much work needs to be done, every person counts. People can advocate for the replacement of cultural artifacts to their rightful owners and places of origin by writing to museums and their representatives. People who have moved to a new country can share their customs and traditions with their host nation. People of the host nation can work to be more accepting of diverse cultures. Buildings of historical significance can be protected from demolition by the efforts of historical societies and invested citizens.
People can be spoken up for and others can speak up. No one is alone in the fight for cultural preservation, for we all have our own unique cultures and histories that must be preserved.
Al-Said, Nadia, et al. “The Impact of Covid-19 on the Protection of Cultural Heritage.” IPI Global Observatory, 18 June 2020, https://theglobalobservatory.org/2020/06/impact-covid-19-on-protection-of-cultural-heritage/.
“Cultural History.” Cultural History | Department of History, https://history.yale.edu/undergraduate/regions-and-pathways/cultural-history#:~:text=Cultural%20history%20brings%20to%20life,much%20as%20intellectual%20historians%20do.&text=It%20is%20also%20invaluable%20for%20rethinking%20our%20own%20historical%20moment.
Rea, Naomi. “Will French Museums Return African Objects? Emmanuel Macron Says Restitution Is a 'Priority'.” Artnet News, Artnet News, 28 Nov. 2017, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/french-president-promises-restitution-african-heritage-ouagadougou-university-speech-1162199.
“To Assimilate or to Acculturate?” To Assimilate or to Acculturate? | Department of English, https://english.umd.edu/research-innovation/journals/interpolations/spring-2012/assimilate-or-acculturate.
About the Author:
Harper Lindsay is a rising sophomore student. She was elected as vice president of her sophomore class and has a passion for Model UN and cross country. Harper is the founder of Food For Fidos, a nonprofit organization which contributes to the amount of dog food in Boston food banks, to support people caring for their pets throughout difficult times.