Sweating the Small Stuff: Center for Heritage and Society Pinpoints Intangibles Worth Saving
Heritage isn't just found in museums. "It's all around us," says Elizabeth S. Chilton, director of the university's new Center for Heritage and Society and chair of the anthropology department. And it's quietly slipping away without much consideration for what should be preserved and what should fade.
Buildings, paintings and monuments are obvious candidates. But items more ordinary and less tangible are also part of our heritage. Political graffiti on a stop sign? Heritage. Your family's chocolate chip cookie recipe? Heritage. Jump-rope mantras about Ms. Suzy sung during recess? That's heritage, too.
But deciding what is culturally relevant and what can be tossed into the dustbin of history is no easy task. And that's what Chilton has set out to do. "In an increasingly global world where we want to move on and become ever more modern, there is a potential that if we don't think about the importance of that connection to the past, then we're really going to be missing something," says Chilton.
So last year she founded the Center for Heritage and Society. Part of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS), it includes a multidisciplinary research group with more than 25 faculty from the fields of archaeology, history, landscape architecture and regional planning, European studies, Native American Indian studies, Afro-American studies, classics, legal studies, public policy and environmental science.
The new center's mission is, in part, to foster discussions often reserved for historical committee meetings or those moments when the past collides with progress: an old cemetery in the way of a planned mini mall, for example. "The Center does not focus on the past, but what people today in contemporary society are doing, their activities, their behaviors that are related to their understanding of the past," Chilton says. Its goals are to expand knowledge and awareness of heritage, increase research and create an annual colloquium series to connect scholars in the field.
The center plans to craft new approaches to assessing and conserving heritage while providing students with experience in the field. Some of the projects could include conducting economic impact studies on, for instance, the opening of a museum, park or cultural tour; devising new ways to preserve intangible facets of heritage; helping towns assess what pieces of their histories are culturally relevant; and preserving the heritage of shrinking cultures.
How to maintain intangible history in an accessible way is a tricky question, says Chilton. Putting a video recording of a cultural dance in a museum's archive preserves the cultural expression, she points out, but only for those who specifically seek it out. "Recipes, songs, dances, language: these are things that are just as important as heritage resources as buildings and artifacts at archaeological sites," she says. "We're trying to figure out how to safeguard intangible heritage."
But does it really matter? If, in 50 years, no one were to remember the tradition of New Year's resolutions, what harm would that do? As an isolated piece of forgotten culture, probably not much. But people feel better when they have a past to connect to, says Chilton. Psychologists call this ontological security, a sense of meaningful continuity in a person's life. "There is a certain security, a feeling of value, legitimacy maybe, that you get through a connection to the past," she says. "The center is a place where we can talk about the value in contemporary society: what we choose to remember, what we choose to forget, and who gets to decide."
The Center for Heritage and Society, which was fully incorporated into the university system in December, is one of the few in the nation dedicated to heritage studies, says Chilton. MUSEUM International, a quarterly journal published on behalf of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), has pledged to promote its research. The Center is operating with a budget of nearly $100,000, with most of the funding coming from SBS, says Chilton. Additional resources from fundraising and grants are anticipated in future years, she says, noting that organizers raised $20,000 this year and plan to make the Center self-sustaining within three years.
In addition to the professors associated with the center, 200 faculty teach in departments at UMass related to heritage work. Elizabeth A. Brabec, chair the Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning Department, says her field, environmental science, may seem out of place among the other disciplines, but adds that heritage is influenced by the environments in which we live. "There really is a great need for us to move beyond just house museums and that kind of education of history to improve how we live," she says. "A lot of our larger heritage is the natural environment."
Involved in heritage preservation since the early 1990s, Brabec has been focusing on South Carolina's Gullah community, descendants of former African-American slaves who have lived for decades in relative isolation. They have their own language (a mix of African, English, Dutch, French and Caribbean dialects), songs, traditions and music. Brabec works with the local community to protect Gullah farming traditions through zoning laws and environmental protection. "This location has produced the most distinct African-American culture in the United States," she says. "It would be a shame to lose it."
But, as the Center for Heritage and Society's effort points out, the kind of work Brabec is doing with the Gullah shouldn't be reserved solely for small populations. Any culture can benefit from understanding its heritage. "Choosing to eliminate or save something has a long-term impact," Chilton says. "These conversations shouldn't be reactive to when something is suddenly being built or torn down."
February 4, 2010
Adapted from a longer article by Kristin Palpini that appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 3, 2010.