The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cultural Heritage's Greatest Hits

It must seem like all I do is read the BBC news website. That's not entirely true, but it is true that I come bearing another tidbit regarding cultural property. This one is from the "60 Seconds to Change the World" theme, and the great idea this time is to create a sort of top-ten list of world heritage that cities could compete for hosting. There's only 4 comments, but it is telling that only one appears to agree (and I'm not entirely certain if even that positive response isn't ironic). 

I can't believe that any curator would think this is a good idea, never mind the (Google says) executive director, Arts Strategy, for the Arts Council of England. Are you kidding me??? Because all the world needs is yet another canonical list of "the greats". And this would definitely make the world a better place. And of course, it would be completely unbiased and purely objective. ...As my high school math teacher used to say, "my big left toe." Besides, UNESCO tried this, and we all know the debate around the validity of that scheme (most recently in the UK).

My problem with this idea, in case you don't think it's self-evident, is that it's ludicrously simplistic. Another aspect of the Great Myth of Materiality (which I alluded to in my previous post) is that we seem to have this idea that there are certain objects that are so important to our civilization that if they ceased to exist, our world as we knew it would somehow crumble away to dust and people's lives would be significantly worse. And so, to avoid this miserable fate, we pile things into museums and private collections, trying desperately to hold on to the meaning and immortality that objects promise. Therefore, following the logic of the myth, all objects are equally important. But what happens if you create a top-ten list, as Hayford suggests, where some objects become more equal than others? Sure, he might think that certain things might be "so important to telling our story that henceforth they can't be bought, sold or truly owned by any single person, individual, or nation,"  and indeed, at first sight that is laudable, but ownership is part of the story!

One of my great intellectual fantasy goals is one day delving into the histories of why some of our most prized international works of art have become so iconic. I am sure it's not just because of their artistic merit. Art and cultural heritage is intensely political, and it cannot be apoliticized, glamorous though that kind of utopian notion might seem. Hello, have we ever heard of the Elgin Marbles??

The other thing is: once this ultimate list of the cultural property vital to Western Civilization is compiled, and these objects are enshrined in this magical ultra-museum, what happens to the rest of the stuff that just didn't make the cut? What is the point of keeping all that junk, if the world already has what it needs to go on turning on its axis? At least that's what I envision governments saying!

But that's quite enough of my bile. Let's play along with dear old Augustus Casely-Hayford, shall we? What objects, darling readers, would you enshrine as being of supreme importance to the continued intellectual history of humankind? (My surprisingly unglamorous votes of the kind that Hayford would probably spurn: the wheel; flint stone for fire; irrigation; antibiotics and inoculation; steel; thread.)


Amy said...

It's certainly not the most original idea, is it?

Oh, and there's 5 comments now! ;)

As to which objects I would seek to enshrine, I might have to give that some thought...hmmm...

Ceri said...

I agree with the thread of your comment J that the world does not need any more talent contests, which is what this amounts to. The TV might want to clog their airwaves with the damn things but I do not see why the museum and heritage world has to! I agree that it excludes more than it includes and of course it will be the same 'great and good' who get to decide everything.

I am also not sure what objects I would enshrine as being iconic purely because I do not think there is anything which is that crucial to human survival - if that thing did not exist then humans would have invented something else! It is as though humans want to say that things can only happen one way - which is rubbish and has got us into trouble throughout history. There is always an alternative (not that there is a better or worse alternative, only that all avenues should be considered). I think the sewer is a pretty important invention that is overlooked, as is the supply of fresh drinking water however it has been arranged. It would not look as good on the wall as the Mona Lisa though...