Forum on Heritage

Topic Director: Margaret Bruchac
Associate Professor of Anthropology

Heritage. History. Memory. Family. Culture. Place. Notions of heritage are inextricably linked with history, encoded in memory, entangled with kinship, embedded in material culture, and expressed in a wide array of forms. Heritage is lived and recorded in familiar landscapes, in the tracks of the ancestors, in place names and oral traditions, in complex relations with other-than-human beings, and in diasporic travels to other places. Heritage is both fixed and portable, material and ephemeral, ancient and modern, lost and recoverable.

Heritage may be danced, sung, dressed for ritual, paraded for show, and armed for battle. Family heritage is often most visible in the color of one’s hair and skin, the cut of a garment, the songs that are sung to bring new life into the world, the rituals to remember the dead. Material heritage may include homes, herds, burial places, and hunting territories, or assemblages as personal as grandmother’s china, father’s tools, or auntie’s medicines. Heritage can be fragile, but so durable that it may survive in a snippet of song, a fragment of paper, a single word of memory. Moments of heritage loss and memory are often recorded in text; this is especially so in Asian, African and Middle Eastern areas where people are deeply engaged with issues of heritage and coloniality, while simultaneously possessing the oldest traditions of writing on the planet.

Materially, heritage may be preserved in large-scale architecture or, more intimately, in small-scale objects marked with particular textile patterns, basket weaves, or beadwork designs. Human thoughts and skills interwine with faunal, floral, and marine resources to construct clothing, containers, tools, ritual objects, instruments, adornment, and other materials that evoke distinct cultural practices in the places they come from. Some of these constructed beings live out their lives in the communities where they originate, where they are lovingly passed down through the generations, used until they wear out. Some, however, are trapped in glass cases in museums through unexpected removals and movements far from home, waiting to be recognized on their own terms. 

Communal expressions of shared ethnic heritage animate unique cultures, languages, senses, landscapes, and memories. Yet darker visions of conflict are also animated through competing ideologies of power. In a nationalistic sense, especially among European and American colonial settler communities, heritage may be recorded and preserved in stone –  ancient standing stones, medieval churches and graveyards, grand royal architecture, and in monuments to victory, glimpsed through the names engraved, or the faces of uniformed men standing atop pedestals with weapons in hand, ready to be called forth in battle to once again rescue the nation. In many formerly colonized locales, such expressions of heritage can become dangerously nationalistic markers, records of the violent possession of colonized lands, and attacks on human rights that pit one group’s heritage against another’s.

With this in mind, critical considerations of heritage loss are much needed, given the historical legacies of dispossession caused by settler-colonial processes of colonizing, claiming, alienating, and otherwise exerting control over other’s bodies, cultures, and property. And so we ask, for example, how to grapple with loss while striving for the preservation of land and architectural heritage? How can museums atone for the fraught legacy of excavating, disarticulating, and displaying human remains collected without consent? How can ethnographic museums, archives, art galleries, and communities collaborate to develop better practices and protocols for identifying, curating, displaying, and repatriating alienated cultural heritage?

How can we address these and other collections by devising new modes of intervention, and envisioning productive strategies for recovery? We hope to focus on the future as much as the past, by inviting artists, activists, writers, historians, ecologists, museum professionals and others to share efforts to reclaim and celebrate distinctive forms of heritage. The Wolf Center particularly invites proposals from those who are engaged in collaborative and restorative (rather than extractive) research that aims to revitalize the cultural heritage of Indigenous, Black, and other marginalized ethnic communities. Participants will be encouraged to devise inter-disciplinary approaches to creatively interrogate, debate, and otherwise grapple with this topic through such projects as, for example: revitalizing dormant languages; protecting architectural heritage; community-focused museums; repatriating sacred objects; promoting traditional knowledges; ecological restoration; and re-designing public monuments. 

During a time when endangered ethnic heritage is actively being recovered – and when fraught histories of past attacks are increasingly being revealed – the Wolf Humanities Center topic for 2022–23 calls for artistic, scholarly, theatrical, literary, and other responses, as we seek to critically investigate, recover, and celebrate distinctive forms of material and ephemeral heritage. 

Margaret Bruchac | Associate Professor of Anthropology; Coordinator: Native American & Indigenous Studies; Topic Director, Forum on Heritage, Wolf Humanities Center
Jamal Elias | Walter H. Annenberg Professor of the Humanities; Professor of Religious Studies
June 2021