One June 3 I was a participant in the Smithsonian’s Consortia for World Cultures Idea Fair. Structured like a speed dating event for those interested in cultural heritage, the 4-hour conference featured speakers from the Smithsonian’s various museums who discussed programs and initiatives dealing with the Institution’s leadership role in 21st century cultural heritage issues and education. In her opening remarks, Under Secretary for Science Eva Pell referred to the Idea Fair as a “cross-fertilization of ideas” wherein Smithsonian researchers could foster new idea development through the synthesis of interdisciplinary motives in regards to world culture. Collaboration among representatives of the Smithsonian’s 19 institutions would provide avenues for new, innovative scholarship and an opportunity for a younger generation of cultural heritage scholars to emerge and flourish.
I was particularly interested in one session, “Recovering Voices: Dynamics of local knowledge and language sustainability in a globalizing world,” led by Dr. Joshua A. Bell, Curator of Globalization in the NMNH’s Department of Anthropology. The discussion explored the worrying issue of language loss as it relates to the preservation and cultural conservation of indigenous knowledge and traditions. Dr. Bell focused on a few key questions: 1) What tangible and intangible forms of knowledge and human creativity take?; 2) How can the Smithsonian’s diverse collections support community-based revitalization projects; 3) How can the study of language and knowledge help us understand how people transform the natural and cultural world; and 4) What does linguistic diversity tell us about the human mind?
Essentially, Recovering Voices is a Smithsonian initiative to tie museum collections to native knowledge. It is a way to engage native communities with the objects “we” have but which “they”, admittedly, know best. By providing indigenous communities with access to collections and museum research, the Smithsonian can facilitate the recovery of cultural memory and engage natives’ with previously lost cultural life-ways, e.g. relearning native skills and art forms (“Oh, that’s how we wove baskets in the past!”). Recovering Voices seeks to build consultative relationships with these communities, providing outreach serving both the cultural and academic interests of everyone involved. This interaction between scholars and natives–and the Smithsonian’s investment of material, financial, and academic resources–will send a message about the seriousness of the museological endeavor to preserve cultural knowledge for everyone’s benefit.
One person asked, “Can culture loss be compared to species loss?” Not very well indeed, for species do not have a voice, whereas humans and cultures can choose to listen or not listen to scholars. As such, the goal is to raise public awareness on an international level of the problem of culture and language loss, to build the network of engaged groups, to put a face on the people who are most affected by this 21st century reality, which is all of us. Dr. Timothy McCoy, Department Chair of Mineral Sciences and co-member of the Recovering Voices team, noted “We have a moral imperative to return this knowledge to cultures.” I wonder if he meant that our moral imperative is to return this knowledge to world culture-at-large.
As a student of cultural heritage at a British university, I was humbled to hear these scholars and museum experts reflectively admit the United States is very much behind the rest of the world in terms of cultural heritage policy and management. Unfortunately, Congress thinks of the Smithsonian as a glorified storage unit, but how do we show them that we are instead culture bearers of a great knowledge and leaders of a global cultural conservation enterprise? Perhaps the policy-makers on Capitol Hill should likewise observe and actively participate in the cultural heritage discussions taking place at the Idea Fair.