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Posts Tagged ‘University of Massachusetts Amherst’

Week Two: What is Heritage?

That’s a good question – and the subject of this week’s Oswestry Heritage Comics. When I first started this project last summer, I thought about titling it “Oswestry History” or “The Story of Oswestry” or something like that. But “history” – just like “archaeology” – is only one aspect of way in which we study and understand the past. I wanted the comics to have a wider scope than just looking at things which fit into the categories of “history” or “archaeology” – what about re-enactors? Are they “history” or “archaeology”. Not really. What about traditional arts and crafts, like signpainting on narrow boats? What about native plants, here since the end of the last ice age? What about geology or topography? What about footpaths and walks? What about art, music and drama? None of these things are “history” or “archaeology”, yet they all can fit into both the study and understanding of the past – and perhaps more importantly, are significant parts of appreciating the past.

The term “heritage” has come to mean many things in different contexts, ranging from a vague reference to “olden days” to specific ideas about traditional culture and ways of living. I find the term useful because it covers a wide range of ways in which people find meaning in the past. The Center for Heritage and Society at the University of Massachusetts has an interesting (if slightly wordy) definition of heritage on their “What is Heritage?” page:

Heritage is the full range of our inherited traditions, monuments, objects, and culture.  Most important, it is the range of contemporary activities, meanings, and behaviors that we draw from them.

Heritage includes, but is much more than preserving, excavating, displaying, or restoring a collection of old things.  It is both tangible and intangible, in the sense that ideas and memories–of songs, recipes, language, dances, and many other elements of who we are and how we identify ourselves–are as important as historical buildings and archaeological sites.

Heritage is, or should be, the subject of active public reflection, debate, and discussion.  What is worth saving?  What can we, or should we, forget?  What memories can we enjoy, regret, or learn from?  Who owns “The Past” and who is entitled to speak for past generations?  Active public discussion about material and intangible heritage–of individuals, groups, communities, and nations–is a valuable facet of public life in our multicultural world.

Heritage is a contemporary activity with far-reaching effects.  It can be an element of far-sighted urban and regional planning.  It can be the platform for political recognition, a medium for intercultural dialogue, a means of ethical reflection, and the potential basis for local economic development.  It is simultaneously local and particular, global and shared.

Heritage is an essential part of the present we live in–and of the future we will build.

My definition, in this week’s comic, is a bit shorter –

If history is about what happened in the past, then heritage is what we have of the past in the present. Heritage is more than just “the past” – it’s about how the past makes us who we are.

– but it conveys the same idea. I’ve tried to find a good way to describe the scope of this year’s Oswestry Heritage Comics – history, archaeology, narrow boat signpainting, native plants, old tracks and footpaths, geology, traditional arts and crafts: all of these things contribute towards making us who we are, and all of these things are our heritage.

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NAGPRA Page 12

Page from “Journeys To Complete The Work” – a comic about NAGPRA.

Later today, my most recent archaeological comics project – a comic about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act – will be the subject of a presentation at the Indigenous Storytelling and the Law symposium being held at the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

This project is a collaboration between myself, Sonya Atalay (U.Mass Amherst) and Jen Shannon (U. Colorado), and focuses on explaining NAGPRA law through the experiences of tribes, museum workers and scholars who have been involved in repatriations – both successful and less so. The comic is a demonstration of the way in which a visual narrative approach can not only make the complex legality of NAGPRA comprehensible, but provide a meaningful context for some of the preconceptions, public perceptions and prejudices that further complicate the issue of repatriation.

The comic that’s being presented by Jen and Sonya at the conference is ten pages which cover some introductory explanation about what NAGPRA is and how it works, and tells the story of a repatriation of material back to Anishiaabek tribes from museum collections held by the University of Michigan.

It’s something of a departure for me in terms of the focus of the story – less about explaining the process of excavation and research, and much more about how material is treated once it becomes part of a collection. But it focuses very much on things which I think comics can do exceptionally well in archaeology – issues which are difficult to explain without visual storytelling; issues which mix science, professional conduct and public response; issues which are shaped by – and shape – personal experience. I have long argued that these are exactly the kinds of stories which can be told in a particularly effective way through comics.

I’m sorry I can’t be at the conference myself, but I will be interested to hear the response to our project. We’ve got lots of ideas about how this comic could be used, etc. – and we’ve even got an interesting launch venue possibly lined up! I’ll be discussing all that and much more about the project in more detail as it evolves over the coming months.

“Journeys To Complete The Work” – A Comic about NAGPRA. Sonya Atalay, Jen Shannon, & John Swogger will be published this autumn.
“Indigenous Storytelling and the Law” symposium – Friday, March 17th, 1pm-5pm at UMC 235, Saturday, March 18th, 9am-6pm at Wolf Law; March 18 Special Session 4-5:30pm, reception to follow: Indian Country and the Trump Administration: Law, Policy, and Activism 

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