Robert Baron on Heritage, Representation, and the Conservation of Culture

posted on 27 Feb 2014 18:13 by Gabrielle Berlinger
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On February 17, 2014, Robert Baron, Director of the Folk Arts Program at the New York State Council on the Arts, delivered a "Cultures of Conservation" Brown Bag Lecture entitled, "Safeguarding Living Cultural Heritage: Around the World and Around the Corner." Baron received his Ph.D in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania, and has published numerous book-lenth works, including, Creolization as Cultural Creativity, co-author, Ana C. Cara (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011), Public Folklore, co-editor, Nicholas R. Spitzer (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), and Afro-American Folk Culture: An Annotated Bibliography of Materials from North, Central, and South America, and the West Indies, co-authors, John F. Szwed and Roger D. Abrahams (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978).

Jaimie Luria, an M.A. student in the "Cultural Conservation: Preserving Place and Practice" course, reflects below on Baron's discussion of the benefits and consequences of intangible cultural heritage recognition and management.
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Robert Baron’s rich presentation on cultural heritage and representation began with illuminating characterizations of heritage beliefs. Heritage, he explained, is all around us. What once was understood to be “the preserve of a hereditary elite,” has come to be seen as something possessed by everyone, albeit in often intangible, layered and complex ways. Stewardship of this heritage is now understood as belonging to cultural specialists and lay people alike, in urban as well as non-urban areas, bringing the role of folkloristics into spheres of both local community and ‘global action’. Heritage, and its preservation, is the antidote to contemporary isolation.

The BGC Brown Bag Lunch, “Safeguarding Living Cultural Heritage: Around the World and Around the Corner,” was primarily focused on issues of presentation and representation. Themes of cultural expression, authenticity, and objectification raised questions regarding agency, especially in the case of performing cultural practice. In the case of demonstrating tradition to a public audience, the role of presenter and translator becomes blurred. I am reminded of my friend, a member of the Crow Nation in Montana currently living in New York City, who has been asked to perform a traditional dance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during an exhibition opening ceremony. She is honored to have the opportunity to participate in a traditional art-meets-fine art demonstration of her culture that will show the presence of Urban Native Americans in the city and express the continued cultural heritage of her people. It will also be quite a story to bring home. This is, however, essentially a demonstration of her cultural heritage for a non-Native public. How much, then, is it for herself, her people, and for the Met?

There is no single answer to this question at any single moment, but I believe that it is essential to understand the museum’s framing of this cultural expression in order to understand what is really being shown. How much say does a traditional dancer have in the advertisement of, context provided for, and exhibition of this performance? What does this kind of thing signify at one of the finest art museums in New York City? In “Sins of Objectification? Agency, Mediation, and Community Cultural Self-Determination in Public Folklore and Cultural Tourism Programming,” Robert Baron asserts that Public Folklore programs “often require education and contextual explanations that an artist may not have developed or may not even ever have been expected to provide” (2010, 73). Context is certainly an important part of conceptualizing and attempting to connect with performance, but what exactly does it do, who does it, and how is it to be done? All of this affects the ways in which the cultural act, or tradition itself, is presented and expressed and understood. Its meaning depends on it.

I have often felt the tension, or perhaps it is more a tug of apprehension, in approaching work with communities outside of my own. I have worked with artists, contemporary and traditional-though these terms often do not entirely apply, from Bali, from the Navajo Nation and Hopi, from Senegal and Liberia. Coming in to a world of unique stories and customs from the exterior (where is outside? inside?) I have tried my best to truly collaborate and emphasize dialogue. The push and pull of cultural agency and of knowing one’s own place in history does a lot to show how much this kind of work is really a conversation- a process that does not abide by the boundaries of any one discipline, community, or intention. It is possible to work with people and within communities foreign to ‘one’s own’ to establish a sense of mutual respect, a partnership. In practice, Baron explains, public folklorists engage with community members to mutually shape frames of representation, creating a space in which tradition and heritage are not only shown, but also lived (64).

Performance of tradition, to my mind, embodies human interaction in general. Connections between social practice and cultural history are constantly shaping relationships between people, between seeing and acting, thinking and doing. Assuming folklore studies to be essentially interested in cultural difference is a grave reduction of the field’s potential. Although, according to Baron, heritage can be used to distinguish one group from another and to mark difference, it can also signify ‘meaning,’ in an immediate, passionate sort of way. It is not one thing. As our relationships to the past change, and, I would argue, our connection to our environment and our place in it, so does our use of heritage. All cultures hold intrinsic value, Baron argues, as they are born of the very meaning and purpose that individuals ascribe to their own experiences of belonging.

Part of the difficulty of ‘protecting’ heritage is in determining how cultural landscapes relate to the tangible or intangible. Beliefs and customs are understood to represent a spiritual connection to both place and practice, just as cultural memories, carried in stories and folklore are mediated through material and immaterial means. The role of both visible and invisible facets of lived heritage, as well as those of the individual and the community, interior and exterior, in determining the boundaries of cultural belonging and preservation points to the fact that continuity of cultural practice is conceived and carried out in ways that are in a constant state of maintenance. Even a work of art is not solely material. In his discussion of tangible versus intangible heritage, Baron illustrates that an art object is not even an it, for within and around it are multiple states of being all at once: represented by a physical manifestation of artistic intention one finds a product, a history, a performance, and a balancing of temporal flexibility with the inevitable potential of its disappearance.

Understanding the ways in which meaning is ascribed to cultural production is essential to considering the interplay between form and practice, display and ritual. Baron’s varied use of multimedia representations of relevant practices and sites of heritage speaks to the multidimensional and complex nature of these issues as well. The safeguarding strategies he describes strongly illustrate the enormous potential to approach heritage representation and preservation in dynamic ways. These include, but are certainly not limited to, focusing on sustaining traditions within communities and presenting them to new audiences, documenting through research in order to create enduring records and materials, programming, and education. Such processes invite new kinds of spaces, new forms of learning and interacting with ideas of heritage, and an interest in new forms of culture studies.

Finding the voices of heritage that make up this layered construction of culture is one of many problems in attempts to conserve cultural practice and tradition. Aside from problems in defining heritage in the first place, UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention, for example, has not sufficiently outlined and integrated processes of protecting intangible heritage in many countries. Even the United States has not ratified the UNESCO 2003 Convention for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage. Similarly, traditions and traditional knowledge that are tied more strongly to specific communities, rather than to the heritage of humanity at large, are often ignored. International heritage preservation is seen as mostly concentrated on that of certain countries with an abundance of historical and natural resources, and those less ‘rich’ in these resources are left to their own devices of protection.

Additionally, the involvement of the United Nations in some of these cases raises further questions about who is making decisions regarding sites and practices on behalf of communities and humanity. Who earns the right to mark what is authentic and what does not make the cut? Processes enforced by such conventions as those initiated by UNESCO are also critiqued for their “freezing of tradition” in an idealized state. Recognizing signifiers of heritage as worthy of preservation can be disruptive of the organic ecology of custom. Approaching conservation with awareness that tradition is not a static form of any single expression, and accepting the fact that alteration through observation and demonstration is inevitable will allow greater agency for communities as well as fluidity for expressions of their heritage.

Mindfulness is the first and most essential key to moving forward in the way of building positive relationships between cultural brokers, translators, and traditional practitioners, as these roles are also not exclusive. Folklorists’ interventions in the presentation and maintenance of cultural heritage must be, understood as something that is neither neutral nor inherently harmful, but rather mutual. Dialogism as a process of shared experience, Baron explains, allows each party to act as an agent of impact. There is, in the end, a greater awareness and appreciation for the diversity and skill of keepers of tradition, while performers return to their communities with a sense of pride and a connection to people outside of that tradition.

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