I’m caught in the middle of a variety of positions regarding preservation and value of cultural artifacts. First, I would like to stipulate between the positions of ownership. In Hierarchies of Value at Angkor Wat, Lindsay French describes the process of Angkor antiquities through various political regimes and how these antiquities were handled as a result of colonialism, war and rulings. During colonial rule in Cambodia (1850’s), the French established rule. The Angkor temples became known by an explorer (they were already known to the indigenous people) and as a result, many of the artifacts from the Angkor era were removed from the temples so that Europeans can appreciate its value as art history without the context of the temples. A question can be raised as to who owns these artifacts, and what groups of people have rights to see them? When value is placed on these artifacts, there is a shift in thinking about them that becomes an act of commodity. In the name of research, the artifacts at Angkor Wat have been removed and located to a museum in Europe where scholarly research can be done. The local people no longer have access to their own history. I am reminded of the way a site is sacralized, particularly to the wall relief near Weeksville that isn’t marked.* What is the necessity of marking a site if the local people can get what value they have in the work? What about the knowledge that the local people cannot access? Who is in control of making meaning? In addition, for people interested in the history and heritage of this piece of art are not able to become aware of it. It’s another form of ownership – and how it’s designated and created. So in those regards, the Angkor antiquities may be appreciated by Westerners, but not through a form of colonial rule whereby the experience and situations of these artifacts and ownership of them are created and deemed by whoever finds them. And to what level of benefit to the Cambodians are there through this movement of Angkor artifacts? How do the colonized react to the colonizers? What exactly is this value placed on antiquities and how is it formed? To compare these artifacts with Egyptian and Assyrian work is to add a global value to the artifacts instead of a local value to the people. How does the shift of power from the local to the global change the way these artifacts are understood and how does the value of these objects change meaning for local people? Through the shift in European scholarship of these artifacts, the Cambodians have a different sense of these artifacts, as commodities and through their illegal sales to museums and private entities, the poor people of Cambodia can be able to purchase food. Through the values now placed on the object, a different dynamic of culture and heritage forms – one that is extremely disconcerting in that a loss develops.** From the colonized European eyes, the artifacts become a form of dispute between ownership and knowledge. French provides an example of a European coming into the region and taking valuable artifacts without consent from the government. He simply states that he felt they were not part of the protected region and could therefore take them out of the country. What gives him the right to take something from another country that doesn’t belong to him? In the name of research, scholarship, he can just walk away with someone else’s heritage? Now what value do these objects have then, and why are Europeans investing themselves in another culture’s artifacts. Understanding the role of colonialism, war, and rulership plays an important key into how valuable artifacts are for a culture. An example of this can be drawn through Negative Heritage and Past Mastering in Archaeology, where Lynn Meskell describes negative site seeing. Through loss and devastation, the World Trade Center has become a site for memorialization and mobilization. What was previously a symbol has now a collective memory marker which houses a variety of meanings for different people. Artifacts and relics of this site of devastation have undergone extreme memorialization through material commodities being sold. People are making money off the devastation and ruins of this site, in a same way the mobilization of politics in America as well America’s actions on foreign countries. Through the creation of this catastrophe as a site, the politics involved with remuneration of dead people, relocation of individuals and the rebuilding of the site have affected many people worldwide.
In Cambodia, there was the revolution of Khmer Rouge which preserved the Angkor temples as a site of cultural significance, while devastating the Buddhist temples in the area. It’s clear what kind of value was put on Buddhist practices and Buddhist cultural artifacts by their destruction. Consequently, all the artifacts from the Angkor temples and the Angkor cultural remains were situated in Cambodia. In fact, the ruling reveled in the accomplishments of Angkor because it “became models of Khmer dominance and power to which all of Cambodia should aspire” (French, 180). So while the Buddhist temples and artifacts were lost, there was a resurgence of value on Angkor Wat which was politically motivated (both the destruction and the preservation). These ideas lead to an understanding of heritage, culture and antiquities as something close to politics of people in power. Who controls what memories are preserved, and what to do with them. In a lot of ways, the people of Cambodia have suffered doubly through the casting away of antiquities in order to feed themselves through being forced to sell the antiquities, as well as losing the significance of these antiquities.
*Weeksville is a site in the making, a historic black settlement in Brooklyn. The reference here to the wall, is about a wall sculpture that is in the middle of a housing complex a block away from the site (has nothing to do with the site itself, but stands on its own, without any local knowledge of its significance except to historians and art scholars of the Harlem Rennaissance.
**Part of this loss is further explored through recent tragedies regarding the World Trade Center.