Who Owns Heritage? 2004

Historical Sites:
The African Burial Ground is an example of a marked historical site with a history of struggle. The site was a place where slaves could be buried in dignity during the late 1600s – 1800. The US General Service Administration excavated this historical site in the 1990s, where over 400 bodies were removed to make way for a Federal building. Who owns sacred land? Who owns a historic site? The Federal Government didn’t follow the correct procedures for removing the bodies and the community held protests and vigils. Michael Blakey describes the Historic Preservation Act and how the government didn’t uphold it. Who are the rules made for? Where is the sense of entitlement to African history through the way these bodies are being treated? In what ways have the heritage been restored to this site through monuments and memorials? Who owns heritage? It’s clear that the government went ahead with the plans for building while African Americans protested to their heritage being denigrated. Is there any way to repair what has been mistreated? Does the site and the landmark now serve as a way of envisioning stronger history? With the research done at Howard University, is there some good that came out of resurfacing the bodies in the cemetery – a better understanding of a global heritage?

Ellis Island is another example of a historic site, the first place immigrants were held before coming into America. The chapter written by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes how most immigrants failed to enter this way anyway, and in fact, the privileged were the ones who were held on Ellis Island, others came illegally through various routes. Well, this site is a major tourist destination, and BKG explores the way tourists visit this site and pay respects to their heritage by recognizing the struggles of their ancestors. Due to the large number of people touring this site (probably more than the original immigrants), there are many interesting activities set up for tourists. Many corporations took advantage of the opportunity to sell immigrants their heritage through funny coloring books or even a commemorative name on the wall. BKG describes the dynamics of a visitor to the site wanting to pay respects to the family by purchasing their name on the wall, which ends up becoming part of the list of immigrants who came to Ellis Island (you purchase the heritage of your ancestors because those are the only immigrants mentioned). Although I can’t believe of people wanting to visit a place their ancestors have come through in passing, rather cherish the memories offered by family stories and traditions – this is a way for some people to get a sense of their past (although it has been marketed and made to look good to them since the reconstruction of the site). So what does Ellis Island mean to descendants of immigrants – and immigrant families? What does it mean to turn life into a coloring book? I find it disturbing. And who owns heritage? I know you can buy it, but does it mean you own it?


In the sites mentioned, there is an underlying sense of entitlement that is represented and assumed – in the African Burial Site; African Americans and descendants assume entitlement. In Ellis Island, the same is true – entitlement is assumed by relatives and descendants of the Immigrants who settled in New York. The difference is between who is entitled, and where the entitlement is assumed. In the African Burial Site, the government takes control of the site and directs the changes made. On Ellis Island, entitlement is given to corporations which give pieces to tourists willing to shell out money. Essentially, entitlement is a complex system of misrepresented consumer marketing and lies in the hands of who is selling. The same is true for the Jews who participated in the World’s Fair in KBG’s chapter “Exhibiting Jews.” The person in charge of the exhibition hall directs the way viewers will perceive the idea of what it means to be Jewish, and in each exhibit another understanding on how Jews were to be defined and represented develops. So is the nature of heritage a matter of who owns it? Where do issues of race and ethnicity help establish entitlement to their own history?


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