The past, present, and future of cultural heritage

During the second half of the 19th century, Tihosuco, a small town in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, was at the center of the indigenous rebellion called the Caste War. Overwhelmed by economic hardships, constant and increasing taxation, repression by Yucatecos (the local population of European descent), and more, the Maya revolted against Mexico, hoping to recover their territory and heritage.

The Maya people of Tihosuco still identify closely with the rebellion, which is reflected in their present-day lives. Penn anthropology professor Richard M. Leventhal says their connection with their recent history is much stronger than their often-assumed connection with the ancient Maya.

“They just do not want to be tied to their ancient heritage as many of us have been taught to think,” he explains.

For six years, as part of the Tihosuco Heritage Preservation and Community Development Project, Leventhal has been working alongside the community in Tihosuco to identify and preserve some of the important remaining sites, artifacts, and symbols of the Caste War. The project is a partnership of the Penn Museum’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center, which Leventhal founded in 2007 and directs, and the Museo de la Guerra de Castas, the Caste War Museum created in 1993 by the government in Tihosuco. The Ejido de Tihosuco, a communal land organization that owns and controls the land around the community, and the Tihosuco Mayor’s Office are also important partners.

Community is key when doing this type of work, Leventhal stresses.

“Community has been and needs to be part of the framing of projects like these,” he says, while chatting over the phone from Mexico. “Too often, archaeologists or other historians come along and believe that they as professionals and scholars know what is heritage and what is important to preserve. But we think about heritage in a different way when we talk to local communities. Communities need to take the lead in these partnerships if they’re going to be successful and sustainable.”

A long-term goal for the project, Leventhal says, is to also identify a heritage preservation and economic plan for Tihosuco and the region, ultimately giving a boost to the Maya people, allowing them to control their own heritage and future.

The project in Mexico is only one under the Penn Cultural Heritage Center’s umbrella. Brian I. Daniels, the Penn Cultural Heritage Center’s director of research and programs and a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, has spent more than a decade working on indigenous communities’ heritage rights, repatriation, and recognition. Specifically, for the Weyka Heritage Project in California, Daniels’ discussions with Native Americans about their cultural heritage has evolved into an archaeological project, and he is eager to uncover more knowledge of the community’s past and present. This project is leading the community toward a greater sense of identity in the present and future.

Daniels also co-directs the Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq Project with Salam Al Kuntar, a Penn Museum postdoctoral fellow and visiting assistant professor of anthropology at Penn.

Al Kuntar, a Syrian-born archaeologist, works with civil activists and community leaders in Syria and Iraq to document and protect their cultural heritage in the midst of civil war destruction, which is happening at a tragic and unprecedented rate.

“This heritage can’t just be looked at from a historic view,” she says. “We’re losing ancient art and archaeological sites, as well as losing the culture and fabric of a place.”

In 2014, the Penn Cultural Heritage Center and the Smithsonian Institution began offering assistance for museum curators, heritage professionals, and civilians working to protect cultural heritage in the war-torn areas. Most recently, Al Kuntar has been spearheading projects that teach the local children how to appreciate and protect heritage, and see it as a future asset for their country. She’s also working with women to revive traditional handcrafts in order to lighten the burden of war. Beginning this April, an exhibition at the Penn Museum will shed light on Al Kuntar’s work, as well as cultural heritage preservation work in the Middle East in general.

“For me, this work is more about giving them basically the means to survive,” Al Kuntar says. “To help them cope with the war atrocities and keep the heritage alive. To make them not fall into despair, and make sure they know people around the world care about them.”

Another major project within the Penn Cultural Heritage Center is the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project, which is led by Penn Cultural Heritage Center consulting scholars Elizabeth Greene and Justin Leidwanger, professors at Brock University and Stanford, respectively.

In Marzamemi, Sicily, the pair are working in a variety of ways with the community to study and manage underwater cultural heritage, which, due to its location, gives a glimpse into maritime exchange from the early Roman era through Late Antiquity. The sea is what drives this small coastal town, and Greene and Leidwanger are working to uphold this base, whether by promoting underwater heritage dive trails or showcasing excavated materials in a new Museum of the Sea.

“Similar to all the projects within the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, it’s not just one research paper, but it’s helping to make Marzamemi a destination for tourists, as well as offering places for the local children and others to learn about the town’s heritage,” says Greene.

Even though the Penn Cultural Heritage Center projects span different parts of the world, the heart of each is their bottom-up approach—starting from the community and working their way up, says Peter Gould, a consulting scholar of the Center.

“The heritage that matters is the heritage that matters to the people it belongs to,” he says.

Now, more than ever, Gould says it is important to have conversations about cultural heritage.

“We’re living in a time that in certain respects is centered on heritage,” he says. “If you look at the disputes around the world, the debates are over immigrants, over whether multiculturalism is a good thing. All have their roots in different perspectives of which heritage is important, and whose should be given priority, and who needs to accommodate to that. Having a vibrant dialogue around the issues is important because the process of how this sorts itself out is going to be consequential for the entire world.”

Penn Cultural Heritage Center