This week's Why Social Science? post comes from Richard Kurin, Distinguished Scholar & Ambassador at Large at the Smithsonian Institution, who writes about the role social science plays in protecting and preserving cultural heritage.
Cultural heritage is today threatened on a number of fronts.
Embodied in the form of ancient archaeological sites and historical buildings, collections of antiquities, artworks, artifacts and archives, and as the lifeways of contemporary communities, cultural heritage comprises features of continuing existence and past accomplishment recognized by a social group as an enduring symbol of its identity. Benign neglect, devastating accidents, major natural disasters—and increasingly climate change—all challenge our ability to preserve cultural heritage. Think of earthquakes in Haiti and Italy and their ruin of historic buildings and galleries; remember the fires that wreaked havoc on Notre Dame and destroyed collections at the National Museum in Brazil; and imagine the loss of living cultural traditions among Inuit communities seeing massive warming in the Arctic. Social persecution, terrorism, and armed conflict too endanger the preservation of cultural heritage. Consider the burning of historical manuscripts in Timbuktu; recall ISIS blowing up the ancient trading center of Palmyra, the Taliban looting and trafficking ancient treasures; and recognize the Myanmar government’s persecution of the Rohingya for their religious and ethnic ways and the Chinese government for doing the same to Uighurs and Tibetans.