Cultural conservation refers to systematic efforts to safeguard traditional cultural knowledge, customs, and materials and the natural resources on which they are based. The primary goals of cultural conservation projects are to sustain cultural and ecological diversity within modernizing communities and landscapes, to promote the active engagement of community members in local resource management, and to mobilize government support for the preservation of regional heritage. Anthropologists, folklorists, historians, and cultural geographers have advanced these goals in recent years by assessing the relevance of expressive traditions among social groups and by encouraging an appreciation for the cultural heritage within the communities they study.
Traditional cultural resources may be tangible, such as vernacular architecture, sacred landmarks, ethnic foodways, and folk arts. Others are intangible, such as regional music and dance, storytelling, games, and expressive oral traditions. While heritage preservation is concerned with the continuation of all aspects of traditional culture, it extends beyond the restoration of historic sites and the documentation of social customs. Cultural conservation is a highly cumulative, multidisciplinary process that entails the careful assessment of the consequences of industrialization and relocation of cultural traditions with symbolic and historic significance.
Over the past three decades, the conservation of traditional culture has become increasingly urgent. This is particularly true in the rural United States, where urbanization is rapidly changing the character of traditional lifestyles, and in some cases accelerating the decline of folklife altogether. Frequently, rural people relinquish folk traditions in favor of more cosmopolitan goods and services. Anthropologists call this process “delocalization,” and one of the tasks facing scholars interested in cultural conservation is to identify the socioeconomic factors responsible for the erosion of cultural heritage and folk technology. Subsequent efforts by state and federal historic preservation agencies can benefit from this information by creating sensible strategies to maintain traditional innovations for the benefit of future generations.
A number of federally funded programs, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Folklife Center, are active supporters of cultural conservation research. Cultural conservation is most successful when implemented on a community level, using a “grassroots” approach to identify local pathways to heritage preservation. For example, cultural knowledge of medicinal plants in the Ozark Mountains is most endangered in communities that have shifted from subsistence farming to more progressive, service-based economies. While urbanization has brought modern health care services to under-served areas, economic development has hastened the abandonment of valuable folk medical expertise in exchange for more conventional approaches to health care. By working locally to promote ecological awareness of medicinal flora through educational workshops and by developing programs to encourage health care practitioners to integrate traditional healing alongside scientific medicine, the preservation of folk medical knowledge can ultimately be possible in modernizing communities of the rural Ozarks and elsewhere in regional American cultures.
Cultural resources are malleable, and as such, they can be reconstituted and presented to the public as nostalgic expressions of “living history.” Region-specific customs and materials have persevered as tourist commodities, such as sea grass baskets in coastal South Carolina, Amish-made quilts in central Pennsylvania, maple syrup in upstate Vermont, or woven blankets sold on Navajo reservations. Visitors to folk cultural regions can now visit theme parks and museums demonstrating romantic and mythical images of past ways of life. While the promotion of cultural resources for mainstream consumption may seem to undermine their authenticity, “heritage tourism” can indeed reaffirm cultural cohesiveness and thus help ensure the rejuvenation of living traditions and expressions. Accordingly, the manipulation of tradition is not degenerative to cultural continuity, but an adaptive response to commercialization.
Some scholars have surmised that folk technologies can and do undergo revivification for more cerebral reasons. The eminent anthropologist John Roberts, for example, has surmised that that folk knowledge and skills are frequently held on “ready reserve” as functional alternatives, should modern technology eventually fail to serve the community’s needs for survival. People also retain historic innovations as a way to reconnect with their collective past and as powerful expressions of cultural identity.
Numerous examples of cultural resource revival can be found in regional cultures in the United States, such as the widespread popular appeal of traditional hunting and fishing methods in the upper South. Here, as in other regions of the United States, people are returning to more historic approaches to wild game hunting, despite the industry-driven attempts to promote expensive and complex equipment for wildlife procurement. Examples of these techniques include traditional longbow archery, the use of muzzle loading black-powder rifles, and anachronistic angling methods such as cane-poling and hand fishing. The recent implementation of these traditional techniques is evidence of a renewed appreciation for the guardianship and continuity of folk creativity and craftsmanship.
Despite the recent progress in heritage revitalization projects, there are a number of challenges to cultural conservation. The agendas of social scientists occasionally conflict with those of community members, particularly with regard to environmental policy and stewardship. Federal land managers may envision forests as aesthetic resources or national parks where wildlife and woodsman ship can flourish as part of the local recreational culture. Conversely, native people may prioritize industrial and economic development over ecological preservation of natural landscapes. Such conflicts, however, can engender a much-needed awareness among policymakers of the need to reconcile public and private agendas in cultural intervention programs.
For cultural conservation projects to succeed, they must culminate with sensible models that link natural resource conservation with the survivorship of cultural traditions. This can ultimately be made possible if anthropologists collaborate effectively with community members and listen closely to their concerns and remain sensitive to their needs. Through the realization that cultural and ecological conservation are interdependent processes, social scientists can continue to discover how living traditions are imagined, maintained, and rendered meaningful by people in their daily lives.
- Feintuch, B. (Ed.). (1988). The conservation of culture: Folklorists and the public sector. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.
- Howell, B. (Ed.). (1990). Cultural heritage conservation in the American South. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Hufford, M. (Ed.). (1994). Conserving culture: A newdiscourse on heritage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.