Negative Heritage and Past Mastering in Archaeology
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Anthropological Quarterly 75.3 (2002) 557-574



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Negative Heritage and Past Mastering in Archaeology

Lynn Meskell
Columbia University

Images of the World Trade Center site flooded the media in the aftermath of September 11, and have continued to do so in New York City. The World Monuments Watch moved quickly to feature Ground Zero in its October 2001 issue as a place of heritage, requiring both salvage and commemoration. The site was supra-positioned, listed as site 101 in their register of 100 endangered sites around the globe. The lingering physical marks of violence coupled with the mass grave site have reconfigured its value as a newly constituted tourist site, encouraging us to reflect on the economic and symbolic dimensions of heritage making. The president and the chairman of the World Monuments Watch declared that "weapons of mass destruction are not always aimed at battleships or military installations, but at the cultural icons that bind and inspire communities around the world," underscoring the significance of the WTC's historic import and potent symbolic capital. They describe how "our landmarks—the Mostar Bridge, the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, and the World Trade Center—have become prized targets for terrorists because they are what defines the cultures, ideals, and achievements of the people who created them, who use them, who live with them" (Perry and Burnham 2001:3). Quite understandably, the authors have made a personal connection between their own expertise in the heritage [End Page 557] field and the events of September 11, yet they also reveal how the materiality of certain sites is enshrined in our own culture and how dominant the language of heritage has become. Despite the potency of the WTC site, it would be unthinkable to preserve the site as it remains—it requires a complete reconfiguration including appropriate memorialization. In this regard it is a salient example of what I would term "negative heritage", a conflictual site that becomes the repository of negative memory in the collective imaginary. As a site of memory, negative heritage occupies a dual role: it can be mobilized for positive didactic purposes (e.g. Auschwitz, Hiroshima, District Six) or alternatively be erased if such places cannot be culturally rehabilitated and thus resist incorporation into the national imaginary (e.g. Nazi and Soviet statues and architecture).

Monuments are mnemonics that may serve both as reminders of the past and harbingers of the future (Lowenthal 1985). While seemingly uncontroversial, "heritage" occupies a positive and culturally elevated position within many cultures, yet we should recognize that not all individuals, groups or nations share those views, or have the luxury of affluence to indulge these desires. Moreover, we uncritically hold that heritage, specifically "world heritage," must necessarily be a good thing and thus find it difficult to comprehend groups who support counter claims, whether for the reasons of a religious, moral, economic, or political nature. Exploring how cultural difference is accommodated or elided within the language and practice of archaeological heritage forms the focus of this paper. Taking these two volatile landscapes as my starting point, I argue that the Bamiyan Valley and Lower Manhattan are salient markers that compel us to reflect upon the ordinary construction and conventions surrounding heritage, at home and elsewhere.

The World Trade Center as Heritage

In New York City on December 31, 2001, the Waterford crystal ball dropped in Times Square to herald the New Year. Literally marked by the events of September 11, the ball was inscribed with the names of those who died and some of the countries who lost citizens in the attacks. The memorialization of the dead through material culture has become a hallmark of post-September 11 culture. Place-making in New York has similarly intensified, from temporary memorials, to thousands of tourists viewing the devastation, to the planning and implementation of new buildings and statues. Some have experienced the materialization as helpful in the healing process, while others see it as commodified outgrowth typical of tourist voyeurism. 1 [End Page 558]

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