Monumental Ambivalence: The Politics of Heritage

Monumental Ambivalence: The Politics of Heritage

Monumental Ambivalence: The Politics of Heritage

Monumental Ambivalence: The Politics of Heritage

Synopsis

From ancient Maya cities in Mexico and Central America to the Taj Mahal in India, cultural heritage sites around the world are being drawn into the wave of privatization that has already swept through such economic sectors as telecommunications, transportation, and utilities. As nation-states decide they can no longer afford to maintain cultural properties- or find it economically advantageous not to do so in the globalizing economy- private actors are stepping in to excavate, conserve, interpret, and represent archaeological and historical sites. But what are the ramifications when a multinational corporation, or even an indigenous village, owns a piece of national patrimony which holds cultural and perhaps sacred meaning for all the country's people, as well as for visitors from the rest of the world? In this ambitious book, Lisa Breglia investigates "heritage" as an arena in which a variety of private and public actors compete for the right to benefit, economically and otherwise, from controlling cultural patrimony. She presents ethnographic case studies of two archaeological sites in the Yucatán Peninsula- Chichén Itzá and Chunchucmil and their surrounding modern communities- to demonstrate how indigenous landholders, foreign archaeologists, and the Mexican state use heritage properties to position themselves as legitimate "heirs" and beneficiaries of Mexican national patrimony. Breglia's research masterfully describes the "monumental ambivalence" that results when local residents, excavation laborers, site managers, and state agencies all enact their claims to cultural patrimony. Her findings make it clear that informal and partial privatizations- which go on quietly and continually- are as real a threat to a nation's heritage as the prospect of fast-food restaurants and shopping centers in the ruins of a sacred site.

Excerpt

April 28, 1999: Mauricio Fernández Garza, senator from the conservative National Action Party (PAN), presents to the Mexican Senate Committee on Cultural Affairs a proposal to amend Section xxv of Article 73 of the Mexican Constitution. This article guarantees federal jurisdiction over “all matters concerning archeological, artistic, and historic monuments, the conservation of which is of national interest.” No matter that the actual proposal cleverly stepped around the notion of outright divestiture of state-held and regulated cultural properties by encouraging nongovernmental participation in the work of preservation and promotion (Fernández Garza 1999), the senator's initiative immediately became known in opposition circles as the cultural patrimony “Privatization Proposal.” Widely perceived as a profane intrusion of both party politics and free-market economics into the sacred sphere of national cultural heritage, the proposal presented a monumental threat not only to the integrity of the nation's patrimony but to the very fabric of Mexican nationalism itself.

Given the continued acceleration and intensification of Mexico's neoliberal program of the past two decades, Fernández Garza's proposal to formally open the field of cultural patrimony to the private sector might have been expected, yet it was received by many as a shock. Since the 1980s, privatization has arisen as an essential component of Mexico's neoliberal economic structural reform package that entails trade liberalization and deregulation, increased direct foreign investment, and transformation of communal agricultural lands (ejidos) into private property.

Under pressure from international financial institutions including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund(IMF), Mexico has attempted to institute an “open economy” in which the state's intervention is limited by a new legal and institutional framework. Under this new economic model, “the tendency is for the market to replace regulation, private . . .

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