Monumental Ambivalence

[ Latin American Studies ]

Monumental Ambivalence

The Politics of Heritage

By Lisa C. Breglia

A masterful examination of the "monumental ambivalence" that results when private and public interests compete to control and benefit from archaeological and historical sites.



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6 x 9 | 256 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-71480-9

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.

  • List of Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I. The Ambivalence of Heritage
  • Chapter One. A New Approach to Heritage
  • Chapter Two. Cartographies of Patrimony
  • Part II: "Maya Archaeology as the Mayas See It"
  • Chapter Three. Chichén Itzá: A Century of Privatization
  • Chapter Four. By Blood or by Sweat: Shaping Rights to World Heritage
  • Chapter Five. Chunchucmil: Ambivalence in a Heritage Landscape
  • Chapter Six. Archaeology, Ejidos, and Space-Claiming Techniques
  • Conclusion. Docile Descendants and Illegitimate Heirs: The Ambivalence Of Inheritance
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

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"That which is everybody's is nobody's," according to a Spanish aphorism, and nowhere are rights of ownership over the public domain more hotly contested than in the increasingly fraught debates over the preservation and privatization of cultural and artistic heritage around the globe. Far from being an issue exclusive to natural resources (such as water or energy) or social programs (including education and pensions), the deregulation and divestiture of state-owned enterprises has now reached the realm of culture. Shrinking state coffers have left even some of the most privileged houses of cultural and artistic treasures in precarious financial conditions. More tentative still is the fate of hundreds of thousands of archaeological and historic monuments, many of which remain undocumented and unprotected. After decades of highly centralized control over key heritage resources—whether monuments, museums, or archaeological zones—governments are demanding accountability, efficiency, and profit from their cultural institutions.

In turn, citizens have become disillusioned, fed up, and even incensed as states move to divest cultural properties. Public debates over privatization of national patrimonies have intensified in the past few years in countries around the world. Recently, for example, cultural workers from across Italy demonstrated in front of the Colosseum bearing "No to Privatization" signs following Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's approval of plans to grant concessions for heritage properties to the private sector. In China, infrastructural development aimed at linking heritage sites with high-volume tourism networks is proceeding at a pace alarming to conservationists, academics, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Visitors to the Taj Mahal were almost left in the dark as a direct result of the Indian government's outsourcing of maintenance responsibilities to a private firm. Meanwhile, in Mexico, local Maya working at the archaeological site of Chichén Itzá revealed their uncertainty toward a guaranteed constitutional protection of national cultural patrimony by half-expecting the construction of a McDonald's at the top of the Castillo. As neoliberalism becomes the order of the day, citizens, national agencies, and international organizations each, in turn, wonder about the fate of "their" cultural heritage. The public-good guarantees of modern nations are quickly becoming merely artifactual. The ambivalence of "that which is everybody's is nobody's" produces a seemingly irresolvable tension between a state that needs to sell off its patrimony to be in line with global circulations of capital, and its citizenry, which heavily invests in the monuments and symbols of national patrimony as a way of defining its social identities and place in the global landscape.

For communities around the world residing in landscapes of ruins, the stuff of contemporary everyday life continually trespasses upon privileged sites of ancient civilization. Yet, monuments are not isolated in time or space from the social and political lives of citizens. Nor are the monuments immune from changing economic agendas affecting the global marketplace. While privatization programs—especially those implicating symbolically rich resources—make splashy international headlines, it is nearly impossible to discern sentiments toward ownership, custodianship, stewardship, or other forms of possession of cultural heritage on the ground. Most notably absent are the views and opinions of local communities as they go about their workaday lives in the midst and shadows of some of the most famous and fabulous instances of heritage spaces in the world.

I offer this study as an ethnographic foray into the intimate politics of monumental heritage and the contingencies of claiming cultural patrimony in Yucatán, Mexico. Perhaps this project resonates with contradiction. After all, the very notion of monumentality suggests—and perhaps even requires—the univocalization and ossification of meaning in material cultural icons. Through archaeological science and the project of nation building, what is commonly understood as Mexican heritage signals a "glaciation of the past" (Foucault 1967/1986). Thus, the invocation of monumentality, it would seem, necessarily effaces the subtle, personal, contingent practices, expressions, and claims enacted in negotiating both the meaning and content of the stuff of heritage. Yet as Knapp and Ashmore (1999, 1-2) suggest, "We know from modern peoples that meaning in a landscape is not directly related to how obtrusively it has been marked in material, archaeologically detectable ways." Indeed, monumentality strives to erase—and thus assumes the erasure of—ambivalence. But once we begin to look for the fissures in monumentality, we find that ambivalence abounds.

Lisa Breglia is a cultural anthropologist who currently teaches at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. She has also taught anthropology and Latin American studies at Rice University and Wesleyan University.