How Anthropology Investigates the Cultural Heritage of the Future

Cultural heritage is a mixture of objects and ideas, traditions and stories –  a legacy inherited from past generations, but at the same time providing the foundation on which we build the present and future. Among all artefacts and knowledge created in the course of human history, only a tiny fraction has been declared valuable and passed on to future generations. All over the globe, cultural identities are built on such selected objects, and the memories associated with them. Today, cultural anthropologists like Sharon Macdonald are examining the reasons why some elements of culture are passed on to the future while other are being put away, or erased from collective memory. Museums are societies’ official places for this process of ‚curating memory’. Most museums are only able to display 5 to 10 per cent of their treasures – the remaining objects remain hidden in the archives and cellars. Selecting what is shown and what is not is never a purely rational process: As museums are struggling for funding, exhibitions have to attract and please specific audiences, and curators also follow their personal tastes. Sharon Macdonald, who was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt professorship in 2015 for her outstanding anthropological work, is interested in such questions, particularly when they relate to darker episodes in cultural history. In order to study how a city deals with an extremely difficult legacy, she examined the cultural heritage of Nuremberg, a city which was deeply linked with the history of German Nazism before 1945. At Falling Walls, Sharon shows why diversity and global perspectives are essential for creating museums for the 21st century, and which artefacts of our times might shape how future generations will think about our present.

Sharon Jeanette Macdonald is a professor at the University of York and a leading specialist in museum theory and questions of cultural heritage. With a prestigious Humboldt-Professorship, she will move to Berlin in October 2015 where she will direct a research centre at Humboldt University. In the context of a Humboldt Research Fellowship, Macdonald conducted research in Germany on a number of occasions between 2000 and 2007, at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. In 2011, she was a visiting professor at Peking University. Macdonald is a member of diverse specialist associations, including the Royal Anthropological Institute, and a member of the editorial boards of journals such as the International Journal of Heritage Studies.

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