The Missing Ethics of Heritage

 

Bonnie J. Clark
Associate Professor, Anthropology
Curator for Archaeology, Museum of Anthropology
University of Denver

 

Ethics codes should play a key role in the education of future professionals.  Indeed, in teaching a capstone course for graduating seniors, I justify our multi-day exploration of ethics in part by referencing the Society for Applied Anthropology’s ethics code, which states in its principle 4 that “Our training should inform students as to their ethical responsibilities.”  But beyond ethical obligations, such training provides discrete touchstones to students who are learning how to behave in the world as anthropologists.

 

One way that I find codes pedagogically useful is that they provide benchmarks with which students can measure their own practice and that of others in the field.  And it was during just such a recent exercise in my Applied Heritage Management course that the students found the current AAA code of ethics lacking.  As part of an analysis of heritage management websites, students were asked whether sites failed, met, or exceeded the ethics codes of the AAA or the Society for American Archaeology (SAA).

 

It was revealing that few of my students found the AAA ethical principles salient for this exercise.  Despite the fact that the first principle in both the AAA and the SAA codes mentions stewardship of archaeological resources, students tended to choose the SAA “Stewardship” principle instead of the AAA’s “Do No Harm.” I suspect subdisciplinary position had some role to play (many of the students identify as archaeologists and so defaulted to the SAA principles).  However, I also believe that students looking to support advocacy skip over a principle whose title implies it is only about avoiding harm, despite later prose to the contrary.  In pointing this out, my experience aligns with others who find the code lacking when it comes to advocacy work (e.g. Rob Borovsky’s recent blog for this column).

 

Even more troubling was that students who chose case studies related to areas of heritage other than archaeological sites found little in either code to assist them.  They needed to translate the codes to cover the preservation of historic buildings or cultural landscapes.  In such cases students mostly substituted “historic resource” for “archaeological site.”  However, those who were interested in the preservation of culturally-important natural resources really had few places to turn.  Making the AAA statement on ethics relevant in this case requires a rather convoluted route, using principle 4 to identify natural resources as “affected parties” or perhaps “vulnerable populations.”

 

The management of heritage continues to be a robust and growing sector of our discipline as evidenced both by theoretical engagement and applied practice.  Many anthropologists contribute to the heritage fields, whether through social impact studies, museum work, or cultural resources management.  Such practitioners do have resources regarding ethics to which they can turn.  For example there are a number of other ethical codes more geared to heritage (e.g. those of the International Council on Monuments and Sites or ICOMOS. And there are also public discussions of heritage ethics, such as those supported by the Leiden-Stanford ethics lab.

 

Yet it is clear that the legal mandates for preservation from the local to the international level are not matched by our disciplinary ethical codes.  That makes for awkward class discussions, but even worse, it fails our students and those already in the field.  There are many good reasons why anthropologists should help people preserve their heritage, but we must turn to other benchmarks to support that position.

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