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Cultural Property Theory Richard Handler, 2003

This brings me to cultural property, about which I want to make three specific points. First, central to most heritage
preservation or cultural property activities is what I will call an objectifying approach: that is, whatever it is that is imagined
to be worthy of preservation, it must be imagined in such a fashion that bureaucratic routines can be applied to it.
It is expected that cultural items can be described, bounded, inventoried and, if appropriate, photographed, placed in a
museum, or otherwise preserved. The business of objectifying cultural realities does not seem too difficult when the item in
question is a discrete physical thing, such as a building (although it turns out, of course, that preserving an historic building,
which has existed for many decades or centuries, is not a simple business at all; the first problem one has is to decide to
which moment in the building’s history it is to be ‘restored’). But this objectifying business becomes deeply problematic in
cases of nonspatial, semiotic cultural activities. We have, of course, procedures to do this – we can, for example, turn spoken
language into written grammars and dictionaries – but the transformations that such ‘preservation’ entails are momentous.
Second, the business of inventorying and preserving cultural property is never merely a question of objects; it is a question
of objects in relationship to posited social identities of varying sorts. In other words, it is never enough to discover, possess,
or highlight an object; one must always interpret the object, make a claim about what, socially and culturally, it truly is
and/or to whom it ‘belongs’. Yet collective identities (even individual identities, for that matter) are never objectively given;
like all cultural processes, they exist only in semiotic interactions. Thus, on the one hand, cultural patterns themselves do
not exist as neatly delineated objects; on the other hand, the cultural groups that might claim them, or lend an identity to
them, similarly have no such objectively bounded existence. We are familiar enough, in the literature on cultural property
disputes, with both aspects of the phenomenon. In particular, the question of group identity and collective ownership comes
frequently to the fore: who are the rightful present-day ‘owners’ of artefacts or even human remains preserved from a long-
ago world when today’s social categories were not yet in existence? The third point I wish to make about cultural property
concerns the expansion of our understanding of the term ‘culture’. If we look at the transformation, over the past century or
more, of historic preservation efforts into cultural-heritage preservation efforts, we find a gradual increase in the number of
categories of objects and activities deemed worthy of preservation. Preservation efforts once focused on discrete objects,
monuments and buildings expanded to include ensembles of buildings, landscapes, ‘views’ and traditions or ways of life.
A parallel process of expansion saw a proliferation of social identities with claims to the possession of a culture worthy of
respect. Increasingly after the Second World War, as ‘civil rights’, ‘national self-determination’ and ‘human rights’ gave
rise to political movements around the globe, previously excluded or despised cultural groups have lain claim to a cultural
heritage worth preserving and their heritages have become objects of interest to hegemonic museums, bureaucracies and

Papua New Guinea, which comprises the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, is home to one of the richest
concentrations of indigenous cultures on earth. A primary reason for Papa New Guinea's impressive cultural diversity is its
geographic isolation to the north of Australia. Additionally, the highlands of Papua New Guinea remained untouched by
European cultures until the middle of the 20th century. It is believed that Papua New Guinea has been inhabited by humans
for roughly 50,000 years, making it one of the first places that humans settled outside of Africa.
Today, about 836 unique indigenous languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, comprising twelve percent of indigenous
languages in the world. The country's numerous ethnic groups have distinctive cultures, providing a rich treasure trove of
anthropological heritage.
Due to Papua New Guinea's late contact with the outside world, the indigenous peoples were spared many of the most
egregious excesses of 18th and 19th century European colonialism; however, its indigenous groups face serious threats from
mining companies, missionaries, and other modern economic forces. While the preservation of Papua New Guinea's
indigenous cultures is an official government priority, the future of its traditional cultures remains uncertain.
The Importance of Preserving Indigenous Language and Culture
A recent New Yorker article highlighted the importance of preserving indigneous languages, stating, “the loss of languages
passed down for millennia, along with their unique arts and cosmologies, may have consequences that won’t be understood
until it is too late to reverse them.”
Indigenous knowledge and culture have been important topics at our annual conference since the beginning. Bioneers was
founded in part due to inspiration co-founder Kenny Ausubel got from indigenous framing traditions and seed biodiversity—
as well as growing evidence that lack of biodiversity was increasingly perilous to humanity.
Preservation of cultural heritage around the world faces many challenges: war has caused destruction, the development of
infrastructure has seen the demolition of many historic buildings and monuments, and the cost of preserving and restoring
cultural heritage is often staggering. The debate is ongoing about who - governments, non-profit heritage organizations, or
individuals in possession of heritage properties - should fund preservation efforts. Considering the high cost of long-term
preservation and restoration of cultural heritage, it seems that it is too idealistic for non-profit organizations and individuals
alone to provide the necessary funds. Even governments face the dilemma of resource crowding and insufficient budgets
(Benedikter 2004; Ponzini 2010).

Thomas–Hoffman (2015) identifies cultural identity as essential for the peaceful cooperation of civilizations. She is of the
opinion that if people have a strong sense of self-identity through culture, they are more likely to interact peacefully with
other cultures. This further illustrates the inclusion of cultural preservation in the concept of Gross National Happiness and
its significance for the same.
Cultural preservation in India, thus, should be more inclusive than communal and regressive, in order to reap its socio-
economic benefits fully. Proper digitisation, photography and documentation of material culture, techniques of handicraft
and artefact production, as well as tapping the benefits of historical value of cultural buildings, objects and sites for tourism,
education and archaeological research will generate both a sensitisation towards culture and employment opportunities.
Since increased employment opportunity is directly proportional to increased purchasing power and higher standard of
living, the social security and consequent satisfaction in material terms will also increase, thereby resulting in happiness.
Furthermore, understanding and preserving one’s culture will increase historical and social consciousness, making people
more tolerant and therefore, more respectful towards others who are culturally identical but religiously different from them.
What is needed is a paradigm shift towards history and culture, because forgotten history, after all, is forgotten culture.