What We Save, What We Destroy: A Reading List on Difficult Heritage

The present we inhabit is shaped by the mixed legacies of the past.

By Annalisa Bolin 

Years ago, during a stop in Phnom Penh while on a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, I visited Tuol Sleng, a museum of the Cambodian genocide, and Choeung Ek, the killing fields. Both were places where thousands of victims of the Khmer Rouge had been murdered; now, tourists moved along their hallways and paths, mostly in silence. I still remember staring down at my toes in dusty sandals, stopped just short of the human bone fragments coming up through the dirt, as a guide held his hand out to keep me moving.

After leaving, I couldn’t stop thinking about my visit. The terrible history of what had happened at these sites haunted me, as did their material remains, but so did the troubling decision I made to be there at all. Why had I chosen to go to these places? It felt like a responsibility, in a way — to learn about the country I was traveling through, to pay my respects, clumsily, to the dead — but I was disturbed, too, by what I had done. Was I just a voyeur of other people’s pain?

Sites like these fall under the umbrella of what can be called difficult heritage: the places, artifacts, stories, and practices that we have inherited from the past, and use, in some fashion, today. We tangle our presents together with our pasts. As an American I know the stories we tell about our history as a nation, and the icons in which they are rooted: the Liberty Bell; the Mayflower; the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that are on display in the National Archives. People often think of heritage as something they’re proud of, a unifying point around which to coalesce. But heritage comprises the horrible parts of history, too, the ones many would prefer to forget, or over which societies continue to come into conflict. In America, plantations and buildings still standing today, built by enslaved people, are part of our heritage; so are the sites of battles and the stolen lands that were part of the genocide against Native populations. And even more heritage has been lost through neglect and deliberate destruction, as Jill Lepore explains in a story below.

After that trip to Cambodia, I went on to study difficult heritage professionally as an archaeologist and anthropologist of Rwanda. I learned how Rwandans were using the remains of their terrible past — the genocide committed against the Tutsi population in 1994 — in memorials that served as sites of mourning but also places of memory and education (and, for that matter, tourism, just like the Cambodian ones). In a way, the next decade of my life was shaped by those questions to which I had no good answers. Not only the ones about what I was doing there as a tourist encountering mass atrocity, but even broader ones, too: What do we do now with heritage that raises questions about pain, suffering, and our human pasts as both victims and perpetrators? How do we make these decisions today, and who has the right to do so? What kinds of values and politics guide our choices?

Even purportedly straightforward and “unifying” heritage has its faultlines: The Declaration of Independence’s “We the People” can mean something quite different to the descendants of Americans who weren’t counted as fully human in 1776 than to the descendants of those who were. Once you start digging, as the pieces in this reading list do, you find difficult heritage all around you. Museums are full of art and artifacts taken by colonial and genocidal forces. Public monuments commemorate people whose legacies are often, to put it gently, conflicted. Even cultural practices that are today seen as cheerful or entertaining can mask darker pasts, like Sweden’s Easter witches, who bring something like Halloween to springtime.

As the global protests calling for the removal of controversial statues and monuments in recent years have shown, people care deeply about what we do with the objects and places that make up our heritage — what we save, and what we destroy. What we do with heritage reflects how we understand ourselves: who we were, who we are, and who we want to be.

“The Worst Day of My Life Is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction” (Steve Kandell, Buzzfeed News, May 2014)

In a two-part story at Platform, historic preservationist Randall Mason illuminates how the remains of the Rwandan genocide are preserved.

Sites that memorialize tragedy and atrocity can be found all over the world, from Phnom Penh to Auschwitz to Rwanda, and these sites are visited by survivors, mourners, and tourists. The tension between paying respects and bearing witness, and exploiting or gawking, is unresolved; maybe it’s unresolvable. Steve Kandell’s essay about the opening of the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City is a raw personal account of confronting this tension. After his sister’s death in the Twin Towers, Kandell and his family did not participate in the development of the memorial museum; his story here recounts what happened when he decided to visit. His powerful, painful ambivalence about the memorial reminds us that even when history has been packaged up for public consumption, it also remains very present, personal, and agonizing for so many.

I think now of every war memorial I ever yawned through on a class trip, how someone else’s past horror was my vacant diversion and maybe I learned something but I didn’t feel anything. Everyone should have a museum dedicated to the worst day of their life and be forced to attend it with a bunch of tourists from Denmark. Annotated divorce papers blown up and mounted, interactive exhibits detailing how your mom’s last round of chemo didn’t take, souvenir T-shirts emblazoned with your best friend’s last words before the car crash. And you should have to see for yourself how little your pain matters to a family of five who need to get some food before the kids melt down. Or maybe worse, watch it be co-opted by people who want, for whatever reason, to feel that connection so acutely.

“The Swedish Witch Trials Teach Us How to Confront Dark Heritage” (Jennie Tiderman-Österberg, Smithsonian Magazine, October 2021)

In spring, the historic core of Karlskrona, a city on Sweden’s southern coast, was decorated for Easter. Multicolored feathers were tied to bushes and, if I’d been there at the right time, a colleague told me, I could’ve seen little girls walking around in long, flowing clothes, with round red spots of makeup on their cheeks. “They’re the Easter witches!” she explained. “We used to love dressing up like that when we were kids.” I’d never heard of an Easter witch, so I pressed her. “Like Halloween!” she offered, adding that with the importation of that holiday from the U.S., Swedish children now have two run-around-town-demanding-candy festivals per year.

At Boston magazine, Kathryn Miles looks at Salem’s transformation into a witch-tourism magnet.

The Easter witches are called “påskkärringar,” and in this piece, Jennie Tiderman-Österberg traces the history of Swedish witches — or, rather, the country’s history of accusations of witchcraft, which resulted in the brutal deaths of a horrifying number of people (almost entirely women), particularly in the late 17th-century period called the Great Noise. The påskkärringar of today are charmingly attired kids who wear headscarves and carry baskets, but they owe their existence to a dark and terrible past. Tiderman-Österberg takes aim at a tradition that has neatly defanged itself, and asks us to consider the ways we transform, and even domesticate, pasts replete with suffering and pain.

Now, what do we do with this dark and difficult part of our history that caused so much suffering? How do we manage the memories of such ordeals?

In Sweden, we meet the suffering by basically playing around with the Easter Hag. Since the 1800s, she is the tradition. She has become our heritage, not the events which lie hidden in her background. Do Swedes do this to cope with a difficult recollection? Or to reminisce over the times before the witch trials when spells were not an evil act and the cunning women of the forest an important part of our healthcare system? Or do we dress our children as witches because we prefer to make quaint a wildness we still secretly fear?

“The Colonized World Wants Its Artifacts Back” (Tarisai Ngangura, Vice, December 2020)

When the news broke several months ago that the Smithsonian planned to return its collection of Benin Bronzes, it was met with relief from the Nigerian claimants — and surprise from observers who thought major Western museums would continue to fight tooth and nail to retain every item in their collections. These stunning bronze figures had been looted from the Kingdom of Benin by attacking British forces in the late 19th century, and they have been held in Western museums and private collections ever since. Requests for their return have mainly fallen upon deaf ears, as cultural institutions assert that returns would devastate their collections, or that the objects could not be adequately cared for elsewhere. Still, the Smithsonian’s change of position is not unique: Perhaps reflecting the start of a reckoning with colonial histories, recent years have seen an increasing number of returns, even as the total amount remains small.

At Items, Donna Yates considers how histories of violence and colonialism increase artifact sale prices on the art market.

In this piece, Tarisai Ngangura takes us through those requests. The article focuses on Africa, a continent whose cultural heritage has been stolen in massive quantities for the benefit of museums and collectors elsewhere. Ngangura considers what is lost when heritage is taken away; what claimants want returned (and how they hope to use what is returned); and how the beneficiaries of these collections — especially Western museums that have charged admission fees and built reputations on the backs of items gathered by colonial forces — have fought change. Whether museums in the Western world as we know them will exist in precisely the same form after such a reckoning is an open question. But if our status quo is dependent on ignoring how those museum collections came to be, that’s hardly a bad thing.

“They come into your house while you are sleeping, or when you are awake. They kill half your family. They steal from you. Take your art and your belongings to their country,” said Nana Oforiatta Ayim, curator, filmmaker, and author of The Godchild. “Then they showcase them like, look what I have. I am more powerful than you. Years later, when the world has somewhat righted itself, you ask for them back and they refuse.”

“The Ghosts in the Museum” (Lizzie Wade, Science, July 2021) 

I still remember the first time I saw a mummy. It was in the St. Louis Art Museum, in the 1990s, and I was on a field trip, small enough to be about eye height with the supine mummy’s wrapped feet. As we filed past, I dragged my own feet and had to be ushered along. The mummy’s painted cartonnage was certainly beautiful, with its delicate illustrations and its carved, serious face. But the wrappings were what transfixed me: a little decayed, a few scattered holes, the dirt of several thousand years. You mean there’s a person in there?

At Undark, Sarah Wild considers the new problems that arise when scientists shift to studying replicas of human remains.

Like the Benin Bronzes, human remains are subject to repatriation claims. Bodies populate museum exhibitions around the world, from Egyptian mummies to those pulled from Europe’s peat bogs, and they serve as the subjects of scientific research, like the bones that are the focus of this story by Lizzie Wade. The Penn Museum’s Morton collection, an assemblage of human skulls, is named after the scientist Samuel Morton, who used cranial measurements to support his ideas about racial hierarchy and race “science.” Like many other institutions, the Morton collection accumulated its human remains in a process laced with structural violence, targeting those who had less power to prevent their bones from being collected: Black people, Indigenous communities, the enslaved. Over time, physical and biological anthropologists have tried to use new research approaches to reckon with their discipline’s former efforts to prove white supremacy through bone. Still, using the collection differently doesn’t solve the essential problem: Can museums still hold and study human remains when their owners didn’t give consent? And what should we do with those collections, like the Morton, whose origins are saturated with racism?

After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked protests for racial justice around the country, more and more people within and outside Penn began to see the Morton collection as a present-day perpetuation of racism and its harms, rather than just a historic example. Until last summer, most researchers thought “the science is justified because we’re doing it thoughtfully. And this moment brought to bear, no, that’s not enough,” says Rachel Watkins, a Black biological anthropologist at American University.

Even with recent research that strove to be respectful, it was almost always scientists who decided how and why to study the skulls, not their descendant communities, Athreya notes. “We were speaking for people without them at the table,” she says. To move forward ethically, “Those of us in power are going to have to give up some.”

“When Black History Is Unearthed, Who Gets to Speak For the Dead?” (Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, September 2021)

Sometimes we handle difficult heritage by changing or removing it. In order to stop honoring perpetrators of racist violence, activists have taken down Confederate monuments in the U.S., along with statues of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa, King Leopold II in Belgium, and Edward Colston in the U.K. But the other side of the coin is what we choose to support instead. What lost histories and ignored people can we bring back into, and honor in, our social and political lives? What forgotten heritage sites deserve attention? As we consider what to remove, we might also consider what to restore.

Gary Younge cuts through the Sturm und Drang of the monuments debate with his incisive condemnation of viewing statues as public history at all.

In this piece, Jill Lepore traces attempts to save Black American heritage in the form of burial grounds and human remains. But these efforts are also faced with challenges: Who, for example, gets to make the decisions? (It’s a question Wade also touches on in her story about the Morton skull collection.) As Howard University professor Fatimah Jackson asks, referring to another actor in these debates: “Does he speak for Black America? Or do I speak for Black America?”

Examining the idea of “descendant communities” and the work of descendants, activists, scholars, and archaeologists, Lepore carefully untangles the complicated sociopolitics involved in trying to treat Black heritage, and Black communities, with the respect and dignity they have long been denied in the American public sphere.

It isn’t merely an academic dispute. The proposed burial-grounds network and graves-protection acts are parts of a larger public deliberation, less the always elusive “national conversation” than a quieter collective act of conscientious mourning, expressed, too, in new monuments and museum exhibits. History gets written down in books but, like archeology, it can seep up from the earth itself, from a loamy underground of sacred, ancient things: gravestones tucked under elms and tangled by vines; iron-nailed coffins trapped beneath pavement and parking lots and highway overpasses. How and whether the debates over human remains get resolved holds consequences not only for how Americans understand the country’s past but also for how they picture its future. The dispute itself, along the razor’s edge between archeology and history, is beset by a horrible irony. Enslavement and segregation denied people property and ancestry. But much here appears to turn on inheritance and title: Who owns these graveyards? Who owns these bones? Who owns, and what is owed?

Further Reading:

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Annalisa Bolin is an anthropologist and archaeologist who studies the uses and politics of the past, from material objects and sites to human remains, in post-genocide Rwanda. She holds a PhD from Stanford University. Her literary nonfiction has been published in the Kenyon ReviewThe RumpusEpoiesen, and elsewhere. Her academic articles can be found in Anthropological QuarterlyJournal of Social Archaeology, and Journal of Eastern African Studies, among others, and she has also written for the magazine SAPIENS and Africa Is a Country. Her essay “A Ghost Map of Kigali,” which appeared in Anthropology and Humanism, won the Society for Humanistic Anthropology’s award for creative nonfiction. Currently based in St. Louis, Missouri, she is writing a book that mixes her research in Rwanda with essays and memoir. She can be found on her website and Twitter.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
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