Why Archaeology Matters: Shutdown Edition

As an anthropologist, I would like to make a reasoned, intellectual observation about the federal shutdown.

It’s weird.

Need I elaborate? That wasn’t really clear? OK, I’ll flesh it out a bit.

An as anthropologist/archaeologist, I am, of course, concerned with the preservation and management of cultural resources, mostly in the U.S. The past two weeks and change have given us a lot to be concerned about. One of the first things politicians and pundits suggested we should include in budget cuts to keep the ship of government afloat was funding for the social sciences. This is, unfortunately, not a new question (thanks, Rick Scott), though one we’re consistently doing our darnedest to refute. To a certain extent, though, the more jaundiced and pessimistic amongst our number could have expected that. Indeed, we started a hashtag (a HASHTAG, people!) about why archaeology matters (#WhyArchMatters) to get the word out and continue the fight.

But, this is where it got weird. Cultural heritage sites (monuments, archaeological sites, etc.) became one of the first and most visible battlegrounds of the shutdown controversy. A few days after the shutdown commenced, we were bombarded with images of Rep. Randy  Neugebauer (R-Texas [my home state]) confronting a National Park Service ranger at the National World War II Memorial. The NPS had shuttered the monument because there was no one on staff to clean or police it (thus making it safe for people to enter and enjoy, and to keep the monument itself safe for posterity). People tried to bypass the barricades, and eventually did, making the Memorial not just a point of memorialization of that conflict, but a significant symbolic battlefield for the current political struggle in the nation’s capital. The Memorial’s association with “The Greatest Generation,” the victorious jingoism of World War II, and our recovery from the Great Depression (all part of the popular memory of that conflict) in the face of the ambiguity, economic collapse, and mixed results of our current wars in the Middle East is the meat for a really, really good book. Anyone who doubts the massive cultural importance of the past has not been watching the news.

Away from the capital, cultural heritage sites have been central to the coverage of the shutdown for other reasons. Several National Park Service units, including the Statue of Liberty, Grand Canyon, and Mount Rushmore, have been re-opened or are on the cusp of doing so with the support of state of private funds. Such sites, often located in areas where cultural resources outweigh natural resources, are the lifeblood of local economies. Those places that have not had their parks reopen continue to suffer.

Take Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The town’s economy revolves around the interpretation of the eponymous 1863 battle, which is now a national park. Without the park being open, however, the entire city is in dire straights, even those museums and attractions that have no connection to the federal government itself.

So, why do parks occupy such salience amongst all the other areas of our lives impacted by the shutdown? I believe there are a few reasons. First, as concrete points on the landscape, cultural heritage sites are very visible indexes of the federal shutdown. We don’t see the furloughed employees from other agencies because they’re not places we tend to visit. Though we may have great need of the Federal Housing Administration, we don’t tend to tour their offices during our off days or spend lunch hours doing image searches of their buildings on Google. Closing parks and other federal lands disrupts our daily lives in either forcing us to cancel plans or knowing that our suite of leisure activities are curtailed in some concrete, discernible way. As “America’s Best Idea” (the NPS) is open to all, it is then closed to all equally. We need not be directly reliant on its services to feel its impact.

There is also, I believe, other dynamics at play. First, a lot of the social service programs slated to close or be reduced in service are geared towards the poor. WIC, SNAP, Medicare, and other programs geared towards the poor are all facing curtailment or shuttering until the feds get in gear again (as the Atlanta Black Star notes, many of these programs disproportionately impact African-American and other minority groups). The members of the middle class are not going to be the ones facing these effects. They/we/I are going to run up against it in the form of denied access to luxury leisure activities, such as park visitation. We might get the human interest story about the closure of WIC on the evening news, but those whose votes are most actively sought by both parties are not the ones who are going to be hurt by that.

If anything, the shutdown has been surprisingly illustrative of the importance of cultural resources for both politically symbolic and economic reasons. I can’t say that it leaves me with any great hope that this importance will be in any way recognized by the powers that be in the terms of protection of or increase in support for archaeology and its allied preservation-oriented disciplines (though it should). Still, I believe we should take it as proof of the multi-faceted nature of the importance of the past in today’s world, and that is, at least, a moral victory.

Stick tap to Jamie Brandon for discussing these ideas with me. Check out his blog at Farther Along

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