“What’s in a [Culture]?”: Broadening Cultural Perspective

by Celia Carzoli, St. Mary's University

What has impressed me the most with my current experience as a VSFS intern with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative has been my expanded view of what qualifies as a cultural heritage institution and culture itself. I was a World Cultures teacher for 3 years before interning, and I felt I had a solid foundation as to what culture included and how it impacted communities. Well, lesson learned.
I was surprised that our calling lists were composed of diverse institutions ranging from large museums to choral groups. It was impactful to speak to such a wide variety of organizations from sites of giant kinetic sculptures made from farm equipment to food festivals that highlighted local cuisines.

Before my internship, I would not have recognized these as cultural heritage sites. To me, they were too new, and did not seem significant enough to matter. However, I gradually came to realize my limited view as to what communities value as indispensable parts of their culture and identity. How could I say what mattered for these communities and what didn’t? Individuals have created valuable experiences and memories regarding these places, events, and groups, and those would certainly make them worth protecting.

Culture is a social construct that helps us create and sustain a shared identity. Cultural traditions and contributions may begin from a single person, but they are also shared with others and passed down through generations. Culture continually evolves and is a reflection of the individuals who share it.

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a disaster where these heritage sites are damaged or lost, for us to remember the value of these sites from the memories we made through them. How these events, groups, and organizations provide a means of connecting with others, particularly during precarious moments, makes them essential entities within society.

The Wilson’s Whirligig Park and Museum in North Carolina
The Wilson’s Whirligig Park and Museum in North Carolina. The site is home to unique and giant “kinetic structures” that were created by Vollis Simpson from recycled industrial parts.
Source: https://www.wilsonwhirligigpark.org/gallery/