Approaching Cultural Heritage through Digital Anthropology at the Penn CHC — By Jacob J. Demree

August 29, 2017

Submitted by: Jacob J. Demree, Summer 2017 Intern

This summer, I interned with the Penn Cultural Heritage Center (Penn CHC) and others at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Smithsonian Institution, and other academic organizations, working to compile a comprehensive, qualitative, dataset of cultural repositories around the world. Under a grant from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a number from the group reviewed the Conflict Culture Research Network (CCRN)’s Syrian Immovable Cultural Heritage Inventory to remove duplicates, code for historical and cultural information, and otherwise ensure the accuracy of the data. These two datasets will be used for multidisciplinary research on cultural heritage and its intentional destruction, as well as to influence a policy agenda.

Selected museums in Russia. Image courtesy of Google My Maps.

Cultural heritage, defined by Sallie Han and Jason Antrosio in a recent edition of Open Anthropology, “refers to a purportedly shared past, [while it also] bears directly upon the experiences of the present and the expectations of the future.” Specifically, scholars and communities have focused on physical artifacts, historical remains, and religious sites, in addition to more recently examining “living” or “intangible” heritage. My research focused on the tangible sort of cultural heritage, which includes cultural repositories, historical sites, religious sites, and archaeological sites.

As anybody familiar with contemporary or historical conflicts will recognize, such sites of cultural heritage are often targeted. The CCRN, using various datasets developed in part through research completed this summer, attempts to research why such destruction occurs, and how it relates to legal restraints, regime change, civilian-targeting, ideologies, and legitimacy.

Throughout the summer, I helped to develop these datasets by researching cultural heritage sites in Russia, Mexico, and Syria (see an interactive map of them here). Being an anthropology student, I would have gladly written lengthy summaries of each site; unfortunately, this would have made research on so many entries impractical. A method which could compress the wealth of information on a heritage site into a single entry was therefore necessary: drawing on scientific methods, the project involved coding information by integrating qualitative information into a standard frame of variables and data formatting.

Through this research, I gained a deeper appreciation for the importance and complex interpretations of heritage in the present. Whether it be Moscow’s Kukolnaja Galereja Vachtanov (Vachtanov Puppet Gallery) which exhibited puppets illegal before the fall of the Iron Curtain, or Palmyra’s Tadmor Prison which was internationally known for its harsh conditions and was destroyed in 2015 by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), cultural heritage sites are sites not of some ancient meaning but of contemporarily negotiated interpretations and understandings.

Selected museums in Mexico. Image courtesy of Google My Maps.

One example from Mexico demonstrates this well. The Silvestre Rodríguez House Museum is run by the State of Sonora in Mexico. Contrary to the name’s implication, however, most of the museum’s rooms are not focused on Silvestre Rodríguez; only one is dedicated to the Mexican musician, while the majority are devoted to Jesús García Corona, the “hero of Nacozari.” Several sources relate that Corona was a train engineer who, on November 7, 1907, sacrificed his life to protect the city of Nacozari from a malfunctioning locomotive which threatened to explode, and therefore ignite the cases of dynamite in its cargo. At 2:20 in the afternoon, just as the train passed by the city at full speed with nobody but Corona at its helm, there was an explosion “so great, that the locomotive disappeared completely.” To this day, there are corridos sung about Jesús García Corona, such as “Máquina 501.”

The Silvestre Rodríguez House Museum’s focus on Corona, rather than on Silvestre Rodríguez, reflects my observations of other museums in the three countries I researched and applies more generally to the themes of cultural heritage and digital anthropology. Cultural sites are constantly molded (both physically and symbolically) by the communities which find meaning in them just as, according to Clifford Geertz (1973), culture is shaped by the interpretations of some group of people. Like cultures, heritage sites are also affected by complex systems ranging from the local to the international, as Michael M. J. Fischer (2007) might argue. The involvement of cultural heritage sites in Syria’s conflicts illustrates this acutely, and reintroduces CCRN’s general research question of why such locations are targeted in conflict.

Selected cultural heritage sites in Syria. Image courtesy of Google My Maps.

Besides the question of cultural heritage destruction, though, this research has made the characteristics of a digital anthropology more apparent. In bulk, the collected information points to general patterns across cultures and nations like those I have discussed here. The example of Mexico’s Silvestre Rodríguez House Museum, however, illustrates the complexity which surrounds each individual site; so far, it seems that a solely digital approach is unable to adequately capture the many ways meanings are applied, negotiated, and discarded in relation to cultural heritage sites at all levels. Instead of this dissuading future research, I feel that it encourages both increased embedded ethnography and digital investigation in the field of cultural destruction. Combining the two, we might be able to approach a clearer image of how people relate to histories and stories assigned to and gleaned from their cultural heritage, as well as formulate a better plan for responsibly protecting both the physical site and the people who give it its meaning.


Fischer, Michael M.J. (2007). “Culture and Cultural Analysis as Experimental Systems.” Cultural Anthropology 22(1): 1-65.

Geertz, Clifford. (1973). “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” Pp. 3-30 in The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.