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Places in Motion - Reading Response 2

Places in Motion: The Fluid Identities of Temples, Images, and Pilgrims by Jacob N. Kinnard.
Thoughts on Chapters 4 & 5

I was most struck this week by what Kinnard refers to as “the “museumizing” of the temple complex” (pg 119), especially via the UNESCO World Heritage Site determination process. The mentality of imaging there is an “original” state to which the otherwise “active and fluid place” of the “living temple” (pg 118) should be returned, and then subsequently frozen in time to be “preserved” like an insect in amber, is mind-boggling to me in relation to an active religious site. Even if it were a genuinely disused archaeological ruin, the idea of ‘returning’ it to some imagined original form could be problematic – but in light of the current usage of this site I cannot comprehend how altering what is there currently could be anything other than destructive to how it is being used.

I was particularly provoked by what Kinnard called “the ambiguities of preservation” (pg 142) since I can absolutely understand the impulse to not let culturally important places rot or disappear. However, he is right when he says that “[c]onservation and preservation … are not value-neutral activities” (pg 124). However well intended, it is a very ethically challenging concept for me to see a Western body like UNESCO waltz into a different culture (one which 100-200 years ago UN member nations would have had a colonial interest in) and declare anything “the property of the whole world” (pg 120). It smacks of a modern-day colonial ethos which should be more fully explored and questioned, especially in regard to execution. While the guiding principle of preservation might be helpful – ignorant implementation can do more harm than good.

And to attempt to ‘preserve’ an actively evolving religious site, without any intercultural understanding of the fact that without transformations like religious images being painted, clothed, or bejeweled “these gods “die” in so far as their devotees are concerned” seems doomed from the start. Since the various layers of the temple and the iconography are “both a record of prior use and part of current practice” for an entity like UNESCO to even suggest that non-original elements should be removed is, indeed, to “do violence to the character of the temple” (pg 135). To envision and define such a living place as a static archaeological site not only denies it’s “larger complex, messy history” (pg 136), but creates a fundamentally inaccurate view of it as a place ready for a museum display, “devoid of people” (pg 141), and kills the  place in order to preserve it (pg 142).


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