Restoring Chitimacha: How Companies Can Serve as Agents of Cultural Preservation
“The artist has a special task and duty: the task of reminding men of their humanity and the promise of their creativity.”
As historian, sociologist and critic Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) so eloquently noted in the quote above, all art – visual, musical, literary, architectural, performing, culinary – reflects the best of humanity. We are, after all, the culture that we create.
This month, the Smithsonian held its 46th Folk Life Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the institution’s annual celebration of American and global cultural heritage. I try to attend each year to remind myself of the richness and diversity of human expression and our collective human achievements. The Smithsonian calls the exposition “an exercise in cultural democracy,” where cultural practitioners “speak for themselves, with each other, and to the public.” I can attest that festival visitors are encouraged not merely to observe, but “to participate – to learn, sing, dance, eat traditional foods, and converse with people presented in the Festival program.” Indeed, where else can you nibble on Azerbaijani dolma, join a discussion on native Hawaiian aquaculture, and reflect on graffiti-based public murals all while listening to Mariachi music?
The fact that museums and institutions like the Smithsonian and other non-profits, NGOs and academic organizations (along with a few government agencies) would work so hard to preserve our collective culture is heartening and noble, but not surprising. For many institutions, this is part of their core mission and, for some, their raison d’être. But, as with so many other aspects of life in the 21st century, the private sector has a tremendous opportunity to assist in the vital mission of cultural preservation and celebration. In fact, many critics have argued that, through globalization, the great forces of commerce and industry have actually helped to spread and speed the homogenization of today’s global culture. They have a point. That’s why I’m encouraged to see so many companies embracing cultural preservation as part of their corporate responsibility commitment, and working to find ways to protect, celebrate and share some of the most unique and important manifestations of our global culture, particularly those elements that are threatened.
Many of these efforts are perfectly aligned with the specific business goals, core competencies and products and services of the companies leading them. Here are a few of my favorite examples:
- When China’s famous Terracotta Warriors were threatened with several strains of fungi in the late 1990s, Johnson & Johnson brought its products and expertise to bear, working closely with scientists at the Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Army Museum. Following the successful development of anti-fungal solutions that have since helped to preserve the sculptures, the company established a laboratory dedicated to research on material protection, which to date has contributed to the preservation of other cultural relics around the world.
- HP (a former client) is using its IT infrastructure to help preserve art and cultural treasures around the world. Collections at the National Gallery of London and the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi are being digitized and cataloged, and in some cases, masterpieces are being restored, with the help of the company’s digital and imaging technologies. In 2002, HP launched an effort with the Vatican Library to digitize one of the world’s largest collections of manuscripts, documents and ancient texts, making them available to millions of people online. HP has also provided tools and resources to 18 Native American communities in California to help them record and archive tribal languages, histories and elders’ stories.
- In 2004, language learning software company Rosetta Stone launched a program to preserve endangered languages. The company works with indigenous groups around the world to develop software specifically designed to help revitalize at-risk and in some cases, already extinct languages. The program aims to reinforce endangered languages with current speakers and introduce them to younger generations. A great example is the company’s effort to preserve and revive the “sleeping” language of the Chitimacha tribe of south central Louisiana, whose last fluent speaker died in 1940. Equipped with the new software, the tribe is actively working to restore Chitimacha as a spoken language among young people at school and at home, both on and off the tribe’s reservation. Rosetta Stone also instituted a grant program to address any financial barriers that might prevent groups from participating in the project.
- Google is using its platform and technologies to preserve culture in a number of ways. Three notable initiatives are the company’s Endangered Language Project, the Google Art Project and Google Books. All of these efforts provide access to material and content, but more than that, they help foster understanding and appreciation. They facilitate research and collaboration between individuals and institutions, and encourage conversation, interaction and exchange. In this way, by sharing culture and making it accessible, they are also helping to preserve it.
There is so much need and so much opportunity here for enlightened companies to incorporate cultural preservation into their sustainability and CSR platforms. I would love to see a global food manufacturer or a major restaurant chain collecting and preserving indigenous recipes and disappearing foodways. And how fitting would it be for a major music label to record and capture for posterity endangered folksongs and tribal dances?
With ever decreasing coffers, governments at all levels are facing increasingly more difficult choices in terms of what to support and the degree to which they can support it. This reality isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Non-profits and academic institutions are equally challenged, leaving fewer resources to put behind preserving and celebrating our cultural heritage. Many companies are helping to stage exhibits and performances and to keep the lights on at museums, theaters and institutions through sponsorships, corporate donations and cause marketing. But for those able and willing to go beyond simply writing a check, saving and celebrating the best of human art and achievement presents a powerful opportunity to leave a lasting legacy.
Chad Tragakis is Senior Vice President, Hill + Knowlton Strategies, Washington