The problematization of taken-for granted categories lies at the core of critical heritage studies. To see heritage as something socially composed rather then something given, objective, marks critical heritage studies from common policy-oriented understandings and uses of the term. The constructivist perspective means to see categories and classifications as historically and culturally changing and products of power relations. Museums are striking examples of culture-specific classification of the world. While creating discipline-specific taxonomies, they also reflect and shape society's prevailing norms, values and beliefs. However, natural history museums have been relatively neglected in heritage- and museum studies. This paper circulates around four points: The importance of analyzing contemporary exhibitions including natural history, theoretical/analytical tools, cases and the museum as arena. Through examples from analysis of exhibitions in natural history museums, I discuss how dualisms like nature/culture, animal/human are constructed and negotiated. For example, nature often is constructed as “wild, pristine nature” without conventional signs for human culture. This means that domesticated species most often are absent. In anthropologist Mary Douglas terms, they become an anomaly between the “purified” categories of nature and culture, even though they are the most common species, species that could become key figures in stories on co-evolution. Through these cases, I also give examples of important analytical questions to ask in general heritage studies. Further, I discuss the potentials for museums to become sub-political physical arenas for discussions and interaction between science, public and politics. Social scientists have for long time asked for such arenas, but have not been thinking of museums. Curators, on the other hand, have not so often been thinking in terms of social science.
Critical Heritage Studies Inaugural Conference: The Re/theorization of Heritage Studies