is it possible to save a “vanishing” culture?

So, not too long ago I came across this article from NPR. The title of the article poses a particularly interesting question, at least to anthropologists, “Can Photos Save A Vanishing Culture?”

The idea of “vanishing” cultures has been plaguing anthropologists since the field came into existence in the 19th century. The goal of anthropology at this point in the early years of our American “brand” of the discipline was to record as much ethnic and historical data as we could about the Native American cultures as we could before they were wiped out or assimilated in to Western European culture and lost the culture of their ancestors.

More recently (which in anthropology means the last 20 or 30 years…) there has been debate about whether or not recording vanishing cultures in places like the Arctic, North America, and Australia (just to name a few) was doing anybody any good if there was no one left with the cultural knowledge, and especially context of the cultural knowledge, to explain and teach others about its meaning.

According to the NPR article, Taylor Weidman and Nina Wegner founded the Vanishing Cultures Project in order to preserve and support vanishing traditional cultures.

With this in mind, I would pose the same question that has been raised in anthropology: will photos of cultures be worth taking if there is no context within which to look at and understand the photographs?

I don’t mean to say that this project is not worth while. On the contrary, I believe that this will bring attention to cultures that are on the verge of disappearing and hopefully help the cultures continue on for generations. My point is that there is more to preserving a culture than taking pictures, writing down stories, or making recordings of language that will not have contexts in the future without the cultures that they were created by. My hope is that this project is successful in preserving cultures, including preserving the cultural contexts as well as photos, histories, languages, and anything else that could be collected.

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