Are We Helping Heritage? – Introduction and Initial Thoughts

Sometimes while I am neck-deep in human rights reports from the Hampi Bazaar demolition, juggling Hindi and English during an informant interview in Delhi, or falling down the digital rabbit-hole of corporate linkages, I realize how slippery the category of “cultural heritage” can be–and, as such, how complicated it can be to appropriately manage it. With the support of CASI this summer, however, I hope to shed some light onto that very dilemma.

My name is Kathryn Kalady Osowski, and I am an M.A. student with the University of Pennsylvania’s South Asia Studies department. Since undergrad, I’ve been interested in questions of India’s cultural commercialization, consumption, and conservation. Coming from a background in Indian art history, my initial work investigated cases of small-scale art looting in North Indian tourist districts. With the coronavirus pandemic upending the lives of migrant subsistence diggers and my tourism-dependent shopkeeper informants, I have had to put much of that work on hold. Moving my work from a dusty Delhi storeroom to a sunny Philadelphia apartment meant that I not only needed to explore new research methodologies but entirely new questions as well.

Last summer, I connected with Dr. Lynn Meskell, a renowned heritage scholar and professor in the anthropology department. Her fierce passion for effective, ethical archaeological management both resonated with me and mobilized me. She took me under her wing, initiating me into an exciting approach of heritage as a global, neoliberal market. Our most recent projects have sought to catalog human rights violations at UNESCO World Heritage Sites and create a searchable database of ongoing archaeological conservation projects and their many shareholders.

This summer, I will be combining these approaches in order to qualify the linkages between Indian archaeological site management, local heritage NGOs, transnational corporations, and conflict. Building off of our past work, I seek to tease apart the major shift in heritage management from largely an inter-governmental effort in the mid- to late 20th century to an increasingly corporate endeavor. Particularly, I am interested in so-called “venture philoanthropy:” the investment of capital into charitable startups, business education, and other local operations as a neoliberal attempt to alleviate financial instability and humanitarian crises.

Through my CASI work this summer, I am excited to develop a clearer sense of how effective site management is being imagined in the case of India, who is doing that managing versus imaging, and what–and sometimes who–inevitably falls through the gaping cracks in conservation efforts.

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About Kathryn Kalady Osowski

Kathryn "Kalady" Osowski is a second year M.A. student in the University of Pennsylvania's South Asia Studies department. Hailing from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she now works alongside Dr. Lynn Meskell in various projects to investigate the notable shift in archaeological site management in India over the past decade. Currently, Kalady is working to untangle and map the linkages between states' "soft" diplomacy efforts, neoliberal corporate/social initiatives, and transnational NGO work in South Asian conservation spaces. Some of her broader research interests include the commercialization, conservation, consumption of South Asian culture; India's thriving digital culture; the cycle of art looting; and the waste management in Bangladesh.