As this summer comes to an end, so too does my work on Indian cultural heritage NGOs. Although the underlying basis of the project has been consistent over the past three months, my own conceptions of cultural heritage have certainly shifted. As I move forward into the academic year, it is these new understandings which will inform my research and, likely, my MA thesis.
As I have previously shared, the central focus of my summer work has been compiling a database of the built heritage NGOs operating in India. Through this work, we can see the multiplicity, redundancy, and relationships of organizations with one another and their engagement with governments and private businesses. This provides a clearer picture of what the modern heritage sector looks like and how it functions. Having spent a summer making this database, I am convinced that this kind of work will never be truly done. There are tens of thousands of cultural NGOs in India, and that number continues to rise every day. Currently, there is no realistic way to capture all of these organizations both efficiently and accurately. The Indian government keeps a record of “arts and culture” organizations, but this list contains many organizations which either do limited or no conservation work or no longer exist. As such, manual web-searching, albeit slow, has produced the best results thus far.
Outside of this specific project, it is nearly impossible ignore the many heritage issues facing the world. With Afghanistan once again falling to the Taliban, already-vulnerable sites have been put at even higher risk. Once again, the global eye has turned to heritage. These monuments are not just beloved tourist destinations; rather, they serve as important thermometers of power, symbols of coexistence or domination, and sites of past and active memory. These heavy realities make me do my internet searches with a little more urgency and a lot more gravitas.
This last point has made me think a lot about approaching the database project in a newer, faster way. I was inspired by the methodology I had been employing in a conference paper, a side-project that I had been working on at the same time as my CASI work. In it, I worked with some Twitter scraping tools to collect data. The programs allowed me to search the platform for tweets which contained certain hashtags, key phrases, Twitter handles, and other features. Although I don’t think this tool would best equip me to find and catalog Indian heritage NGOs, it would certainly allow me to find and catalog discourse about Indian heritage NGOs and the sites themselves. I think that this approach would be quite timely. Besides news coverage of heritage destruction in the Middle East fueling new documentation efforts, COVID lockdown orders have made digital heritage management into a provocative, upcoming area of importance. This potential intrigues me and is slowly forming the foundations of my thesis project.
In the new academic year, I will continue this database work. Informed by my insights and experiences from CASI, I hope to keep cataloging Indian heritage to help us better comprehend and conserve it for many years to come.