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Museums of themselves: disaster, heritage, and disaster heritage in Tohoku

The 2011 disasters precipitated widespread concern among heritage scholars about the fate of Tohoku’s cultural properties, tangible and intangible. Damage to not only buildings and landscapes but also ‘formless’ heritage, some worried, could weaken social infrastructure and thus slow or undermine recovery. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in, and critical heritage studies of, the disaster regions, this article proposes 3.11 has in fact stimulated the expansion of heritage regimes and their associated culture industries in the Northeast: what, following Gerald Suttles, I call ‘museumification’. I illustrate this through case studies of unmarked rituals becoming ‘unregistered heritage’, the ‘experientialization’ (taikenka) of declining industries, and preservation of ruined buildings as a new category of disaster heritage, shinsai ikō. In all cases, museumification endows precarious folk arts, industries, and objects with a second life as assets through which locals can represent themselves not only to themselves, but also to tourists. This can help communities rebuild financially in the short-term. However, I argue that as a longer-term strategy for revitalizing regions, museumification amounts to building new economic structures around a ‘folk’ still vanishing due to the same political-economic forces driving heritage’s expansion pre and post-disaster.

Author
Andrew Littlejohn
Date
21 May 2020
Links
Museums of themselves
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