Heritage: The Terror Management Industry?

Shiva as Nataraja – image from the Glasgow Life website, click to visit the page of St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art

A couple of weeks ago, Mark O’Neill, late of Glasgow Museums (and now of Glasgow Life, the charity which runs the city’s cultural and sporting facilities) can to give a keynote speech to me, and a few hundred other National Trust colleagues. He made a throw-away joke about the heritage sector being “in the Terror Management industry.” How we laughed. But it wasn’t quite as throwaway as we had thought. The idea lingered with me, and so this week I’ve been googling Mark’s name and those words. I discovered this very thought-provoking paper.

It turns out Terror Management Theory is an actual thing. According to Mark’s paper, the theory developed from the ideas of US anthropologist Ernst Becker, and according to Becker’s work, Terror Management (though he didn’t call it that) is responsible the the development of culture: “Becker defines culture as ‘humanly constructed beliefs about the nature of reality that are shared by people in groups in order to minimize the anxiety engendered by the uniquely human awareness of death.’ For Becker, culture reduces anxiety with respect to death in two ways, which he refers to as ‘lending meaning’ and ‘conferring significance.'”

Which is cool. I can go to my job refreshed, knowing that the work I do is the only thing keeping society from breaking down in abject fear of mortality. Its handy too, because today I also read this blog post, from Sarah May’s entertainingly written and challenging blog, Heritage for Transformation, which calls what I do for a living (and by association at least, the charity I work for) into question, because of what we are preserving: “For me, these buildings are dark heritage […] where we keep them we should use them to expose and explore the power that they represent.”

However, I must admit there is a darker side, even if Becker’s ideas about all of culture being our tiny anguished cry into eternity are true. As the Terror Management Theory developed and was tested, both with new experiments, and with re-readings of old research, it became apparent that the corollary of seeking comfort in one’s own culture is prejudice and hostility towards the cultures of others. In one experiment that O’Neill describes as an example “They found robust evidence for the existence of an unconscious influence of mortality awareness on attitudes to divergent worldviews, including increased stereotyping and hostility.”

As O’Neill says “Whether expressing civic pride, or national or imperial identities, museums [and yes, in deference to May, let me also include country houses] usually presented a clear and often explicit hierarchy of cultures, races, and genders, and a narrative of progress, with white British and northern European males at the top. […] These views are no longer socially or intellectually acceptable in a public institution so that museums have changed their story. Showing objects from worldwide cultures is now said to promote mutual understanding, respect, and tolerance.” But does it? O’Neill argues “If museums, at some level, are about mortality and trigger ‘death awareness,’ the [Terror Management] theory would suggest that because they present representations of other worldviews, they are more likely to foster intolerance than tolerance.”

He does offer hope though. Experiments have apparently shown a difference between awareness of death (or “mortality salience”) and “death reflection” (considering how you might die).  Subjects made merely aware of their own mortality show signs of increased selfishness and greed, but those reflecting upon their inevitable demise showed benevolent, generous behaviors. Just as many who have had a near death experience often reject worldly possessions as empty and meaningless. So, he argues, museums can promote mutual understanding, respect, and tolerance, but only if they help visitors reflect upon death rather than simply make people aware of their own mortality.

Museums can only be effective ideological agents if they do the primary cultural work of creating meaning in the face of human mortality.

He concludes “Perhaps most importantly the lessons of TMT are that these issues do not have to be the debated in the abstract based on guesswork, speculation, and opinion, but can be subject to empirical experiment.”

So, my fellow heritage professionals and academics, get out there and start experimenting!

One thought on “Heritage: The Terror Management Industry?

  1. Thanks for the interesting post. I’ve been reading TMT theory lately too, trying to understand why so many are so anxious to ‘leave a legacy’. The more we look clearly at what our real benefits to society are, the better we can contribute.

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