Cultural Resource Management - Protecting a Country's Heritage

CRM is a Political Process that Balances National and State Requirements

Save Pasargadae and Persepolis
Save Pasargadae and Persepolis. Ebad Hashemi

Cultural Resource Management is, essentially, a process by which the protection and management of the multitudinous but scarce elements of cultural heritage are given some consideration in a modern world with an expanding population and changing needs. Often equated with archaeology, CRM in fact should and does include a range of types of properties: “cultural landscapes, archaeological sites, historical records, social institutions, expressive cultures, old buildings, religious beliefs and practices, industrial heritage, folklife, artifacts [and] spiritual places” (T. King 2002 :p 1).

Cultural Resources in the Real World

These resources do not exist in a vacuum, of course. Instead, they are situated in an environment where people live, work, have children, build new buildings and new roads, require sanitary landfills and parks, and need safe and protected environments. On frequent occasions, the expansion or modification of cities and towns and rural areas impact or threaten to impact the cultural resources: for example, new roads need to be built or the old ones widened into areas that have not been surveyed for cultural resources which may include archaeological sites and historic buildings. In these circumstances, decisions must be made to strike a balance between the various interests: that balance should attempt to allow practical growth for the living inhabitants while taking the protection of the cultural resources into consideration. 

So, who is it that manages these properties, who makes those decisions? There are all kinds of people who take part in what is a political process balancing the trade-offs between growth and preservation: state agencies such as Departments of Transportation or State Historic Preservation Officers, politicians, construction engineers, members of the indigenous community, archaeological or historical consultants, oral historians, historical society members, city leaders: in fact the list of interested parties varies with the project and cultural resources involved.

The Political Process of CRM

Much of what practitioners call Cultural Resource Management in the United States really deals with only those resources that are (a) physical places and things like archaeological sites and buildings, and that are (b) known or thought to be eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. When a project or activity that a federal agency is involved in may affect such a property, a specific set of legal requirements, set forth in regulations under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, comes into play. The Section 106 regulations lay out a system of steps by which historic places are identified, effects on them are predicted, and ways are worked out to somehow resolve effects that are adverse. All this is done through consultation with the federal agency, the State Historic Preservation Officer, and other interested parties.

Section 106 does not protect cultural resources that are not historic properties--for example, relatively recent places of cultural importance, and non-physical cultural features like music, dance, and religious practices. Nor does it affect projects in which the federal government is not involved--that is, private, state, and local projects requiring no federal funds or permits. Nevertheless, it is the process of Section 106 review that most archaeologists mean when they say "CRM".

Thanks to Tom King for his contributions to this definition.

CRM: The Process

Although the CRM process described above reflects the way heritage management works in the United States, discussion of such issues in most countries in the modern world includes a number of interested parties and almost always results in a compromise between competing interests.

The image on this definition was created by Flickrite Ebad Hashemi in protest of the proposed construction of the Sivand dam in Iran that threatened over 130 archaeological sites including the famous Mesopotamian capitals of Pasargadae and Persepolis. As a result, a huge archaeological survey was undertaken in the Bolaghi Valley; eventually, the construction work on the dam was delayed. The upshot was to construct the dam but restrict the pool to reduce the impact on the sites. Read more about the heritage processes of the Sivand dam situation on the Circle of Iranian Studies website