Sikh Material Heritage and Sikh Social Practice in a Museum-Community Partnership: The Smithsonian’s Sikh Heritage Project by Paul Michael Taylor

May 2016
Focusing on aspects of community involvement in the Smithsonian’s Sikh Heritage Project, which
since its founding in 2000 has included an exhibition and many other public activities, this paper considers
some differences in the conceptualization of what constitutes “heritage” as perceived by Sikh community
members, museum staff, and the broader museum public. It also considers the negotiations that took place
about how Sikh heritage should be represented, because at each venue, the exhibition provided an important
space for local Sikh communities to debate and celebrate their traditions, and to introduce a broad non-Sikh
public to a culture that many perceived as exotic and little-known. In this interaction, Sikh communities actively
tried to learn from the “culture” of museums as well, especially in two areas: The first is finding effective
methods for helping a broad public better understand the Sikhs who live among them. The second is the
growing acceptance of museum approaches to care of valued objects. For this, communities helped send
museum staff and conservators to India and into Sikh communities, advising on the many differences between
traditional Sikh social practice in treatment of “heritage” objects, and museum methods that would ensure their
physical survival for much longer.

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Paul Michael Taylor, a research anthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is Director of that museum’s Asian Cultural History Program, and serves as Curator of Asian, European, and Middle Eastern Ethnology. He has written or edited twelve books and numerous scholarly articles on the ethnography, ethnobiology, languages,
and art (or material culture) of Asia, especially Indonesia. He has also curated twenty-one museum exhibitions (includingfive on-line virtual exhibitions), and served as the Director of Ethnographic Film Development for Essential TV (Overseas) Ltd to develop twelve documentary anthropological films. During his studies of rural social, ecological, and poverty-alleviation issues, and his work on documentary films, he lived for over four years in small tribal or rural villages of Southeast Asia. The recipient of numerous international grants and awards, he has served on the Board of Directors of the Association for Asian Studies, and has been a longtime member of the Smithsonian’s Asian-Pacific American Heritage
Committee. He has worked closely with many individuals and community organizations to establish “Heritage” projects at the Smithsonian, including the Smithsonian’s Sikh Heritage project, founded in February 2000, which has hosted numerous conferences since 2001 (including the 2006 Sikh Heritage Lectures held in Chandigarh, India, co-organized with the Anandpur Sahib Foundation). Its flagship exhibition, “Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab,” first opened at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History on July 24, 2004.

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