Preserving the preservers

Last week (early March 2015), science journals, both professional and popular, decried the funding cuts to Kew Gardens, considered the largest botanical repository in the world.  The Kew Gardens houses more than seven million plant and fungal specimens, and has been a Mecca of sorts for botanists around the world for about two and a half centuries now.  Budget cuts have led to cuts in many science posts, though this has not discouraged the Kew scientists from charting challenging and exciting plans for the next decade.

How important are places like Kew?  Repositories and museums, I think, have a two-fold utility: one is their function as preserves of knowledge (in terms of specimens, documents, artefacts, songs… anything!), that are important, rare or endangered in some way, and as places to create new knowledge building on the treasure trove of old preserved knowledge they have.  The other is their function as sources of inspiration – both to professionals already dedicated to the field and to others waiting for a spark to be lit.  There may be some intangible roles such institutions play as well.  The specimens preserved in these repositories may each have a story of their own – sometimes these are known, and the repositories indirectly preserve the stories for posterity as well.  And as the repositories grow older, they weave a history of their own around them, and this becomes a source of national pride and inspiration.  It then becomes all the more important to preserve them.

But ‘repositories’ need not necessarily be concrete buildings sheltering specimens.  The term could equally be used to signify a village with a certain skill, a forest, an individual tribe, or even a single person who holds some rare knowledge – maybe of plants, a certain language, or an art form…  ‘Preserving’ such repositories is often less thought about; languages and arts die with the last people who know them.  Investment of thought, effort and resources on preserving such repositories is, I think, extremely important.  One way to preserve such intangible cultural heritage* is to make sure the oldest form of preservation – where the older generation teaches the younger – continues.  Modern day education may have a role to play in this, by encouraging students to learn traditional art forms, by inculcating a sense of pride and ownership in them.  Another is to document such knowledge in as great detail as possible, and preserve them with the hope that someone in the future might help revive it. Preserving the preservers, or creating new ones, will go a long way in enriching knowledge, culture and, indeed, all humanity.

 * Thanks to Revathi Sampath Kumaran for this input.

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