Not an ordinary archaeologist indeed! Peter Gould was trained as an economist, and he has been CEO and Board Chairman of investment banks and several manufacturing and service businesses, before falling in love with heritage issues. He has been first Board Chaiman of the Zoological Society of Philadelphia (where he lives) and then of the Mann Center for the Perfoming Arts. His encounter with archaeology came much later, and you will read the story in the interview. Back to school, he got a PhD in Archaeology at University College London and he is now Adjunct Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and The American University in Rome.
He is convinced that archaeology can play an important role in the sustainable development of communities, provided that it accepts to coexist with the unavoidable needs for infrastructures, commerce and industries. Having analyzed the relationship between archaeology and local communities in Peru, Belize, Ireland and Italy, he claims that there is a way. It is just a matter of governance, i.e. of structuring and managing institutions so that local communities can benefit of both heritage and development. That is easier said than done, of course, but Peter is a tough guy and an extremely agreeable person, and these are the two indispensable qualities to convince both developers and archaeologists. Needless to say, he has a much harder time with archaeologists.
How and why you started being involved in community service?
This is a very American thing to do. The vast majority of Americans volunteer in their communities in some way—through their churches, their children’s schools, local political office (which is rarely salaried in small towns), or through the tens of thousands of non-profit organizations across the country. For myself, when I became settled into my career, it seemed natural and appropriate to make use of my skills to benefit other people outside of the business world. It also provides a way to engage with something important that is not my regular job, which was a source of distraction and created new friends and interests. I began by working with an inner-city school in Philadelphia, but branched out over the years to also work with cultural institutions of all types both in my home city and beyond.
What about your encounter with archaeology?
I have always been enthralled with history, which I studied in undergraduate college along with economics, but confess to having come late in life to archaeology and cultural heritage. In many respects it was an accident. I met the Director of the University of Pennsylvania museum and he invited me to join his board more because of my other non-profit experience than for my credentials in archaeology. I was at the time working on a masters’ degree that gradually morphed into heritage-based studies. By the time that degree was completed, I had realized the potential to pull together life-long interests in history and in economic development by engaging deeply with archaeology and cultural heritage management. That led to my PhD at University College London and, once I retired from business, my career change to work in the heritage field.
Your research focuses on the intersection of archaeology and development.
This is very tricky as archaeologists either promote the social and economic development of communities or, on the contrary, consider it a threat to traditions and the environment. Will we ever reach a sustainable balance?
The contention between archaeology and development is profound and important. As my friend Sophia Labadi has observed, even the documents used to qualify World Heritage Sites refer to local communities as a potential threat to the heritage rather than partners in defining, conserving and benefitting from it. This must change. The archaeology community needs, first, to adopt the posture that local communities are at least important stake-holders in what we do in their midst. In the case of indigenous peoples around the world, the heritage that archaeologists explore really belongs, in every legal and ethical sense, to those local people. We must respect their rights and subordinate our academic desires to their human interests. Even where connections to the past are more tenuous, local communities cannot be expected to share archaeologists’ fascination with the integrity of the record in the ground if it has no tangible value to them. And where archaeologists come into contact with property developers, mining companies, or infrastructure development projects, which is increasingly where archaeologists work, the attitude needs to shift to a stance of collaboration to advance both of our interests. Reflexive opposition to development, often evidenced in the writings of archaeologists and preservationists, is simply not a sustainable position in the face of real and pressing human needs around the globe. The evidence is clear that developers can and will work with us—if we are willing to work with them.
Public archaeology is…
I am tempted to echo the famous line from a U.S. Supreme Court justice on another, quite different, subject, that “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” In truth, Public Archaeology has an incredibly broad remit. It ranges from public presentations, to the history of archaeological practice, to community-engaged excavation projects, to economic development, to public advocacy, and on and on. Peruse the pages of the key journals on the subject and the breadth of the field is astounding. This should be viewed as a strength not a weakness. The interest in the subject matter of archaeology is enormous around the world, and the important information archaeologists bring to the world needs to be widely disseminated. It not only can enrich individual lives, but it can influence the way our leaders think about their own and other peoples. So I am quite content to leave the definition of the field quite ambiguous—it is everything archaeologists do, or wish to do, that may interact with or affect the public.
Do you think archaeologists could play a more significant role in our societies? What is the narrative about the archaeology of the XXI century?
Less than two decades into the 21st century it may be premature to describe the narrative about the archaeology of our times. But the knowledge generated by archaeologists about life in earlier centuries is profoundly important. The imbrication of and peoples in very corner of the world is a source of much modern conflict and misunderstanding. The effort to re-write history, to cleanse the record of past as ISIS is seeking to do, is a dangerous but often-trod path in every part of the world. Archaeologists can help to counter those narratives of uniqueness and exclusion with the realities of complexity, imbrication and connection among people and places. To do so, however, will require more than the ritual signing of protest petitions, after which folks return to their labs, desks and trenches. It will take involvement in the political process on a sustained and meaningful level, an involvement that is neither self-righteous nor ideological but rather is passionate, engaged and solution-seeking. Alas, frankly, we do not see that very often except for the brave folks who actually live in troubled areas and take enormous risks on behalf of their own heritage resources.
What should archaeologists do in order to be stronger competitors for public and private resources?
First, let’s be honest. Lack of food, lack of health care, lack of safe and comfortable shelter, lack of education—in other words the reality of poverty for far too many people in the world—comes first in any ethical list of priorities for funding. In the Maslovian hierarchy, cultural matters are well up the pyramid. Having said that, it is vital that cultural institutions of all types—not just archaeologists—begin to make focused and sincere efforts to define their impact on their communities or the larger world in ways that will resonate with the politicians and philanthropists who fund their activities. It is no longer enough to assert the “value” of cultural activity—whether it is archaeological research, museum creation, or other cultural pursuit. Funders want to know what that value is, how to measure it, how to evaluate which projects and organizations contribute most effectively to it. Those of us who are committed to these fields strongly believe in their importance—but we are dreadfully poor at developing the concepts or the metrics to demonstrate the “value” beyond our bands of true believers. That is the task for the next decade or so—to define the meaning and impact of cultural activities in ways that convince the public at large and politicians in particular that knowledge about past history and present-day cultural activities are not luxuries for the rich but essential elements of viable human communities everywhere.
Why did you join the Archeostorie Advisory Board?
Archeostorie represents an innovative effort to take advantage of today’s technologies to explain the importance of yesterday’s realities to tomorrow’s public. It is an adventurous undertaking that deserves a chance to experiment with new means to give the past a meaningful future.