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Restoration and Faith: Practicing Religion and Conservation in Mexico's Historic Churches

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Recipient of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship, 2016-2018

This research project was funded by the European Commission (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Grant Agreement No. 701601).



My main motivation in this research was to investigate what happens when religious spaces and objects are brought into the apparently non-religious domain of heritage through practices of restoration and conservation. Heritage can be understood as one process through which cultural elites and nation-states “canonize culture,” that is, produce authoritative understandings of culture and history by isolating and defining particular features of history as essential to their society’s identity (van de Port and Meyer 2018). As such, a fundamental feature of heritage is the desire to prevent or reverse visible changes that have occurred since the historical events or period that is deemed interesting or valuable. This is reflected in the pervasive aspiration to protect, preserve, and restore historical buildings and artefacts.

While these processes may not be controversial in cases where the objects are no longer in active use, heritage principles have increasingly come into conflict with the religious practices and beliefs of local communities. For these groups, these objects and places may not primarily be evidence of a past culture or event, but rather contemporary features of their religious practice and beliefs, which are important in their everyday lives. On the other hand, the ongoing use of objects and spaces for religious purposes may place them at risk from the point of view of heritage conservationists. This may lead to frictions or outright disagreements between heritage professionals and religious communities (Stanley-Price and Killick 2005). As such, the question of whether heritage designation is fundamentally at odds with the beliefs, desires and rights of religious communities is an important one for policy-makers and society more generally, as they struggle to balance the cultural rights of minorities and subaltern groups with the social, educational, and historical desires of society at large.


I investigated these issues through ethnographic research in Santa Cruz Mixtepec, a small village in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, where a majority of the population identifies as Catholic. The village is the location of a ruined 16th century Dominican monastery, which adjoins the existing parish church. This structure is currently the focus of a heritage conservation project that is jointly managed and financed by the village’s municipal authority, the Mexican federal government and a private cultural foundation. It was important that I selected a site where local authorities were working together with heritage experts because I wanted to see not only how conflict develops in such scenarios, but also the points at which these different perspectives agree and reinforce one another.


My research shows that although ‘stakeholders’ from the domains of religion and heritage may agree that such religious spaces and objects are valuable and historically important, they hold very different perspectives on the nature of these objects and spaces; why they are valuable; and how they should be treated today. Although all parties are interested in continuing the restoration work, municipal and Catholic authorities would prefer that the resources were spent on restoring the antique carvings of saints and the main altar/retablo rather than the architectural features of the monastery cloister. While the monastery’s architecture is more significant and unique from an historical/heritage point of view, the building is significantly less important to the local Catholic community, for whom the images and carvings are inhabited by manifestations of the holy saints and Jesus Christ. This not only results in competing views about where resources should be spent, but also what the building should ultimately be used for: heritage experts would like it to become a museum-like space that can be used for tourism and educational purposes; the local community would like the space to be re-integrated into their Catholic worship and used as primarily a religious space in which festivals and processions can take place.


These subtle differences became particularly evident in the aftermath of the two large earthquakes that struck southern and central Mexico during my fieldwork in September 2017. Due to concerns about the safety of damaged buildings, over 1,000 Catholic churches were immediately closed, pending structural surveys by engineers and architects. The parish church in Santa Cruz Mixtepec was, thankfully, only slightly damaged, however, another church in the parish was closed. Although local community members were concerned about the safety of the church, they were also concerned about the sculptures and paintings of the saints that were locked inside. In Mexican popular Catholicism, such images are not only representations of the saints, but are themselves individual social beings. Over the course of their lives, believers cultivate affective and deeply personal relationships with the specific images in their church and are responsible for their wellbeing. When the church was closed, people worried that the saints would feel abandoned.


Although designating spaces and objects as heritage is intended to protect them from damage or change, the legal categorization of Mexican churches as heritage can actually contribute to a building’s deterioration or illicit modifications. This is because under Mexican national patrimony legislation, all repairs or adjustments must be made by trained and certified experts, using historically appropriate materials. From a heritage conservation perspective, both of these requirements are logical. However, they also incur significantly higher costs than do repairs to non-heritage buildings, often putting them out of reach for poor rural communities. This has meant that the closed church in Mixtepec parish is likely to remain closed for the foreseeable future, as it has not been prioritized for repair funding in the earthquake’s aftermath. In other communities, ‘illicit’ repairs to damaged Catholic objects and buildings are undertaken, despite the risk of being fined by the government for altering national patrimony.



Three main sets of observations emerge out of this research: (1) That studying the ways that religious and heritage actors engage one another during conservation projects not only tells us about religious heritage, but it also helps us to understand the relationship of religion and non-religion/secularism in contemporary societies. (2) Rather than a straightforward politics of culture or property ownership, religious heritage projects produce a relational social and material field in which the sacred and historic values of buildings and objects are negotiated. (3) The nature of these fields is characterised by particular kinds of emotions, aesthetics and ‘historicities,’ that is, different understandings of the past and its importance to the present and the future.


  • 6 months of ethnographic, bibliographic and archival research in Oaxaca, Mexico

  • Contributions to municipal and Church archives in Santa Cruz Mixtepec. I have made all bibliographic and historical information I find about the community of Santa Cruz Mixtepec available to community members by depositing copies in the municipal and church archives. This activity continues beyond the project period as a commitment between myself and research participants.

  • Professional development courses on archival research, digital bibliographic research



1. ​What is a Church For? Video on Human Stories digital humanities blog.

2. Excerpt from field notes, originally published on the ​University of Kent research web page

3. 'Saints of the Shaking Earth' blog post on The Religion Factor 

4. 'What Can Witchcraft Do in Mexico?' report in Anthropology News

5. Conferences and seminars at: Brunel University; The Royal Anthropological Institute; University of London; The American Anthropological Association; University of Cambridge; Durham University; University of Oslo

6. Public Lecture Event 'Researching Religious Heritage at Kent' at the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge


Stovel, Herb, Nicholas Stanley-Price and Robert Killick (eds.) 2005. Conservation of Living Religious Heritage. Rome: International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property.


Van de Port, Mattijs, and Birgit Meyer 2018. ‘Heritage Dynamics: Politics of Authentication, Aesthetics of Persuasion and the Cultural Production of the Real.’ In Sense and Essence: Heritage and the Cultural Production of the Real, edited by Birgit Meyer and Mattijs van de Port. New York: Berghahn, pp. 1-39

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