Mongolia has a unique culture and cultural heritage, but one that connects in both historical and contemporary times to other cultures in the region. In the 24 years since the fall of Communism, academic research work in and about Mongolia has greatly increased. Scholars in the humanities have been drawn to the country due to its geographic and historic location at a crossroads within Inner Asia, and the enduring legacy of traditional cultures and lifestyles. Mongolia contains a wealth of archeological sites that bear witness to the many cultures and peoples that have inhabited the region, including important deer stones and other monuments associated with Bronze Age cultures, and sites from the Scythian, Xiongnu, Xianbei, Turkic, Uyghur, Khitan, Mongol and more recent empires.
Culturally, Mongolia maintains one of the only enduring nomadic pastoral systems in the world, a legacy reflected in a range of contemporary cultural practices and beliefs, and the nation’s music, art, literature, and poetry. Mongolia’s culture has also been shaped by regional influences, such as Tibetan Buddhism, the cultures of its neighbors including China, Russia and Europe, while also outwardly influencing other cultures through both the Mongol Empire period and contemporary exchanges, such as the global interest in throat singing, which originated in Mongolia.
Mongolia has a number of characteristics that have helped preserve its cultural heritage. The country was isolated during seven decades of Communist rule until 1990, and a relatively large share of the population remains in rural areas, living traditional lifestyles as nomadic pastoralists. The country has a fairly homogenous population, with ethnic Mongols making up approximately 96% of the country’s people along with a small, regionally concentrated population of Kazakhs who enjoy broad cultural and political autonomy. Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world, with a population of only 3 million people in a land area more than twice the size of Texas. Mongolia contains the largest common property grassland in the world, with its natural habitats and ecosystems largely preserved. While rich in culture and biodiversity, the country’s economy and infrastructure is poorly developed, with a per capita income of only $6000 per person and few paved roads.
The pace of change, however, is accelerating, and Mongolia’s cultural heritage faces a number of threats, including rapid social and economic change. Spurred by China’s huge appetite for resources, Mongolia is experiencing a mining and economic boom, with double digit annual increases in GDP and growing exports of coal, oil, gold and copper. Domestic and foreign mining companies are spread out across the country seeking new resource deposits and developing mines and related infrastructure in once isolated rural areas. The boom is boosting the economy, but also creating social disruptions as people abandon traditional lifestyles and rural areas to move to cities or work with the mines. Not all people benefit equally from the boom, and growing income disparities push those who are left out to seek new ways to earn income.
The development of mines, roads and new settlements is disturbing important archeological sites, and people searching for easy money are looting sites looking for items to sell into the growing black market. Mongolia’s archeological sites are generally easily accessible and visible given the local geography, but few have been systematically recorded or studied. Many sites are being looted before a record is made describing the site and important artifacts, making it difficult to both gather crucial information from the site and to document the existence and origin of objects. Mongolian artifacts are appearing in international auctions, but in many cases authorities cannot prevent sales or assert ownership rights due to the lack of documentation of objects and sites. These issues were highlighted in 2012 when a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton from Mongolia appeared in a private auction in New York, and Mongolian President Elbegdorj led a successful effort together with the US government to halt the sale and return the skeleton to Mongolia. This artifact was just one of many that have left Mongolia under dubious circumstances, and highlighted the need to improve the documentation and security of objects of national importance within Mongolia.
The Mongolian government strongly supports efforts aimed at documenting and preserving cultural heritage, but challenges remain. As in many countries, funding for cultural heritage programs is scarce, and the work of the various stakeholders involved is not well coordinated. For example, in the field of archeology a variety of institutions governed by different government ministries are involved, including national and regional museums, the Cultural Heritage Center, the Academy of Sciences, universities and scholars from international institutions. Mongolia has a limited number of trained archeologists, and much of their work has been focused on field surveys for mining development projects due to the lack of funding for basic archeological research. There is a lack of coordination among institutions in terms of sites surveyed, and information gathered is not widely shared or available for research. The lack of comprehensive catalogues prevents researchers from finding and studying objects or sites. Museums, which might serve as a repository for found objects, often have poorly trained staff members, limited archival and display capacity, and poor security conditions. Similar challenges affect art objects and intangible cultural heritage, including music, dance, drama and oral traditions.
The American Center for Mongolian Studies (ACMS) is actively working with both international and Mongolian institutions to improve cultural heritage research and management in Mongolia. During the ten years its office and research library has been open in Mongolia, the ACMS has developed a role as the central meeting place for international academics working in Mongolia and their local counterparts. The ACMS has hosted dozens of conferences, workshops and panels, organized over 100 Speaker Series events, supported over 100 international scholars through fellowships, and sent Mongolian scholars to the US for training and collaborative research projects.
The activities and membership of the ACMS have grown over time, with paid members now including over 40 North American and Mongolian institutional members and more than 300 individual student and scholars. The ACMS is the primary source of research funding for short-term field research work in Mongolia by American scholars, and serves as the “home away from home” for many international researchers. Within the Mongolian academic community, the ACMS plays a key role in the development of researchers and academic personnel through its support for scholarly networks and programs such workshops that train Mongolian scholars in international best practices in fields such as library development, critical thinking, and academic publication.