In recent decades, research surrounding ex-votos, or votive offerings, has increasingly included digitization methods to document or catalogue objects and religious sites. I have partaken in this practice in the past, and continue it now by publishing an image of an offering alongside this post. Originally, I saw nothing wrong with this process.
Last summer, however, I participated in the Cultural Heritage and Policy in a Digital Age course at the Bergen Summer Research School, at the University of Bergen, Norway. We discussed the ways digitization can improve access scholarship, yet how it may also occur without community or individual consent. The latter can have drastic consequences we are not always immediately aware of.
I started to think about the people whose offerings we analyze, whose vows we publish and share, whose stories become part of our bread and butter. Perhaps we collect an offering that has become available for purchase, or photograph a depository we have visited. At some point, we might share the data online, where it might find a permanent existence.
Are there ethics or concerns related to this process?
For many devotees, the process of depositing an offering at a shrine represents a personal exchange between themselves and a spiritual entity. The offering might hang in a depository room for some time, enter a permanent display, or find its way into the private market, the community (for reuse), a recycling center, the trash, or some other place or fate, including destruction (there are cases where offerings are burned when depositories reach maximum capacity).
I wonder if the moment in which an offering is deposited coincides with consent. Perhaps it signals the possibility for academic and public consumption beyond the religious setting it originally entered. Likely it does not. Even if current practitioners become aware of these possibilities, it is impossible to account for the millions of people who have deposited offerings from antiquity to today. I wonder if we are breaching their privacy, peeking into a private moment that was not meant to leave the surrounding community or the site where it took place. Perhaps devotees who have offered items that became valuable in the private market would have objected, perhaps there are those who do not or would not have wanted their offering to be catalogued or digitized.
At the moment I do not have an answer to these questions… and welcome any ideas or suggestions.