Elliott Colla in Informed Comment:
It is fair to say that most elites in the West (and elsewhere) tend to think of historical artifacts in terms of the sacred. We may not call the things that museums collect “holy” but they are sacrosanct in our minds. This is evidenced in the way we present them (literally, on pedestals and under lights arranged just so), and the way we seek to preserve and protect them.
As Carol Duncan has argued, being able to appreciate these artifacts is a mark of education and culture among modern elite cultures. It does not matter really whether one appreciates them as a scholar or archaeologist (for what they can tell us about history), or an aficionado (for their craft or aesthetic accomplishment) or as an amateur or tourist (who just likes the experience of viewing them). The social effect of appreciation is the same: to borrow from the work of Pierre Bourdieu, it is crucial for making social distinctions. Those who appreciate the value of such objects are civilized. Those who do not appreciate their value are barbarians.
It was not always this way. People used to venerate objects as sacred not on the ground of taste or science, but because they had an attachment to something that was holy — a person, a saint, a prophet, an event. In the past, there was no such thing as a universally venerated object — for the simple reason that, for instance, while Christians might venerate the objects that pertained to their narratives of the divine, Jews or Muslims would venerate other objects that pertained their narratives.