The museum indeed becomes a mirror of the society it tries so faithfully to represent, in spite of its efforts to represent a variety of viewpoints. So national identity can become a homogenized, subjectively generated message presented often through state museums by one group of people. It is conveyed to and exists for, an audience - the members of the "nation" and those outside it. In his discussion of the presentation of national heritage in state museums, Ashworth goes so far as to express this relationship in economic jargon.
He states that heritage is "consumer defined", and that the discrepancy between the interpretation and some objective truth lies in the different versions of authenticity as defined by different "consumers". Therefore, he suggests, the nature of the "product" or message is not determined by the existence of resources, but by the requirements of the consumer or audience.
So the definition and presentation of national identity is influenced by those in a society who have the power to make their voice heard, and by those with whom they wish to communicate. Finally, while the process of defining a nation and the traits which characterize it may be subjective, artificial and audience-determined, once defined, the nation is absolutely real for those who have defined it - often inspiring considerable sacrifice in its defence.
Many of the conflicts currently taking place in the world, and the dismantling of nation states since the end of the Cold War, are essentially clashes between civic and ethnic nationalism, or a shift from one to the other.
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In the process, museums and other fora used to define and illustrate or communicate national identity find themselves in the midst of these conflicts. Nationalism is a process continually in motion. It creates, defines, reinforces, and in some instances, redefines, national identity. But at no time is there more urgency to the process of definition and creation of national identity than when the nation is under threat - either internally or from external forces, or when one definition breaks down and another must immediately replace it. Message and audience.
Subjective choices. Power and politics. As an "instrument of society and its development"10, these phrases also characterize the modern museum. Why do museums lend themselves so naturally to that role? The use of material culture to present subjective messages is at the heart of what museums are, and what they do.
The museum as a 19th century idea is a product of white, male, European society, based on values found in that society concerning linear time, the nature of property and its ownership, and the benefits of preservation of selected cultural property. By definition, then, the museum itself is a subjective creation of a particular society and its values.
The process of accumulation of museum collections, whether inherited from individual collectors with their own particular interests, or systematically collected by the museum and its staff, is rife with individual and cultural biases. Since no museum should or could collect and preserve everything related to its mandate, choices must be made about what is "significant" or "representative".
Further, how museum collections are interpreted and exhibited is the most obviously biased aspect of the museum.
Any one item, after all, may be interpreted in a myriad of ways and used to illustrate multiple messages. The longstanding myth that museums are apolitical and naturally objective has, hopefully, been dispelled. Every exhibit carries a message, a point of view, a position, political or otherwise - intentionally or unintentionally. And a museum takes a position or a point of view as much in what it does not say, as in what it says. So, as in the process of definition of nations and what traits illustrate national identity, museums are similarly engaged in selective choices and the presentation of messages with a particular point of view.
Despite efforts by museums and curators to remain independent of political intervention, those who work in state museums in particular cannot avoid the pressure to portray the "dominant" or "absolutist" picture of a society11 at a given time, and in some instances their deliberate use by the state as a tool to promote certain ideologies or policies.
Examples of this have been evident on a regular basis for as long as museums have been more than "cabinets of curiosities". It is illustrated in the use of museums in the promotion and perpetuation of white minority domination and deliberate suppression of non-white majority culture in certain African nations It is seen in the recent, infamous case of the "Enola Gay" the aircraft which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima exhibition and its censorship at the U.
National Air and Space Museum in Washington, in order to present a particular "patriotic" but uncritical story. What is it about museums that makes them so effective an outlet for the state or the views of the dominant group in a given society?
Despite what museum professionals recognize as their subjective nature, museums continue to have a firm place in the public consciousness as being associated with science and objective, empirical truth, and as such are still regarded by that public as objective, apolitical authorities. Of the many types of messages offered to the public by state museums, the presentation of "national identity" can be the most subjective, and the most political.
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State museums are a natural place to construct and convey the range of characteristics that have been chosen to create ties within that group and to represent it to others. Objects of material cultural make the best anchor for those messages - museums objectify identity. In presenting objects and interpreting them in a particular way, the museum creates a meaningful link between objects and the citizens of the nation. Visitors are persuaded that they are represented as a group, for themselves and for others, neatly, "objectively and truthfully", categorically, within the walls of the museum.
The idea of the "nation" made real and concrete: if it's in the museum, it must be true. In their communication of the message of national identity, museums can be a battleground when a society is in conflict. Their symbolic role in the preservation and presentation of identity makes them targets.
The nature of warfare and its relation to museums and cultural property has changed drastically since World War II. Where generally damage to museums and cultural sites had been an unintentional by-product of military activity, recent conflicts have seen the advent of large scale direct targeting and destruction of cultural sites, museums, and cultural property. It is precisely because cultural property and museums play such a central role to the creation and portrayal of national identity that destruction of them has characterised many of the ethnic and nationalistic conflicts of the late 20th century.
Destroy the means of establishing and communicating identity, and you weaken the ability of a group of people to define themselves as a "nation", or for a nation to demonstrate legitimacy based on their link to a particular past, in a particular location. The systematic destruction of cultural property, and archival records in particular, in the conflict that saw the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, is well known.
A similar devastating outcome of conflict, designed to rob a nation of the ability to portray national identity and political and social sovereignty, occurred during the Gulf War. It illustrates that, when it comes to cultural property and armed conflict, there are no "winners" - there are only "losers". The Committee acts as a mediating forum for unresolved conflicts concerning return and restitution of cultural property. Emotional interventions concerning destruction of cultural property during the Gulf War and its aftermath were made by both Iraq and Kuwait at the Committee's most recent meeting in Paris.
Kuwait had repatriated much of the museum collections that had been taken by the Iraqis during the conflict, only to discover that there had been a systematic destruction of all of the collection records. The objects and their origin are now completely decontextualized in the words of the Kuwaiti delegation, "ripped from context" , in an obvious attempt to rob the Kuwaitis of the ability to establish and represent their collective patrimony and identity.
Unsurprising, since Iraq's impetus for invading Kuwait had been their unwillingness to recognise what they saw as the arbitrary creation of the Kuwaiti nation from what had been Iraqi territory at the withdrawal of colonial powers earlier this century. As a result, Iraq has never accepted Kuwait's sovereignty, and during the Gulf War would have been anxious to target anything that could be used by Kuwait to establish and communicate national identity.
In a post-conflict situation, the positive role of museums in portraying identity can help promote national unity, stability and reconciliation within a society. It can serve to identify the nation for others, and facilitate its establishment within the international community.
In doing so, it assists in encouraging economic investment, foreign aid and tourism. There is, of course, the darker side of a society in a post-conflict situation where it concerns museums and their ability to communicate national identity. Iraq's intervention to the Intergovernmental Committee was related to the loss of cultural property itself, rather than collections records as was the case in Kuwait, as a result of the political ramifications of its aggression.
Iraq and its population continue to struggle in the shadow of international economic sanctions resulting from the Gulf War. The hardships that have resulted from sanctions for Iraqis have led to a flood of cultural property from the country onto the black market. Museums have been closed and are unguarded, sites are unsupervised, artifacts are looted and sold for much-needed cash.
What follows are just a few examples to illustrate some of the ways in which museums play a role in portrayal of identity in post-conflict societies. Dawson Munjeri describes in detail the situation in museums in pre-independence Zimbabwe as well as the way in which things changed after that country emerged from conflict.
Traditionally, non-whites had been allowed extremely limited access to museums as to other educational opportunities - both reflecting and reinforcing government-led policies of segregation and oppression of the non-white majority. The government directed that black Rhodesian culture not be presented in museums, in an effort to reinforce marginalization and a culture of inferiority. This policy extended to both collecting and preservation of non-white material culture both were discouraged and deliberately underfunded , which Munjeri describes as a form of "cultural vandalism". During the conflict that led to the end of white minority rule, state museums portrayed that conflict simply as an "anti-terrorist campaign" and continued to present national identity in a way that minimized and distorted the representation of the non-white majority.
In the "post-liberation" era, museums in Zimbabwe are engaged in efforts to redress the effects of former policies toward collection, preservation and exhibition of the material cultural of the full range of Zimbabwean society. They are considered a "central artery" for communication and reconciliation. An ongoing territorial conflict between Denmark and Germany presents an example of how museums can become pawns in conflicts over national identity. Both countries are engaged in efforts to establish the cultural heritage of the contested region of Schleswig - "lost" by Denmark to Prussia in - and to exert an either Danish or German identity, and by extension, sovereignty, over that region.
By including a traditional Schleswig form of building in the Danish Open-Air Museum, Denmark makes a deliberate and provocative attempt to identify Schleswig and its cultural traditions as part of Danish national identity. Efforts to use the museum in this overtly political way are openly acknowledged by the museum's founder, who states: "We have made ourselves guilty of a kind of surrender of the national community This is the only kind of reconquest I can see.
Use of museums in this way is characteristic of a process described by Edward Said whereby a redefinition of national identity in conflict situations involves the "re-capturing of cultural, geographical or political territory that was taken by others". Moving to post-conflict situations, the nation state of Namibia offers an example of museums playing a role in portraying post-colonial national identity, with a particular focus on national unity. Modern Namibia is a multicultural society that includes a wide variety of cultural groups. An official government campaign of "state-induced racial harmony" is promoted through museums and through tourism literature, seen by some to be an effort to avoid addressing the multicultural makeup of the population.
The historiography and the memory of the Lebanese civil war
The state has gone to the extent of adopting the Benetton advertising campaign of "United Colours" to illustrate Namibian national identity. The minimizing of multicultural identities in Namibia illustrates the tendency in such nations to downplay diversity and ethnic nationalist allegiances in the interests of national unity and stability in a civic nationalist-defined state.
In states that include tribal or aboriginal populations, such allegiances are often seen by the political power base as a direct threat real or perceived to the nation. This is seen in efforts by some tribal peoples to repatriate objects of cultural property which have been taken abroad by foreign collectors, governments or museums. In certain cases, where a state includes numerous cultural and ethnic groups, efforts to recover items that are important to particular tribal groups do not receive support from state governments, who feel that anything strengthening tribal identity will undermine national identity and unity.
One example of this phenomenon is seen in the case of efforts in the early 's by the Kom people of Cameroon to repatriate an important ceremonial statue called the Afo-A-Kom. In the words of a tribal spokesman, "It is the heart of Kom, what unifies the tribe, the spirit of the nation, what holds us together". The statue was ultimately returned, despite a lack of support from the government of Cameroon. According to Kurt Siehr, a law professor at the University of Zurich, "The return of the Afo-A-Kom may have strengthened the pride of the Kom tribe, but there are so many tribes in Cameroon.
The last thing the government wanted was to strengthen tribal identity". Returning to the example of Namibian state museums, we see a clear post-colonial depiction of national identity in different ways to domestic and foreign visitors, providing additional evidence that the communication of nation identity can be altered to address different audiences.
The two main state museums in Namibia's capital deal with "history" and "natural history and ethnography". The state museum concerned with "history" employs a type of post-colonial nostalgia for the former dominant German and Afrikaan cultures, and portrays national identity using terms and stories infused by European culture for foreign tourists, who usually visit that museum exclusively.
On the other hand, the state museum of natural history and ethnography shows a different side of the nation, and is frequented primarily by locals - mainly non-white Namibians. I would be remiss if, in a discussion about museums and multicultural societies in conflict and national identity and unity, I did not make reference to Canada's own struggle with identity.
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It is one of the major concerns and priorities of the Minister and department that I work for. The aspiration of part of the population of the province of Quebec for its sovereignty as an independent nation is well known and well publicised. Canada as a nation state was founded in a situation where the very nature of that union was explained differently to the English and French population by their respective politicians. Those views of the nation and its identity have continued to grow apart, to the extent that the federal government has acknowledged that only a very deliberate attempt to foster a shared sense of national identity can offer the potential for greater national unity.
The conflict that French Canadian sovereignists and English Canadians struggle with has not always been non-violent, but it has so far not yet extended to full armed conflict, and we hope it never will. In the growing dialogue about national identity, however, our national museums have been conspicuous in their silence. Canadians, thanks to local and regional museums, have a firm sense of their identity at the local and regional level. Museums present that message effectively both for the local population itself, as well as for outsiders.
The national museums in the National Capital Region seem to play the role of showcases to the world, even if in some instances the message they send is heavily biased by the visions of the individuals at their helm. But the most commonly heard criticism of our national museums is that they lack a presence anywhere in the country outside the National Capital Region. At a very basic level, when it comes to strengthening a sense of national identity among Canadians in the service of national unity, or to foster an open, healthy dialogue about it, this seems to be a tremendous opportunity lost.
Returning to the subject of portrayal of identity in nations struggling to emerge from cultural and political dominance by others, museums in the Middle East and Asia face a different sort of challenge in a post-conflict context. Much has been written by Edward Said and others about the legacy of orientalism in eastern nations - political and cultural dominance by the west through a long tradition of scholarly classification and stereotyping.
After all, one of the main audiences for these nations and their museums is "the west" - either individual tourists or, courtesy of CNN, entire foreign states. Brian Wallis has written extensively on the way state museums, national exhibitions, and cultural festivals portray nations in the Near and Middle East in particular. It is an identity which is easily recognized, understood and most of all, expected, by their predominantly western audience. Once again, the portrayal of identity customized for others. It should be noted that museum exhibits of this kind do more than simply provide a legitimate, factual explanation of the archaeological legacy inherited by these nations.
Rather, that legacy is embellished, conventionalized, dramatised, even altered to suit a particular economic and political purpose. Wallis sees this form of self-stereotyping as, in part, a move to eradicate negative stereotypes by use of an epic past that is venerated by the west, as well as a desire to establish status within the international community such as was seen in the case of Namibia. As a result, the western observer may be forgiven for identifying the modern Egyptian nation state with the empire of the pharaohs, or the modern Turkish republic with Suleyman and the achievements of the vast Ottoman Empire, etc.
This is the challenge of reconciling a static "essence" of the nation or national identity with a particular community's history of dynamic change. In a post-conflict situation, this phenomenon becomes even more pronounced. With worldwide, mass communication the "audience" is global, and the image stakes high. In a part of the world that is now not only stereotyped by orientalism, but is also synonymous with conflict, the portrayal of identity to the West often has massive political and economic consequences.
Nations struggle to counteract negative images to gain political support from powerful allies such as the U. Museums are a useful tool in this regard. For our purposes, the modern state of Lebanon will serve as an example. In , a region then known as the "Mountain" was declared an autonomous province within the Ottoman Empire. With the defeat of the Ottomans through a British-supported Arab revolt, the French-English Sykes-Picot Agreement created the "French Mandate" over Syria and Lebanon known as "Greater Syria" , without any consultation of the population of the area, and in , Lebanon and Syria were declared separate entities.
Withdrawal of French forces in established an independent Lebanese republic. Lebanese national identity has been influenced by two things. As with most nations in the Middle East, Lebanon defines itself and presents itself to others by virtue of its "glorious ancient past" - dominated by the Phoenician and Roman civilizations in particular. The presence of remnants of those civilizations is real, but a connection to the modern Lebanese nation is a function of geography, without demonstrable ethnic or civic similarities.
The second factor influencing modern Lebanese national identity is its colonial past - in particular its links with France and French culture. As we saw in the case of Namibia, there is a pronounced post-colonial nostalgia toward the former colonial rulers that persists in Lebanon's ruling class - the Maronite Christian minority. This finds its way into tourism promotion Beirut portrayed as the "Paris of the East" , while national identity focused on ancient cultures is what is depicted in state museums. Neither has ever held much relevance for Lebanon's Muslim majority, who are more likely to define their identity as part of a greater pan-Arab nation, or on the basis of religious links to other predominantly Muslim societies.
Syria still considers Lebanon to be part of "Greater Syria" and rejects an independent Lebanese identity altogether. Lebanon, and Beirut in particular with considerable assistance from the western media , has become synonymous with violence, chaos and conflict for many in the west. Lebanon emerged in from over fifteen years of almost unbroken conflict.
Not a single war, even though it is referred to as one, but a series of conflicts that together devastated the nation and its people. Part of the conflict consisted of sectarian warfare between militias formed along religious and ethnic lines, as a response, in part, to dissatisfaction over power-sharing arrangements between the Maronite minority and the Muslim majority. At the height of the conflict, the National Museum was on the infamous "Green Line" separating warring factions in East and West Beirut, and was the site of one of the crossing points between the two.
Museum staff had removed portable artifacts from the building for safekeeping some of which subsequently disappeared , barricaded and sealed some of the museum storage areas, and encased many of the larger items in concrete to protect them, because they were either too heavy or too difficult to move safely under the circumstances. At one point, the museum is reported to have been used as a barracks by militia members.
Now, seven years after the end of hostilities, Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, continues to rebuild. The National Museum has recently reopened. But the perception of many in the rest of the world still connects Beirut and Lebanon with images of bombs, destruction on a scale not seen since World War II, of kidnappings, and of a ghost land of ruins. This has little to do with the reality of today's Lebanon, with perhaps the possible exception of Israeli-occupied south Lebanon.
One of Lebanon's main challenges is to defeat those stereotypes in the interest of foreign capital investment and tourism. Sectarian differences that played a role in the war remain largely unresolved, but are unlikely to manifest themselves in a similar level of violence in the short term. There is no indication that the rebuilt National Museum will be anything other than the type of institution it was before. Lebanon, now more than ever, places high priority on generating a particular image of itself for the world audience.
The nation's identity as portrayed through its museums and sites is one of a society built on an ancient, epic culture, with a modern, Euro-Mediterranean sophistication setting it apart from its neighbours, making it more recognizable and accessible for the West. The years of conflict that Lebanon endured cannot help but have lasting effects on the nation and its people - yet this part of the nation's history, as far as its museums are concerned, appears to be descending into the realm of selective amnesia.
Ignatieff recounts a conversation with a museum curator in Germany that provides an interesting perspective on a situation similar to that in post-conflict Lebanon. The curator disagreed with a suggestion that there should be a museum chronicling the culture and history of East Germany, observing that museums are "always archives of success". At the further suggestion by Ignatieff that the public interest might be served by "museums of error" - the curator responded "yes, but the trouble is, who would want to visit one?
In the same way, one might ask why Lebanon would want its museums to acknowledge past conflict and its connection to Lebanese identity, when it is precisely that association and that part of Lebanon's national identity that it wants everyone to forget? Why would a nation's people want to admit that differences exist among them, in their definition of what Lebanon is and what type of nation it should be, that are so fundamental that they would lead to the kind of violence and destruction they have directed at one another over the past twenty years?
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