Museums and memory 2. The Colonial Past and Un/official Memory

Within various European contexts it is colonial forgetting rather than colonial remembering that has been formulated as a significant dimension of national imaginations.  In Britain, Paul Gilroy has described the privileging of the memory of the Second World War and concomitant neglect of the colonial past as a condition of ‘postimperial melancholia’; the repeated return of colonial episodes in French public culture, and repeated failure to absorb these into the national imagination, has been analysed by Ann Laura Stoler through the discontinuities of ‘colonial aphasia’; while, in the Netherlands, the pervading attitude to the colonial past seems to be one of nostalgia, as exemplified by the nation’s expansive tempo doeloe culture. 

Each pathology responds, arguably, to national needs, to the story the nation must tell itself.  But, while each is subject to specific national inflections, a broad structural commonality can be nevertheless located in the shared workings of and tensions between memory and forgetting: the colonial past is forgotten in favour of another memory, or remembered in a fashion that resists absorption into existing narratives, or remembered in a ‘safe,’ domesticated form.

However, the privileging of memory – whether personal, collective or cultural – as a way of engaging with the past has also offered former colonial subjects a form of cultural representation that has often provided a different perspective to that offered by national histories. In the UK this has been demonstrated by the collection of oral histories by institutions such as the Black Cultural Archives and the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, and by the recounting and marking of narratives of belonging by first, second and third-generation migrants across various cultural forms, including memoirs, novels, celebration days and memorials. In the Netherlands, after years of public amnesia, the East-Indies nowadays returns repeatedly in memories ranging from academic writing to popular culture. This re-remembering among divergent media over time has continuously changed the meaning of the East-Indies as a memory site, and has, simultaneously, shaped mnemonic communities of successive generations of Indies-Dutch migrants. Through cultural and political interventions the recollected narratives of Indies-Dutch communities have entered the circuit of national memory culture. Indies migrants have also inserted their family memories in public memory by shaping a photographic archive and engaging in acts of identity-making. In 2010, a permanent exhibition entitled Story of the Netherlands East-Indies was launched in the newly founded Centre of Indies Remembrance, exploring the 350 years of Dutch presence in South East Asia, including the process of decolonization. In Norway, urged by the drive to take their own history back, the Sami people established their own museum in Karasjok in the 1970s. The museum formed part of the general ethnic mobilisation and political struggle to strengthen the rights of the Sami people and the status of Sami culture.

Thus, official memory is not totalising. Unofficial social memories may live on in a variety of forms, existing in spaces other than those that represent the dominant narrative.  Tensions and conflicts, social change or political transformation often makes reshaping of memory – official memory included – more urgent.

If approached self-reflectively, a focus on museums as sites of memory might foreground the ways in which we actively construct versions of the past and on the motivations for these constructions.  Thus we might develop sensitivity to the needs of different groups in their relations to and uses of the past.

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