Museums and memory 3. Museums as memory practice

Museums are often depicted as storehouses or repositories of national memory. With their roots in nineteenth century Europe, the development of modern museums was integral to the processes of European state formation and the construction of national identities. Museums validate and affirm authorised versions of the past, and contribute to the institutionalisation of public or official memory. As such, they are vital to the construction and reinforcement of a society’s collective identity. They provide imagined continuities to imagined communities. Therefore, “museums, and the museumizing imagination, are both profoundly political”.[i] 

As sites of memory production, museums and museum exhibitions are results of both processes of remembrance and forgetting, inclusion and exclusion. But memories are not always explicit; thus, if museums often tend to concentrate on stories of the nation’s glorious past, omitting challenging narratives, difficult memories may still be manifest in inarticulate ways. Colonialism, for instance, important as it was to the formation of European states and national identities, may be absent, or underplayed, in the stories museums choose to tell, but may nevertheless be present as a more or less hidden legacy, embedded in museum structures, collections and modes of display

In a different register, in recent years museums have actively begun to make use of, and play on, various forms of memory, including unofficial, suppressed and popular memories, thereby exploring new ways of thinking through the past. In the UK, treatments of both the slave trade and the Holocaust have employed forms of memory to empathetically address difficult histories and to generate possibilities for cultural expression where forms of knowledge associated with traditional historiography have been felt to be inappropriate.  Making use of alternative forms of memory has also been a useful mode of engagement in exhibitions which deal with colonial legacies in contemporary European culture. In the Netherlands, the permanent exhibition Story of the Dutch East-Indies at the Indies Remembrance Centre includes one room representing the chaotic Revolusi (War of Independence) 1945-1949. Shaped as a narrow, reddish maze with no possibility to look ahead, this room shows on one wall the succession of political events gathered on a time line, while on another small photographs of witnesses and their experiences during 1945-1949 are shown. This interruption in the grand political narrative by personal recollections provides a new way of looking into the past through people’s personal memories.  In Norway – a country with a national self-conception marked by a view of being situated outside the history of colonisation – museum exhibitions have recently addressed the ways in which Norwegians participated in colonial projects through trade, working in the service of colonial empires or as missionaries. Following political developments of the last decades, the issue of internal colonialism and oppression of the Sami people is also now slowly making its way into museum displays in the national museum context. This new development in our conception of what museums are and what they should do has also been reflected in a national project initiated by the Norwegian ministry of culture called Rupture, which urged museums to address critical questions, and to tell the difficult, invisible and controversial stories. The project resulted in a series of exhibitions nation-wide which questioned established museum truths and addressed issues including homosexuality, the Romani minority and Norwegian Nazism during the Second World War.

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[i] .Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London, 2006. 178.