Objects, Memories and Museums

Posted: March 26, 2012 by aresjoseph in Mar 28

Charmaine McEacher’s article, tells us that diasporic objects can be created in Museums to represent a cultural group’s history. McEacher discourse focus on one particular object in District Six Museum, a map from pre-apartheid South Africa.  This historical map allows individuals to trace their ancestral footsteps within the nation-state. McEacher states “The Museum is a powerful engagement with South Africa’s past, partly because its remembering is located in the very heart of apartheid philosophy and social engineering, the concentration of the apartheid city” (McEacher 500). In 1950, many black and colored people were forcefully removed from their homes in District Six, an inner city in Cape Town. As a result, they became internally displaced from their homes.   When the apartheid ended, the new South African identity was created and so was the Museum, which functioned as a site of resistance. Objects were placed there with the memories of people that had been displaced by the apartheid. Even today, McEacher states that people of South African descent travel from Canada, Australia, and the United States to District Six to see, study, or reflect on the objects at the Museum.

Elaine Gurian offers an alternative perspective on objects in Museums. She states, “In 1970, the American Association of Museums established Accreditation Commission” (167). The goal of this committee was to label objects as authentic or real based on their historical origin. Gurian contrasts this notions of authentic objects by describing a diasporic Museum in Israel that creates objects to  represent an historical event. She declares that  “museums and historical sites are tangible evidence of the spirit of society” (163). Her main argumentation is that objects in Museums mirrors the spirit of people in society, even when objects are not physically produced in the past. Both authors’ articles are well organized. They offer different perspectives on their topics by referencing different anthropologists, or philosophers like Michel Foucault. Here are my two questions:

1. Can an object in a Museum speak on its own without being labelled?

2.What object empowers people the most; the materiality of the map,stories labelled on the map, or image of the map?


  1. tupakkat says:

    Hey Areselle,

    whether an object can speak on its own depends, in my opinion, on the context in which it is displayed and on the audience. If you display an object within the region of its origin or for a target audience that is familiar with it, you most likely do not need to label it for people to recognize the meaning. As soon as you move the item out of its context and region, however, and present it to people who are not familiar with its cultural and historical background, you have a lot of explaining to do. I would even go so far to say that most objects require extensive labelling, just remember the little cookbook from the concentration camp we were talking about: even if you leave it unlabelled in a Holocaust museum, it may be impossible for visitors who know the overall context to understand its particular meaning.

    • aresjoseph says:

      Interesting perspective Tupakkat, your conclusion basically summarizes our class discussion, which was that objects need a mediator for us to understand their meanings.

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