Identity Politics at the Museum

Posted: March 27, 2012 by lzaldana in Uncategorized

Mapping the Memories: McEachern

Charmaine McEachern (1998), discusses how invoking the turbulent past, from the “standpoint of the present” (511), socially re-defines post-apartheid South Africa as a newly unified national identity, and becomes a tool for differentiating between ‘societies’. She argues Cape Town’s District Six Museum, provides vehicles for national remembering: A political model of reclaiming the past, which tends to gloss over the fragile state of social relations that defined the period.

This museum serves as a bridge to a particular past by means of its very spatial materiality. This is primarily because the museum’s construction mimics the “social engineering” (50) concepts behind  city-level apartheid regulations—a backdrop, if not an intermediary that actively forces people to keep alive what was destroyed by apartheid’s policies (social ties, material culture, cosmopolitan identity etc.). The museum today, is a site that provides a critique of the desolation created out of racialized schemes of capitalist development.

Thus, material revival juxtaposed with empty space, encourages popular memory over individual experiences to consolidate. It is these collective  themes of “empowerment… and reconciliation” (505) that the author is wary of. This is primarily due to the fact new South Africans will over time, uncritically legitimize the meanings of these consolidated memories via these “authorized” (506) spaces for remembering.

Therefore, this article is effective in explaining how objects embody space and context. By explaining how the Sixer’s memories rest on the paradoxical grounds of modernity, that is destruction in the name of progress, the author also explains why a“metaphorical” (508) revival of the city’s history, is necessarily revived. It is the contextualization provided by the people lived experiences that is inserted into the objects themselves.

For a dispersed and segregated group (diaspora), this museum is significant because it creates an opportunity for a shared imaging of a familial community unit. This common thread of nostalgia is important to groups that have lost sense of belonging, but harnessing the common opposition to apartheid is also easily used in order to promote projects of national unity rather than accurately accounting for the inequalities, or of the lived experience of the dislocated. I found the most interesting point of this article to be the role time plays in coloured/black subjectivities in relation to the heterogeneous nature of the district; only after that community is lost, is a new sense of self  formed through the act of retrospective remembering.

Telling Another Story: Catalani

Catalani (1999) discusses the affective nature of ‘memory lost’, and the inextricability of objects in the acts of remembering— both which sustain the “industry of memory” that is the museum.  She argues that contemporary western museums are significant to colonized cultures because, they serve as channels through which to informally  legitimize cultural identity. Through object accessibility, a process of both group identification (within defined cultural contexts), and a shared historical identification is facilitated.

The author successively describes the process of identity formation because she clarifies between history and memory, a distinction that was confusing in the previous article. By making these concepts mutually inclusive, but not exhaustive, it was easier to think about them as transitional concepts.  As memory gains popular legitimacy, it has the capacity through museums to become history and therefore distances itself from personal and unmediated connection to objects that represent past events. In this view, identification can occur from different perspectives, or occur at the same time. As memories get attached to histories, and as groups connect their present and past, the museum becomes a site in which interactions serve as contributions that continuously alter subjectivities.

Catalani’s article is also useful as complimentary piece to the McEachern’s article because she elaborates on the topic of moving objects from their original contexts.  This is important because we can interpret object according to their specific time period or political project. Cantalani research question of understanding the relationship between memory and history is therefore relevant because of the importance that “civic identity” (6) has gained in a more mobile 21st century.

A common thread found in these two articles is the power that free association has on exerting control in identity formation.  Accessibility to museums and its content, is beneficial because it draws on people’s need to belong, which then provides necessary interactions over objects.


Mceachern implies that groups are  custodians of cultural revival- as such,  what challenges do smaller diasporic groups in multicultural Toronto face?

Catalani discusses the power of mediated material culture and the impact it  has on both diasporic groups and national cohesion-  should objects be made more relatable on an individual level (as opposed to pan-diasporic representation)?

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