Concluding with our Final Judgements on Diasporic/Nationalist Objects: Cultural Sanctuaries or Essentialist Affections?

Posted: April 3, 2012 by gardenofdawn in Apr. 4

Both Hamilakis and Kochman endeavour to describe and analyse objects as actors engaged  in nation-breaking, nation-making and nation-building  (individual artefact, an accumulation of many objects to make a museum), particularly in the contentious context of geographically marginalised objects. The Greek Acropolis marble  in “exile” (308) in England and the museum belonging to characteristically displaced Ukrainians in the United States can be viewed as two distinct forms of “culture sanctuary” (216) in the midst of foreign land and are representations of dynamic “heritage management” (304) given the unique location of such objects/collections of objects in controversial host societies.

In the article “Stories from Exile: Fragments from the Cultural Biography of the Parthenon (or ‘Elgin’) Marbles”, author Yannis Hamilakis makes the argument that current scholarship fails to engage in the cultural biography of artefacts and thus neglects the fundamental connection between such object artefacts and their historical interactions with the “global cultural economy” (303). Hamilakis’ fundamental assertion is a scrutiny of essentialism: the passionate discourse of “national destiny” (310) and rightful custodianship of “ancestral heritage” (310) that constitutes the intense fight of both the Greek government and the Greek students abroad to demand that the Parthenon marbles be returned from the British Museum to the Acropolis in Greece. Hamilakis ties the politics of restitution of the Parthenon Marbles to the simultaneous commoditization and singularization of the Parthenon Marbles, putting into question what nation (if any) can be considered the “rightly owners of [the] classical history” of an object given the commoditization processes (among many) that brought the marble to a foreign land in the first place.

Hamilakis’ reading, though very insightful and a good contribution to scholarship on holistic object biography, is notable for the exaggerated distancing created between the author and the subject matter, almost to a level of opposition to Greeks who rally for the restitution of the objects. (And therefore certainly not an impartial message despite an obvious intention to do be so) His critique of widely-held essentialist viewpoints is valuable to this discussion, however is proposed in a manner that elevates himself as a scholar who sits upon a pedestal that is removed from the incredibly powerful rhetoric of nationalism that fuels pro-restitution activists.

Adrienne Kochman’s work entitled “The Role of Ukrainian Museums in the United States Diaspora in Nationalising Ukrainian Identity” surveys the emergence of Ukrainian museums in the United States after World War Two and after the Cold War. Kochman typifies the public exhibition of Ukrainian culture as a process of “self definition” (209) and resistance against the USSR and “Russified” Ukrainian identity. Kochman asserts that the fortification of museums in the States and Canada is an effort to demonstrate to the 10 million Ukranian diaspora as well as non-Ukranian visitors the distinctiveness of Ukranian culture in the form of “institutionalised preservation”. (207)

Kochman is quick to politicise the oppression and independence experienced by the Ukrainian diaspora, she does not adequately scrutinise the political reality of the host country (US) or the protagonist nation-state/nation of states (USSR).  This kind of rigorous analysis is required to understand the bi-directional flows of diasporic cultural preservation that is context/country-specific.

Ukrainian self-governance and political recognition in the US, as described in Kochman’s work, reminds me of an observation that I made when I went to the 2010 World Expo in China. The Expo is a showcase of all the nation-states of the world in enormous and elaborate buildings (called pavilions) that showcase culture, economy, food, and music of all the countries in the world. I was most surprised to see a pavilion for Palestine, despite the fact that the territory of Palestine is now considered under the United Nations as Israel. This Pavilion in China boasted of “genuine olive oil” from Palestine that was sold in the pavilion, a commoditised object that represents “genuine” (original?) Palestine. The experience made me wonder: Why did the Chinese grant Palestine a pavilion (a space) to display objects that engage in a nation-building (or nation-reclaiming) and “revival” (223) project? This would not happen at an expo in the US or Canada.

On a broader level, the materiality of a pavilion at an expo engages in the identity politics of nation-state. Such materiality occupies a ground for a larger discussion regarding historical territorial conquest as it relates to object exchange (or arguably robbery) and current day geopolitics.

Why might an object long lost to a land still be the object of heated protest today?

Why do humans have nostalgia for an object that has not “lived” in their home country in their lifetime or the lifetime of their parents and recent ancestors?

Reading-specific questions with embedded criticism and argumentation:

  1. Hamilakis stirs up a debate on the topic of the essentialism (314) of an object which is intimately linked to the question of the rightful owner of an object. Are the Parthenon Marbles rightfully owned by the Greek nation or wider Western civilisation given the object’s complex history? What are the true criteria for ownership? Successful Empire? Adequate Geopolitical power?
  2. In my opinion Kochman’s  article greatly disregards the sharply divisive political landscape of the Cold War and how it manifested itself in the highly strategic American support for Ukrainian museums, especially with the rhetoric of “freedom” of expression and culture. (221) There is much mention of the “Russification” of Ukrainian museum, but is there not then evidence of the “Americanisation” of the Ukrainian museum and Ukrainian culture given the specific political climate and ideological interests?
  1. tupakkat says:


    the extreme distancing between author and subject matter that you discovered in Hamilakis’ article was something that caught my attention as well. Correct me if I am wrong but his name sounds Greek to me. Considering the political implications of the debate and his own heritage (if he is of Greek origin) I could imagine that he feels this distancing is necessary in order to avoid any possible accusations of not being objective and therefore, not being a scholar.

    In Germany, there is a constant attack against scholars of history of religion (Islam). Despite the fact that the faculties of history of religion in Germany are a stronghold of non-Muslim German scholars, several people have launched attacks against them. It went so far that an alleged journalist wrote a letter to all members of faculties in the History of Religion departments of German universities demanding of them to disclose their own religious affiliation. Particularly he asked them to admit whether or not they may be Muslim. He also stated that he would mention anyone who refuses to follow his outrageous request in his book by name. Objective of this campaign was to discredit anyone not-hostile towards Islam as non-objective, i.e non-scientific, i.e. a non-scholar.

    This episode demonstrates how the political implications of issues play into the field of allegedly objective scholarly work and how vulnerable scholars can be to accusations simply because of their origin.

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