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On material culture as a medium for historical narrative, or, the perils of the museum

19 December 2012

Some time ago, my Introduction to Historical Research seminar took me to the Marischal College Museum, a museum owned by my institution, the University of Aberdeen, once open to the public but now accessible only to Aberdeen’s students and staff and outside researchers. Knowing that none of the Master’s students around him were interested in fields of research to which museums are likely to be directly relevant, our lecturer (the curator of the inaccessible museum) geared the discussion not towards the use of museums as research resources but toward the nature and problematics of museums and the way they use material culture to impart history and historical narrative. Every since I have been mulling over the question myself and found myself disagreeing with the stance which our lecturer took.

Prior to its decommissioning and falling into its current state of disrepair, the Marischal College Museum had been curated, and still, by-and-large, is, with a mind to critiquing the current practices of major Western museums, which, so goes the argument, seek to present their collections from a place of a-historical, a-geographical, and a-cultural neutrality. The then-curator went about this by displaying the collections along with histories and images of the individual (white British male) who collected the objects. The idea was to bring to the fore and stimulate discussion on the colonial history of museums and their uses and role in our society. Certainly the effect achieved was to stimulate such awareness but not, I think, in the way intended. While telling the stories of the collectors did shine on a spotlight on museums’ troublesome colonial history it also drowned out any narrative other than of the collector: the people(s) who produced the objects were reduced, in effect, to elements of the collection itself.

I mean not to preach to Marischal College Museum. They attempted something new, difficult, and praiseworthy and achieved mixed results. What I do mean to do is speak to the seemingly insuperable difficulty of using material culture as a medium for historical narrative. This problematic, endemic to non-natural museums (which face their own issues, of which I am sure I am only vaguely aware), boils down, I think, to one crucial question: whose story? To really unpack this problem I would provide another example, that of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, across the river from my hometown of Ottawa. Being awkwardly hyper-aware of ‘colonialism’ and ‘racism’ in the history of British/Canadian relations with Canada’s native peoples, Canadian museums, and the Museum of Civilization is no exception, are constantly aware of the need to present the stories of those native peoples on their own terms. They have no idea how to go about this but they’re mightily concerned with it nonetheless. Being  North American museums, they are also quite wedded to the diorama. This comes to a head in the ‘Hall of Canada,’ a long series of dioramas which present scenes of Canada’s history, starting with pre-colonial life among her native population(s). [1] A handful of dioramas of longhouses and beating drums quickly give way to scenes of early colonial life among French and eventually British settlers. From European settler life to the spread of European colonisation and the eventual foundation of Canada as a state, the story being told is that of ‘Canada’ the country of immigrants and settlers, of western development and Westminster-style government, of which First Nations history is a mere precursor.

These two situations clearly raise the question that haunts any attempt at using material culture to relate a historical narrative: whose narrative is being told? While this question is present for any history, it comes to the fore in such situations because the gap between intention and execution is greater. Marischal College Museum sought to tell a story about their own troublesome history and their relation to the peoples whose material artifacts they were displaying, then ended up telling the story of the white British men who assembled their collections. The Canadian Museum of Civilisation attempted to tell a story of Canada made its First Nations people(s) an integral chapter, and ended up reducing them to a precursor to the story proper. I’m not sure there is a solution to this problem but I think that what was overlooked in both these instances was the experience of the other, highlighting whose reality was meant to be the goal in both cases. In neither case is that perspective given the opportunity to speak for itself, it is spoken about. To draw the pointed example of the Canadian case (pointed for me, at least, but that might be because I’m Canadian), First Nations history in Canada was not static prior to the arrival of Europeans and that moment was not a rupturing one of fundamental discontiguity. First Nations history can’t be told simply in relation to that of ‘European’ Canada, as a precursor or interesting aside.

Embracing multiple perspectives on history is, of course, important in every field but especially so in a medium where the intention-execution disconnect is so wide and which is so widely relied upon by non-historians for ‘accurate’ accounts of history. Deconstructive exercises like that of Marischal College Museum are illustrative of how difficult this is because in their attempt to disavow themselves of the problematic they exemplify it differently. In this way Marischal College Museum’s experiment was, really, a complete success: they did successfully highlight the colonial nature of the museum. They drew us into conversation about what museums are and how they relate to our culture, how they reflect the history of Western/European colonialism and cultural triumphalism, treating the cultural objects of other societies as curiosities to be collected and displayed. The problem is that in doing so they further obscured the stories of the peoples whose culture was on display, perpetuating the Western-centric perspective which they sought to deconstruct. The account of history which its visitors received one was one the collection and collating of non-Western cultures, not one of the history of Western-non-Western colonialism and cross-cultural interaction. One wonders, then, whether there is any way to be a museum that does perpetuate this troublesome history, whether that problematic is simply inherent to the institution as a type.

Notes and Bibliography

[1] The question of one vs. many native peoples is a vexed one which I will not be raising here. Sufficed to say that the Hall of Canada does not succeed in portraying the reality of multiple distinct peoples.

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