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Democracy and History Museums. Museo de America

Marisa Gonzalez de Oleaga

Democracy and the Museum

What is the relationship between a political system like democracy and an institution such as the museum? What does a form of government that channels the demands of citizens have to do with this space that is aimed at preserving, researching and exhibiting history and legacy? Democracy is a type of political organization, a set of rules and procedures based on popular sovereignty. In order for democracy to work, however, subjects must participate in political decision making. In the case of representative democracy, this is done by delegating power to elected officials. Thus, participation and representation are fundamental ingredients of democracy. However, in order for these subjects to be able to participate and be represented, they must adopt an identity, that is, they must be able to say who they are and state their interests. In this process, stories—narratives that construct their political identifications—become critically important. There can be no identity without stories that give them meaning (Culler, 2011). Yet not just any story is possible. Those which construct identity are always connected with notions of origin and belonging. As Stuart Hall notes, identities are “the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past,” (Hall, 1990: 225). These are the stories that allow us to construct belongings in the present. Let us consider, for example, an emerging social movement, such as the indigenous movements in Latin America or any of the other move-

This paper is part of the Project HAR2012-31212, financed by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Innovation.

M.G. de Oleaga (*)

Social History and Political Thinking Department, UNED, Madrid, Spain © The Author(s) 2017

M. Carretero et al. (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52908-4_7

ments that have appeared in the past few decades. One of the first things that these groups usually offer is a reinterpretation of the past, one that goes against official versions, in order to construct collective identifications and legitimize their positions. There is a necessary connection between the construction of subjectivity—the subjects’ ability to construct themselves as such—identity and political participation. Stories of origin and belonging among others are a critical part of developing the identities that are the condition for democratic rule.

The museum is one of the many spaces where stories that nourish identities are represented and exhibited. As a public institution, its messages—orga- nized by curators, historians, anthropologists and other specialists—can be considered messages of the state: the official version made legitimate by scientific and technical knowledge (Abt, 2011; Duncan & Wallach, 2004). Since its beginnings, the public museum has been and continues to be—in spite of the changes over the course of its history—a unique space for socialization and indoctrination. Developed in the second half of the twentieth century, the museum materializes as a place of representation for the citizens of the future. The rapid changes taking place in Europe and the associated loss of traditional identities necessitated this space to organize the new values of the Nation State and neocolonial expansion (Coombes, 2004; Heartney, 2004; Kaplan, 2011; Mitchell, 2004). National history museums, along with museums of natural history and/or ethnography, played a role in this transformation. They were much more than simply official representations constituting a document of the values to be imposed on visitors. While in their origins they were aimed at vast sectors of the population (many of whom did not received formal education), the school later utilized them as a key tool of socialization. In the twenty-first century, museums continue to attract students and teachers, but they have become emblems for a new type of citizens—tourists (Hooper Greenhill, 1994; Kirschenblatt-Glimbett, 1998). In addition, museums do not grow obsolete like other forms of information and knowledge. While few would consider a treaty written in the nineteenth century on racial difference word for word, the stories of a museum appear to have no expiration date. The museum is a period document but also a monument to that which it wishes to affirm (Lord, 2006). However, the factual nature of a written text is more easily accepted than that of museum labels. This is because the museum serves as a visual device that not only says things about the past but also shows them. It is this expanding sce- nography (Hillier & Tzortzi, 2011) and its dedication to material culture that differentiate it from any other type of document and make it more effective (Alpers, 1991; Bennett, 1998; Classen & Howes, 2006).

In summary, the stories that circulate in a museum, particularly in history museums, seem to be important to the construction of the individual and collective identities that are now the basis for democratic rule. Now, it is useful to note that not all stories that speak of the past and construct an identity are instrumental to democracy. To put this in another way, there may be stories that contribute to the creation of identities associated with democracy but there may be others that help create identities that go against this form of government. Therefore, what characteristics should these stories have in order for them to be considered democratic? If we consider democracy a form of government and an ideology (a way of conceiving of politics) that attempts to channel the multiple demands of citizens in a pacific way, two key words appear. These are difference and conflict. These two notions are at the core of this system and this way of thinking. In other words, as a form of government, democracy necessitates identities and a political culture that incorporates difference and conflict. We are all different—in terms of ethnicity, religion and gender, not to mention tastes, values and positions—and these differences can ignite violence. For these reasons, democracy is a set of rules that allow us to organize and channel our preferences and interests in a peaceful way. As a form of government, democracy has no content. It does not tell us what we should want or the direction we should take but indicates how we should act and how to channel our decisions to achieve the objectives we set.

If we do a brief overview of democracy in the twentieth century and analyze the meaning of the concept, we see that democracy has advanced from homogeneity to difference and from consensus to conflict. This evolution is evident in both the outlook of citizens and in the assertions of political theorists. Since the appearance of the so-called new social movements in the 1960s, differences can no longer be reduced to the private sphere, where they had been relegated by liberal democracy. Instead, these movements demanded and continue to call for the recognition and the exercise of otherness in the public sphere as well. For example, and the example is relevant to the case we are addressing, it is useful to think about the construction of the ethnic identities that are a fundamental part of politics in many countries of Latin America today. Ethnicity and ethnic belonging (the values and interests it entails and the conflicts it generates) can no longer be silenced or overlooked in favor of a homogeneous definition of citizenry. Instead, these differences are an essential part of political debate and policy (Connolly, 2002). At the same time, classic political theory privileged consensus and harmonic interests while overlooking the way in which conflict could dissolve such consensus (Balan, 2010). This perspective has been challenged by new ones in which conflict is seen as the condition for (radical) democracy (Mouffe, 1993, 1996). We could thus say that the denial or silencing of differences or the supposed eradication of the conflict that these differences entail means undermining or overlooking an essential aspect of democracy as we currently see it. It would mean ignoring an important number of the groups that accept it as a form of collective action. Thus, if difference and conflict are critical to contemporary democracy in terms of what they represent to the idea of democracy and government, then they are also fundamental to the stories that circulate in museums. No one would hesitate to call a story non-democratic if it ignores current-day difference or conflict. The same can be said of narratives that attempt to eradicate difference or silence the conflict associated with stories about the past.

To analyze the democratic nature of the stories that circulate in the museum, I am going to use an example of a very particular case, that of Museo de America in Madrid. Why analyze this museum? Because it is the museum of an old colonial metropolis. In Spain, there is no national history museum, a common find in all the countries of Latin America and other neighboring nations. Despite, or specifically because of, the dispute surrounding the nation in Spain, there is no museum that recreates and represents the country’s history. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that historically Spain has had trouble defining “national” since its unification under the Catholic kings and queens. It might also have to do with the way in which old colonial empires “naturalized” the national. In this context, the nation is not a construction but instead is part of nature, atemporal and indestructible. In Spain, despite the lack of a national museum, the nation is built upon the history of the country’s colonial expansion (Delgado, 1992; Gonzalez Cuevas, 2008; Gonzalez de Oleaga, 2001; Pardo Sanz, 1995). As a working hypothesis, as I will show herein, I suggest that Museo de America in Madrid attempts to represent not the Americas but Spanish national identity. Through conquest and colonization, the Americas are the excuse or the lure for recalling Spanish greatness. In other words, a colonial museum can serve as a space for national representation. This “nostalgia” for the colonial past that is associated with national identity is not in keeping with the values of democracy, at least not as it is recognized today. Based on colonial logic, millions of peoples were segregated and excluded from politics. Refusing or silencing the access to different interpretations of this past—a past overflowing with difference or conflicts— means boycotting the chance for identification in the present. This logic seems more in tune with authoritarian ideologies than with democratic ideas. In fact, the Museo de America en Madrid (MAM) was founded during Franco’s regime (1939-1977), a national Catholic dictatorship that governed Spain for nearly four decades. Yet the permanent exhibition that this analysis focuses on opened in 1994, nearly two decades after the end of this regime. For this reason, it is interesting to consider how much of this heritage—the definition of the Spanish nation through its imperial heritage—has been assumed, recreated or resignified by a democratic Spain.

Through this construction of the national as a product of colonial expansion, I shall analyze difference and conflict. I consider these to be two fundamental elements of historic tales—tales of identity, narratives of origin and belonging—that can lead to the creation of democratic collective identifications and political culture. Paradoxically, even under democracy, there could be an institution such as the museum that is fostering identities and ways of understanding politics in a way that undermines the ideals it preaches. This is why an analysis of the museum’s stories is important not only for Spain but for all history museums in democratic states.

The analysis that follows is the result of years of visits to Madrid’s Museo de America. During different class visits I have accompanied to the museum, I have sketched an analysis of the entire exhibition (Gonzalez de Oleaga, Bohoslavsky, & Di Liscia, 2011). Like an archeological dig, I have noted the layout, recorded every audiovisual and reconstructed the museum’s stories.

Part of the work also involved consultations at the museum library and interviews with the curators. The purpose of “interpreting the museum as a text,” in following with the analyses of Nestor Garcia Canclini (Garcia Canclini, 2005); the proposals of “thick description” of Clifford Geertz (1973, 1985, 1989); the ideas of “ethnographic authority” and “contact zones” of James Clifford (1997); and the narrativist approach of Mieke Bal (2004) and Roland Barthes (1994, 2013) have all been considered.

To achieve these aims, I put together a protocol of analysis that combined the museum texts with the spatial organization of the exhibits, taking into account that the place, the places, have meaning. The first point in question is the localization and spatial semantics of the museum: its history, the development of the institution, the characteristics and spatial organization of the building, its placement within the city and the connections that the museum establishes with neighboring buildings or with streets, public squares and green spaces in a highly detailed scheme. Secondly, the internal semantics are reviewed. These include the different sections of the exhibition, the names of the themes within the exhibit and the rooms as well as the connections between them, the spatial and architectural markers that border and connect each area, the spatial hierarchies imposed by the exhibition within each room (placement, illumination and explanations in museum texts) and the path that visitors are obliged to take due to the layout. In third place are the texts: here a narrative analysis is used to pose two questions, what history is the story telling? How is this history told? Here the aim is to examine what the museum says about the Americas through the markers present in all narratives. Finally, by examining the narrative structure of the exhibition, it becomes possible to understand what the museum does through its stories (the performative dimension of the story). This is about how it operates at metaphorical levels, confirming, denying or questioning certain forms of historical imagination and how these forms deal with difference and conflict.

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