Sur la blancheur

Given the intriguing context and ways in which Acadian history was materialized in the Memorial, this case foregrounds the critical importance of display practices and expertise necessary to historicize space and time. The broader significance of this claim lies in the fact that despite the growing acknowledgement of the complexities of curation and display, practitioners often hold that past-ness is straightforwardly inherent in objects, and hence that collective histories can uncomplicatedly be re-presented in displays and exhibits (e.g., Handler and Gable 1997; Hall 2006). At the same time, one common argument against these claims asserts that recognizing the social constructedness of historical objects radically undermines their truth value, leaving us without solid criteria for grounding judgments about the accuracy and authenticity of historical claims. In one strong version of this critique, history emerges as a kind of perverted fabrication, whereby political objectives distort or betray the original or previous meanings of objects that are subsequently “traditionalized” or given historical value (Hobsbawm and Ranger, eds. 1983; cf. Loewen 1999). While I would not assert that historical discourse is never shaped by the “Machiavellian” or pragmatic considerations of political authorities, this perspective treats objects as mere chimera that “mirror, congeal, crystallize, or hide social relations” (Latour 1999:197) and obscures the stable, often institutionalized conventions that exist for identifying, experiencing, and displaying that which connotes the past. In this case, Memorial designers had more or less distinct notions of the social effects that they wanted to enable and selected objects accordingly, based on (at times implicit) conventional understandings of their power to sway human behavior. Thus, the objects of the Memorial were neither passive vessels for social relations nor autonomous emanations of a pre-existent past, but were instead recruited—from among a finite group of potential candidates—to “develop” a history that previously existed largely as a (negated) possibility. In other words, the pastness of objects resides in a “conventional wisdom” about history and the protocols of its display as much as it resides in objects themselves. Simply put, then, an adequate appreciation of the power of historical objects requires a corresponding appreciation of socialized customs for their identification and use.

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