The World beyond the Nation in Southeast Asian Museums

By Thompson, Eric C. | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, April 2012 | Go to article overview

The World beyond the Nation in Southeast Asian Museums


Thompson, Eric C., SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


Museums tell stories. A national museum tells a story about the nation. It invites visitors to think about the nation spatially, historically, and ethnologically. The purpose of a national museum is to endow the nation with symbolic substance--using images, objects, and narratives to specify where, what, and when the nation is. In the second edition of his seminal work, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson (1991) identified museums--along with censuses and maps--as an "institution of power" which under nineteenth century European colonialism ushered in the imaginings that made possible twentieth century nations, particularly in Asia. While Anderson concentrates his attention on colonial states, there is no doubt that museums have continued to thrive, even proliferate, in the postcolonial era. (1) National museums are a particularly explicit site in which symbolic and narrative imaginings of territorial nation states are produced and expressed.

In this article, I argue that national museums not only construct narratives of nations, they also tell stories about what lies beyond the nation. While the national story is the explicit narrative that national museums seek to tell, the national museums of Southeast Asia inform visitors about the world beyond through varied means and to varying degrees. We could imagine a national museum in which the world beyond the nation is not explicitly represented, existing only as an absence beyond the territorial and ethnological boundaries of the nation conveyed in the museum's displays and textual explanations. Of the museum's surveyed in this article, the Myanmar National Museum and Indonesian National Museum come closest to presenting their displays with exceptionally little reference to the world beyond. By contrast, the displays and textual narrative of the Malaysian museums discussed below contain extensive references to the world beyond the nation.

While the styles and degrees of representation vary, in the national museums of Southeast Asia there is always already, implied (as an absence) and more often than not expressed (as a presence), a world beyond the nation in the narrative of national museums. The world beyond the nation necessarily enframes the nation and through that enframing creates (an imagining of) a national order (cf. Mitchell 1991). (2) The purpose of this article is to bring that frame of extranationality into focus. As much as national museums serve a didactic purpose, aimed at teaching citizens how to think about themselves as nationals, they also contain messages about the relationship of territorial and ethnological others to the national self. My interest lies particularly in how national museums across Southeast Asia represent the region as a entity that enframes their diverse national imaginings. Nation building in Southeast Asia has been a fraught, contested, and ongoing project (Funston 2001; Lockard 2009; Mulder 2003; Tarling 1998). National museums are material sites where that project has been carried out. As Wang Gungwu (2005, p. 271) points out, while nation building is a never-ending process, an earlier generation of anti-colonial nation builders who took the European nation state as a model are now giving way to a younger generation of postcolonial nationals, "exposed to transnational, multinational, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural ideals ... although they are yet to find a clear sense of direction as to where they are eventually going". One dimension of the process of nation building is efforts to establish positive international relations, of which the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has become a cornerstone in Southeast Asia, despite all its critics and shortcomings (cf. Glassman 2005; Jones and Smith 2007; Tham, Lee, and Norani Othman 2009). In the past decade, ASEAN has moved towards developing a stronger sense of community among member nations (Thompson and Thianthai 2008). National museums, as documented below, have already been a site for representing and promoting ASEAN-based community building.

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