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. In the conclusion of this article, I suggest ways in which the national museums of Southeast Asia could further facilitate positive internationalism, whether through an ASEAN framework or otherwise.
My discussion is based on a study of twelve national-type museums in seven Southeast Asian countries: Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viemam. (3) I visited the museums primarily in a period from 2005 to 2007, and during 2010-11 have revisited several of them (see Table 1). (4) Several of the museums, including those in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, are ones which I have visited on several occasions since the 1990s, prior to this study. Many of the museums, such as those in Laos and Thailand, have not been substantially changed or renovated between the early part of the past decade and the most recent years (2010-11) when I made return visits. By contrast, in 2006, I initially visited Malaysia's National History Museum located adjacent to Independence Square (Dataran Merdeka) in Kuala Lumpur, as it had a much richer historical narrative than the older National Museum (Muzim Negara). In 2007, the National History Museum closed and its exhibits shifted to the National Museum, which underwent a substantial renovation and upgrading of its exhibits.
My interest in these national museums (particularly during the visits listed in Table 1) has been to study the ways in which regional, Southeast Asian frames of reference appear in the museums and more broadly in how the world beyond the nation is imagined in national museums. To this end, I visited the museums, taking notes and photographs (where permissible) and when possible followed guided tours and discussed the exhibits with tour guides and officials at the museums. My approach to the museums stems from a larger project concerned with the development of Southeast Asian regionalism (cf. Acharya 2000; Thompson 2009) and perceptions, awareness, and attitudes towards Southeast Asia from within Southeast Asia (Thianthai and Thompson 2007; Thompson 2006; Thompson and Thianthai 2008; Thompson, Thianthai, and Hidayana 2007). My analysis rests on a comparative, cultural critique of the museums' representations and narratives. In this respect, it is not focused on the details or practices of museum curation (cf. Keur 2007). Similarly, while I focus on the historical narratives of the museum, I am not engaging with contemporary theories and evidence of Southeast Asian history (cf. Thompson 2009). Rather, I discuss the historical narratives of the museums as they are presented (although I have included a few explanatory endnotes with regard to some of the more contested historical themes).
In the following I examine the numerous ways through which museums produce narrative, visual and symbolic constructions of nations and, at the same time, ideas of the world beyond the nation, including regional imaginings of Southeast Asia. Of special importance are the interrelated territorial and ethnological representations--that is representations of places and of people--within the national museums. I focus first on the idea of enframing the nation, particularly through maps, drawing both on ideas from Thongchai (1994) of cartography as a modern form of power and Mitchell (1991) on the ways in which enframing--drawing boundaries around subjects and nations--creates senses of order, both internal and external. The internal order of the nation and the external order of international relations are simultaneously produced through the narratives and visual representations found in national museums. Further, I examine fields of representation within the museums, including national ethnology, origin stories and histories in which nations emerge and broader connections fade away. As modern nations appear in these historical narratives, they become increasingly embodied (Thongchai's idea of the "geo-body") and these national geo-bodies become sites threatened by outside forces (particularly foreign invasions) and subject to territorial loss and expansion. Finally, I discuss how, with the establishment of the territorially robust nation state geo-body, a new form of engaging the world becomes not only possible, but hegemonic--international relations in the form of relations between nation states (cf. Wang 2005). These are represented within national museums as a final form of framing and reification through narratives and images of such relations, as well as through expatriated exhibits travelling from one national museum to another.
Mapping and Enframing the Nation
The entry foyer of the Vietnam History Museum in Hanoi is lined with four large maps. Three of these maps--of points of interest, ethno-linguistic groups, and a geographic relief map--show Vietnam in detail, with Cambodia and portions of Laos, Thailand, and China outlined around the edges. The fourth map is of "Vietnam within Southeast Asia Dong Nam A)". Maps, such as these scattered throughout national museums, are the most obvious and explicit mode through which the nation is enframed and the world beyond the nation is represented. Such enframing simultaneously produces a national-territorial order and extra-national territorial order. Maps produce a visual image and representation of the abstract concept of a national geo-body as a territorially bound nation state (cf. Thongchai 1994). At the same time, they situate the nation state in a broader frame of reference (at least for those that have some reference to the world beyond the geo-body--which is the case for most but not all maps). While the intention of national museums is to celebrate and …
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Publication information: Article title: The World beyond the Nation in Southeast Asian Museums. Contributors: Thompson, Eric C. - Author. Journal title: SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia. Volume: 27. Issue: 1 Publication date: April 2012. Page number: 54+. © 1999 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.
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