The Representation of the Past: Museums and Heritage in the Postmodern World

The Representation of the Past: Museums and Heritage in the Postmodern World

The Representation of the Past: Museums and Heritage in the Postmodern World

The Representation of the Past: Museums and Heritage in the Postmodern World

Synopsis

The 1980s and early 1990s have seen a marked increase in public interest in our historic environment. The museum and heritage industry has expanded as the past is exploited for commercial profit. In The Representation of the Past, Kevin Walsh examines this international trend and questions the packaging of history which serves only to distance people from their own heritage. A superficial, unquestioning portrayal of the past, he feels, separates us from an understanding of our cultural and political present. Here, Walsh suggests a number of ways in which the museum can fulfill its potential - by facilitating our comprehension of cultural identity.

Excerpt

At the time of writing, winter 1991, a number of nations are at war; the stock market and the value of gold and oil fluctuate in an almost unprecedented manner. Warfare seems to boost stock market values the world over. The wealth of nations oscillates by the second, responding to events that are taking place many thousands of miles away. A possible war in the Gulf immediately results in price increases at petrol pumps all over the world, the war begins and stock markets rally and the price of oil tumbles. Economic processes are today more removed from the daily experiences of more people than ever before.

This remoteness from economic processes is reflected in the remoteness, for most people in the First World, from the harsher aspects of life. The tabloid press hankers for the blood of innocent Iraqis, and patriotically wishes ‘our lads’ good luck. Politicians welcome the absence of casualties, as if the Iraqi civilians do not exist. It is this distancing from many of the processes which affect our daily lives that is modernity, or more recently, post-modernity. Many acts of endeavour, bravery, stupidity and barbarism have taken place in the name of modernization. Most of us exist in a society where any real hardship is nonexistent, although our prosperity is another society’s poverty.

Museums and heritage have contributed to this distancing from the processes which affect our daily lives, and have promoted an uncritical patriotism which numbs our ability to understand and communicate with other nations. War seems acceptable to many of those who will only have to suffer the vetted images transmitted, via global telecommunications networks, into their living rooms. The histories of warfare, poverty, oppression and disease have been transformed into media of shallow titillation—from 1066, to World War I and the Blitz. During the summer of 1991, a series of mock battles is planned by the conservation organization English Heritage. The diary of these events mentions a ‘Civil War Battle Spectacular’, an event which the reader is told is ‘Subject to developments

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