Pasts beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism

Pasts beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism

Pasts beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism

Pasts beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism


Contributing to current debates on relationships between culture and the social, and the the rapidly changing practices of modern museums as they seek to shed the legacies of both evolutionary conceptions and colonial science, this important new work explores how evolutionary museums developed in the USA, UK, and Australia in the late nineteenth century.


In proposing the concept of 'time's arrow' as a way of imaging linear and directional time, Stephen Jay Gould summarises its effect as that of representing history as 'an irreversible sequence of unrepeatable events' within which each moment 'occupies its own distinct position in a temporal series, and all moments, considered in proper sequence, tell a story of linked events moving in a direction' (Gould, 1987:11). Bruno Latour, in considering the temporal strategies of modernism, suggests that the belief that the past from which the modern differentiates itself has passed irreversibly is the result of a set of procedures through which otherwise disparate elements are cohered into temporally marked sets whose succession generates the appearance of time's passage as a continuous flow. Time's arrow is, in this interpretation, a fabrication:

Entities have to be made contemporary by moving in step and have to be replaced by other things equally well aligned if time is to become a flow. Modern temporality is the result of a retraining imposed on entities which would pertain to all sorts of times and possess all sorts of ontological statuses without this harsh disciplining.

(Latour, 1993:72)

In the case of the temporal sequencing associated with the historical sciences, this harsh disciplining was chiefly the work of the typological method, whose ordering of objects into the relations between geological, natural and human time made those sequences thinkable while at the same time giving them a material form. the role of museums, as the centres of calculation within which objects from diverse locations were collected and arranged into these sequences, was thus a constitutive one. It is not, that is to say, a matter of seeing typological museum displays as simply a means of representing the new orderings of time emerging from the historical sciences. Rather, playing a role in relation to those sciences analogous to that played by the laboratory in relation to the experimental sciences, the museum played a key role in the operations through which the historical sciences measured and partitioned time, and distributed human and non-human actors across it. Yet the typological method was also central to the public pedagogy of the evolutionary museum just as it was the lynchpin of the new system for managing objects and the relations between them which made it possible for earlier collections to be disassembled and reassembled in new configurations.

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