Exhibiting the Past: Historical Memory and the Politics of Museums in Postsocialist China

By Kloeckner, Léo | China Perspectives, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Exhibiting the Past: Historical Memory and the Politics of Museums in Postsocialist China


Kloeckner, Léo, China Perspectives


Kirk A. Denton, Exhibiting the Past: Historical Memory and the Politics of Museums in Postsocialist China, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2014, 250 pp.

This book offers an original analysis of official accounts by Chinese authorities of the nation's past, with a special focus on museums. Kirk A. Denton, professor of Chinese literature at Ohio State University, seeks to understand and measure the state's implication in elaborating and framing official discourse, as relayed through museums. His analysis treats the museum as a political object, noting that "museums and memorial sites are implicated in a highly politicised process of memorisation and representation of the past, and are dealt with by multiple ideological forces including Maoism, liberalism and neoliberalism" (p. 3).

The analysis covers all places, institutions, and practices identifiable as memorial sites in Pierre Nora's sense. For instance, the author devotes an entire chapter to "Red Tourism," examining the production of figures and exemplary personages (revolutionary martyrs, popular heroes, and model leaders) that are featured in these touristic practices and that legitimise the regime. Denton thus offers a precise insight into China's memorial landscape marked by this "exhibition rhetoric" and composed of a great variety of sites. He makes a break with "new museology," which regards the museum as a place where visitors' subjectivities play out, thus turning it into a space for interpretation and collective construction of meaning. He sees the museum as a configuration serving the state's discourse, but without negating visitors' ability to criticise such official discourse.

Using a Foucauldian perspective, the author adopts a resolutely "statist" approach and distances himself from the recent trend in certain currents of social sciences toward stressing the role of individual agents in the social process. In his view, this tendency obscures the state's role in constructing the Chinese museal landscape. Although a vehicle of state ideology under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the museum is not reduced to a simple manifestation of monolithic propaganda or rigid institution. Museums, like the state itself, are pulled between "an old socialist discourse and a new market ideology" (p. 9). Retention of an official communist line and the strengthening of the CCP's hold over civil society since 1989 in a marked context of passage to a market economy has, in his view, led to the production of an "ideologically ambiguous space" (p. 9), which the museum reflects.

His analysis also rests as much on the study of the narrative, to put it plainly, presented to visitors, as on that of the discourse of actors producing this narrative. It rests on an examination of diverse materials (visual, textual, architectural) presented in the museums, as well as archival documents and records from different periods helping the author put in perspective the evolution of the rhetoric of historical exhibitions from the end of the empire until now. The discourses analysed are not only of actors who are part of museum institutions but also of visitors, some of whom deflect or reinterpret the visual rhetorical displays set up by the authorities. Therein lies the book's finesse, succeeding as it does in going beyond a schematic and sterile juxtaposition of the points of view of the state and the individual.

Each chapter in the book corresponds to a museum type, helping cover the complexity and diversity of the "ambiguous ideological space" (p. 9) that constitutes the museum. Most museums studied mainly seek to commemorate episodes in the nation's past: history museums (Chapter 1); museums devoted to memory of the revolution (Chapters 2 and 3); those dedicated to the memory of national martyrs (Chapter 4); military museums (Chapter 5); and those dealing with the memory of the Japanese invasion (Chapter 6). …

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