Exhibitions and Empire: National Parks and the Performance of Manifest Destiny

By Patin, Thomas | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions and Empire: National Parks and the Performance of Manifest Destiny


Patin, Thomas, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Introduction

For some time before the national parks were established, the nineteenth-century American cultural elite suffered an "embarrassment" at the lack, when compared to Europe, of a national cultural identity based on a long and established artistic, architectural, and literary heritage (Runte 11 ). At the same time, however, it was obvious that what America lacked in cultural treasures it more than made up for in natural wonders. The American landscape became an effective substitute for a missing national tradition and a repository of national pride. By the mid to late nineteenth century, cultural nationalists saw the western environment, especially places like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, as unparalleled and they looked to scenery as a form of cultural redemption (Runte 7-8, 18, 41 ).

This redemption, however, could only be accomplished if parts of the natural world could be converted into cultural heritage. How was such a conversion possible? Only figuratively, of course. That is, this conversion was carried out through the use of a number of rhetorical devices that were so effective that their status as rhetoric was forgotten or missed altogether. I am thinking here especially of figures of speech, painterly rhetoric, and museological techniques that allow for the natural world to be presented as part of a national identity. Certain figures of speech turned natural formations into cultural artifacts. Pictorial rhetoric naturalized historically specific cultural events and social developments. Finally, the use of various museological techniques in the presentation of nature in parks conflated the spaces of museums with the spaces of parks and produced (and still produce) what Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has called the "museum effect" that shapes the experience of the park visitor (410).

My primary concern in this essay is with the use of various techniques borrowed from painting and museums that are used in the presentation of nature in the national parks. Using several national parks as examples, I want to suggest that parks are essentially museological institutions, not because they preserve and conserve, but because they employ many of the techniques of display, exhibition, and presentation that have been used by museums to organize and regulate the vision of visitors. The "museum effect" is the result of a strategy that insinuates the museum into the wilderness and produces a so-called "vignette of America," furthering the idea that natural wonders are part of America's cultural heritage (fig. 1).

Also useful for the conversion of nature into cultural heritage is the implicit attitude that nature, especially in the form of the landscape, is already a raw material that can be shaped into a cultural artifact at will. According to W. J. T. Mitchell, landscape can be understood as symbolic form, i.e., subject matter. Landscape can be represented by painting, but at the same time landscape itself could be "a physical medium" in and through which "cultural meanings and values are encoded," no matter if the landscape in question is a garden, a piece of architecture, or a place we call "nature" ("Imperial Landscape" 14). Landscape, from Mitchell's view, is always already artificial even in the moment of its beholding, even before it is the subject of a painting, a photograph, or some other form of representation. A painting of a landscape is best understood, then, as a representation of something that is already a representation in its own right (Mitchell, "Imperial Landscape" 14). The landscape itself is not only a natural scene, but "a natural representation of a natural scene, a trace or icon of nature in nature itself, as if nature were imprinting and encoding its essential structures on our perceptual apparatus" (Mitchell, "Imperial Landscape" 15).

What Mitchell calls the "semiotic features" of landscape are extraordinarily useful for imperialism, creating a space for the expansion of "civilization," while at the same time making expansion into the landscape a "natural" event ("Imperial Landscape" 17). …

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