Idolization of History

This post was originally shared on the Tangible Education blog.

UNESCO defines cultural heritage as tangible or intangible, referring either to objects such as paintings or monuments, or to stories or legends. The selection, preservation, and display of a nation’s culture and heritage reveals a lot about that nation’s or that culture’s self-perception. These words—selection, preservation, display—are all words that sound very familiar because they are very often embedded into the mission statements of museums. Curation, in its most basic form, is inherently an act of exclusion; this is unavoidable. By selecting objects to be displayed in a museum exhibition, one has to leave some out, otherwise an exhibition would just be a jumbled mess.

Cities or countries are also capable of doing this, by promoting certain locations, buildings, parks, etc. This act of selection is also one of bias: how does a country present itself to the world? This blog post explains how David Fleming dismissed the idea of museum neutrality because museums have to adopt a positive ethical position in order “to support issues such as free speech, non-discrimination, public engagement, public benefit, accuracy and, in relation to funding and partnering, editorial integrity”. Furthermore, with the power of curation, museums play the role of deciding what it is important to know or see about a city’s or nation’s culture and history.

During a recent two-week trip to Seoul, I noticed that the Joseon dynasty—the dynasty preceding the Japanese invasion at the turn of the century, the US occupation, and the Korean War—was idealized in that their museums often referenced this period with much more space and effort than other periods, and in that monuments such as palaces have been preserved from this period. Of course, South Korea has not taken as much care to preserve negative parts of its history, such as Japanese street names from when the Japanese forced all Koreans to adopt Japanese names. Of course, it makes sense for Seoul and Koreans to idolize this period of time; the entire Korean peninsula was united, Korea enjoyed peace for more than a century, and some of contemporary Korean customs and traditions date back to this period, such as the custom of holding your hand on your arm when giving or receiving something (as Koreans used to do in order to hold their large sleeves up). I’m not criticizing the desire to promote a nostalgic period of the past, but observing and analyzing it and its implications.

In Amsterdam, the Dutch Golden Age is the period that has been zealously preserved and displayed—from the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour, which exhibits the most famous and important Dutch painters of this time, to the Canal Ring, which was built during the 17th century Golden Age and is still lined with many 17th and 18th century buildings. To the world, the Dutch Golden Age is likely the most memorable aspect of Dutch history, when the Netherlands made its mark on the world stage as an international shipping and trading power, as well as an artistically powerful counterbalance to the Italian Renaissance in the south. The heritage of slavery in the Netherlands, and the impact of Dutch colonization during the Golden Age, however, is not on the tips of everyone’s tongues. At the most recent Reinwardt Symposium, for example, the Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits pointed out that some exhibitions are more difficult to fund than others, giving the current exhibition on the relationship between South Africa and the Netherlands as an example.

This act of preserving and displaying the “proudest” moments of national history seems to be one of the more obvious remnants of international fairs and expositions, which were somewhat like predecessors to our contemporary museums. At these fairs, nations would often compete—in a non-combative way—to display their innovation and wealth in varying forms (intellectual wealth, wealth of colonies, wealth of culture, etc.). One could say this culminated most infamously in the Kitchen Debate between Khrushchev and Nixon in the 1950s: although the two countries were meant simply to exchange exhibitions to promote understanding between the two countries, the American kitchen display seemed to be a much more pointed criticism of communism and the (lack of?) Soviet success; thus, the innocent exchange of exhibitions resulted in a more heated political debate.

Museums that idolize and focus on these positive periods of national history seem to echo the intent of these international fairs. Is this a form of soft diplomacy? Or a cold war? By soft diplomacy, I mean it in a way that it subtly displays a country’s assets, perhaps offering them up to other countries by participating in these international fairs. On the other hand, however, it could almost be seen as a display of periods of strength or domination; by aggrandizing the Joseon Dynasty, Seoul almost seems to ruffle its feathers. The Joseon Dynasty was the last period during which the Korean peninsula was united (without occupation by external forces).

What would it be like if we displayed our nation’s most shameful moments more prominently? In this case, Germany might serve as an example. When I visited Berlin, I was taken aback by the tangible presence of Holocaust awareness. To me, it felt as though there were a reminder on nearly every street corner; many of the cultural organizations at the very least acknowledged the presence of this history and its effects on both German and international contemporary society. In particular, many organizations were preparing to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. What are the ramifications of focusing on the more negative aspects of one’s history? What each country chooses to preserve can indicate a lot about the character of that country; by preserving elements from the Joseon Dynasty, Seoul tells the narrative that its country and its culture are great, but that they were wronged; by preserving elements of the Dutch Golden Age, the Netherlands proves its worthiness despite its size; by preserving elements from World War II and Nazism, Germany displays its shame and its determination not to stray into that territory again.

Nations and museums often freeze time in the moment of that country’s or city’s highest culture importance. Arguably, the most significant points in a city’s or country’s history can be either positive or negative—Seoul’s memory of its former national cohesion is a nostalgic one before it lost control of its own history, but Hitler’s rise to power and his ensuing reign in Germany have obviously had drastic effects on the country that would be naive to brush under the rug. Perhaps it’s most important to be critical of what is emphasized and what is excluded. In children’s movies, there’s usually a stereotypical bad guy and a hero, but we all know life—and culture and history—is more complicated than that.

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