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History & Memory 12.2 (2001) 122-141

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Representing the Disputed Past of Northern Scotland: The Highland Clearances in Museums

Laurence Gouriévidis

The past and its representation have been the focus of much recent work in the area of cultural studies, history, sociology and anthropology; interdisciplinary approaches have also enhanced our knowledge of the social function of memory. In particular, the importance of the past and process of remembrance in identity construction, individual and collective, has been repeatedly highlighted. 1 Since the appearance of Halbwachs's seminal work on collective memory, the concept has been alternatively employed as self-explanatory, with caution, or rejected; it has been redefined and fine-tuned to suit different perspectives. 2 Collective memory will be used here to signify the past as it is represented in those "sites" whose object it is, in Western societies, to fulfill that particular task. Monuments, history books, commemorations, galleries and museums are among such sites. All partake in the production of history and never stand in pure innocence but are subject to powerful forces of a political, social or economic nature as well as conventions linked with professional practices or scientific methods. 3

Museums of history in particular are quintessential sites of memory. They project a vision of a shared past through the history they produce and the narrative they construct. This inevitably implies selection and interpretation: the production of historical texts and the projection of a communal identity offered to the gaze of others--outside visitors--and reflected back to the surrounding community. The study of their social [End Page 122] role, methods and influence is a fairly recent phenomenon; challenging questions are being asked about the origin, elaboration, packaging and impact of the narratives they construct. Many scholars writing on the force of remembrance have brought attention to the dangers which lie in the construction or reconstruction of traumatic events in particular. 4 More generally, work on museums has emphasized their role of projecting identity whilst also being "contested terrains." 5 They can voice dissonant views such as minorities' viewpoints. Herein surfaces another of their functions, as sites where alternative visions of the past can be expressed, where dominant versions can be contested and new texts produced. "They can be seen as key sites of contests of social remembrance." 6 During a conference organized in 1988 by the Scottish Museum Council and dealing with the presentation of Scotland's past, it is precisely this potential for redefinition and contest offered by museums that Gaynor Kavanagh underlined:

The museum is a legitimising institution. It therefore finds itself with considerable power.... On the one hand, the images created by museums can buttress social identity, and consolidate social positions and class interests. On the other they can enable the opening of new ideas and the articulation of long silent questions. They can even provide the basis for an agenda for change. 7

This model of interpretation has been applied to Scottish heritage in a sociological study that focused on the most influential agencies involved in this aspect of cultural production in Scotland. Far from reproducing the dominant ideology, museums in Scotland were seen to signal alternative views:

As regards the Scottish dimension of heritage, it is obvious that it is doubly peripheral to the dominant but often implicit English one. It is plainly not English, but also escapes hierarchical ordering in the way the north of England ("The North") does not. It has the capacity to generate an alternative political and cultural consciousness. 8 [End Page 123]

This study demonstrated the inadequacy within the Scottish context of early explanatory analyses on the explosion of heritage centers in Britain. The anglocentric nature of those works--notwithstanding their titles-- linked the heritage wave to the strategy of a politically conservative élite seeking to exhibit a muted version of the past devoid of pain and conflict, somewhat neutralized and hence unthreatening for the present. 9 The heritage craze was also read in terms of the decline of Britain and concomitant rise in expressions of nationalist fervor and national cohesion. Those...


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