- Contested Histories in Public Space: Memory, Race, and Nation
At the turn of the twenty-first century the practice of public history is in flux. Editors Walkowitz and Knauer, along with their contributors, capture the contest between national history spoken in one voice and the diverse memories and identities that challenge it. The second in a two-part series, this volume opens with an act of creation—the present creating national memory—and closes with the living haunting the dead. In between, thirteen essays explore public memory (or the forgetting) of colonial treachery, human cruelty, enslavement, displacement, exploitation, marginalization, disfranchisement, and confinement.
Contributions on national museums in New Zealand and Canada, monuments in Australia, a British Library exhibit, the Alamo, and Ellis Island make up the first two sections. These essays outline the impossibility of narratives of national progress and stable identity. Polyvocality appears. It is welcomed, imposed, resisted, or read into these sites. The last two sections look at postcolonial public memory through the lens of the presence or absence of the state, evident in an Afrikaner monument in South Africa, a mytho-historical textbook in Ecuador, a plaza and a pageant in Oaxaca, a park and a pillar in Kathmandu, the “cradle of samba” in Rio, the Afrocuban religion in Havana, and a Caribbean homecoming to France’s Pantheon. In these postimperial and diasporic spaces, race, gender, ethnicity, and class serve as markers for political and social mobilization.
The editors describe the volume as history in opposition. For the most part, shortcomings and failures dog these sites of public memory. Development plans for the Serrinha neighborhood in Rio privilege national (and international) agendas over local prerogatives. Ellis Island’s curators have not incorporated the insights of whiteness studies, and so on. The shared problems of these spaces of public memory raise questions of definition and relevance. The subjects of this study [End Page 429] are fixed (monument) and performed (pageant), scripted (museums) and unscripted (occupation of a town square). How does the nature of these different sites shape their meaning? At the turn of the twenty-first century, one begins to wonder about the very viability of the kind of public memorializing the authors describe. Historians of public memory writing elsewhere, such as Mona Ozouf, have wondered aloud if the kind of memorialization occurring in these essays even matters.1 In answer, one might extend the already plastic definition of public space offered by Pierre Nora to a future volume in the series, redefining public spaces to include malls and sports arenas (private spaces coded as public) and virtual worlds (video games, YouTube, and Facebook).
Even as public memorists define and redefine their object of study, multiple factors unravel the univocal narrative. A public-commons approach to information shapes how people understand the present and the past, with Wikipedia and others increasingly supplementing, if not supplanting, expert knowledge. The linguistic turn, deconstruction, postmodernism, and poststructuralism have driven a stake into the heart of the master narrative. “Radical history” campaigns to include lay perspectives and alternative voices in accounts of the past. The volume focuses on historical narratives that have opened up to (or been opened up by) previously excluded indigenous, marginalized, and/or suppressed voices. The message: Museum professionals, economic developers, government officials, pageant personnel, and historians ignore the voices of community activists and elders at their peril.
Contesting history in public yields unintended consequences first, many of the essays note the risk of essentializing the indigenous, thereby equating the “native” with static “culture” while remembering a colonial or imperial past as an embodiment of “progress.” Second, as the essay on Aboriginal peoples in Australia notes, parts of the public unapologetically celebrate racist narratives of national progress, venting and raging through “talkback” radio at inclusion and revision. Opening up public pasts to multiple voices means that self-styled defenders of the status quo will seek a place at the drafting table of history too. Finally, the essay on Canada’s national...