The discussions of May 2-3, which ranged from practical questions of the work of each individual curator in the group to the theoretical reading of writers such as Sharon MacDonald and Dominique Poulot intrigued and stimulated me, and working through my notes, I hope to try to begin to make sense of two days of discussions. What I initially found interesting about the seminar is the variety of experiences that each of us brought to the room; though we all work in some way with cultural heritage materials, we approach our work from diverse disciplines, both academically and practically.
The concept of “Patrimoine” was the primary discussion point; this word is difficult and perhaps impossible to translate into English, and for me, to learn about it and discuss it reflectively was fairly thrilling. While heritage and history both engage with and preserve the past, I understand patrimonie as a deeper concept. Patrimoine takes into acount the often inseverable connection that people maintain with objects, both nationally and traditionally. Patrimonialization imerses people in history and encompasses discussions of social construction, institutional privilege, conflict, and of course, memory.
As one of our authors writes, “memory is not history,” but memory is connected to all of these processes. Memory, and further, “memorialization,” is a part of the histories of nationalization that frequently came up in our discussions; the history of memorialization that is so intricately linked with nationalism and “progress” and affects us as curators and academics informed and problematized our arguments.
In asking sometimes difficult questions of the curator, (in particular, who are we? what to collect? how do we put it on display?) one can begin to ask the questions of identity and practices around objects that transmit “heritage” and also understand knowledge-making in the history of science and museums. One can begin to ask who is really writing the narrative, to wonder whether this narrative is built from the curator or the discourse, or both. I found it helpful to think about this in terms of the “Evolution of Heritage” that Jose outlined for us at the beginning of the session. I returned frequently in our discussions to these steps, particularly when discussing the construction of national ideology around heritage objects. The first step is vandalism, then preservation, relocation, reinterpretation, patrimonialization (in these last two steps the object assumes an identity other than its intended or original use,) contestation, conflict, restitution, and finally memory. Outside of the object itself, to whom does this memory belong? How can this inform us as curators and academics? Is the solution a flexible exhibitionary form that recognises the incomplete continuity of history?
Rather than a change in gestalt, the exhibition needs to rewrite the narrative surrounding the object. Perhaps this is why I found Samuel Alberti’s argument to rewrite (or to write) the biographies of objects so compelling. The article recognizes the fluidity of the object, the multiple interpretations that arise from it, as well as the dynamicism of the museum. It recognizes the autonomy of both viewer and object and reinvents the object not as mute, material culture, but as a series of networks and builders of relationships between the actors in museums of science from collector to viewer to scientist. The article uncovers the multi-valenced role that objects play within the mindset of all of the actors within a museum (collector, curator, viewer, etc.) , and perhaps in the objects’ mindsets themselves.
Though I have not begun to unravel the multitudes of layers that it would take to move into an object’s mindset, I hope that through our discussions and the open discourse of our seminar format we can begin to discuss the role that objects play in space, the way we play in the space of objects.
Jennie Rose Halperin