Anthony  D  Buckley

Why not invent the past we display in museums?

by Anthony D Buckley

In (ed.) G Kavanagh Making Histories in Museums Leicester, University of Leicester Press 1996.


Past events - - - have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. ... (It is) whatever the Party chooses to make it. ... Recreated in whatever shape is needed at the moment, ... this new version is the past, and no different past can ever have existed. (George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four)

 Once upon a time, four blind men encountered an object in a jungle. One man said he had found a rope; another a tree trunk; another an overhanging wall; the fourth a python. Not until they discussed the matter did they come to a proper conclusion. They had, of course, found an elephant. (Popular tale)

Compared with the opinions about the elephant, the stories which are told of the past are legion. There are countless periods of time, countless locations, countless topics. One historian writes about war; another about religion; another about the economy. History itself is political. Its narratives reflect the class, the ethnicity, the personality, the hobby-horses, the economic interests of the person who tells the story. History can be a form of intellectual property: it can "belong" to a social group (Harrison 1992). Histories are a focus for the allegiance of social groups. They are used operationally as models for action (Caws 1978), they provide historical charters for the present (Malinowski 1963, Bohannan 1952) They are used as rhetoric (Billig 1985). (see also Buckley 1989; Buckley and Kenney 1995).

From an awareness of the complexity which lies behind history, a relativist orthodoxy has entered the world of museums. Relativism states that all ideas arise out of a particular culture or subculture. It assumes too that all cultures and the ideas of all cultures have an equal value. According to this view, the truth of an idea is not "absolute"; it is "relative" to the viewpoint and culture of the person who holds them.

This acceptance of cultural relativism in museums comes from both left and right. For many years, liberals and socialists saw cultural relativism as a decisive answer to racism (Stein 1986). Racist oppression and colonial conquest had been sustained by the belief that white culture was superior to all others. By claiming that all cultures were equal, relativism could undermine this chauvinism. No culture, it asserted, was superior to another, just different.

At first, in its heyday, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a pleasing iconoclasm about the idea that the ideas of all cultures were equally true. Science, we learned, arose out of inspiration (Watson 1970) or anarchy (Feyerabend 1975). Ideas such as these were invigorating: they smelt of freedom and fresh air.

Later, however, in the 1980s and 1990s, the fresh air acquired a different aroma. Relativism ceased to be rebellious and became an orthodoxy. The notion that governments and private corporations will manipulate information through public relations and advertizingceaced to be disreputable and became commonplace. Image replaced truth. We were left with only a multiplicity of points of view. Relativism was now being used by the strong.

In the museum world, relativism justifies the bread and circuses of commerce. There has been a growth of theme parks and display centres, and the ethos of these institutions has spread into more sober mainstream museums. The prime aim of such bodies is commercial: their concern to raise revenue. And to this end, there is a new emphasis on providing not only for the comfort and entertainment of the public, but also on providing versions of history that "people want to see".

Given the pressure to produce histories which serve particular causes, some hard questions arise. Should the museum curator invent soporific pasts which soothe the self-regard of powerful groups in society? Is the truth even possible? Is a curator a kind of public relations person? Can one take "authenticity" seriously? Does truth matter at all? Is truthful history merely boring, of no interest to the paying customer?

There is a more sinister question at stake here too. The extract from Orwell (1954), given above, is also quoted by a civilized writer, David Lowenthal in his acclaimed book The past is another country (1993). In the quotation, Orwell exaggerates, so as to exemplify, the dangers inherent in both Stalin's and Hitler's attitude to the truth. These dictators, whom Orwell roundly despised, saw the truth as indefinitely expendable.

What is unnerving is that Lowenthal sympathizes less with the libertarian socialist, George Orwell than with the authoritarian Big Brother. "Like Orwell's Ministry of Truth," he writes, "which continually revised the past to show that the Party had always been right, we brainwash ourselves into believing that we simply reveal the true past - a past which is unavoidably, however, partly of our own manufacture." (Lowenthal, 1993, 327)

One must surely question this epistemology. Can we really accept that Hitler, Stalin and Orwell's Ministry of Truth were right after all? Are the only valid epistemological questions to do with power? Is truth determined only by the person who controls the medium? Must we lie down and accept that history, in and out of museums, will always bend the facts to benefit some social group? Is the truth really just what the powerful or the consumer (or anybody) chooses it to be?

The question finally for museum people is this: if the truth is just a matter of self-interested opinion, why should we not just invent the history we present in museums?

I maintain that it is not enough to say that the truth is merely the view that one's own social group happens to hold. But it is also absurd to say that the ideas generated by all cultures and are equally valid or true. A better perspective is a dialectical one, in which, like the four blind men, we engage in dialogue with others. In such a view of history, we can learn what the world looks like from other peoples' perspectives. Thus we can hope that all our own more partial visions can be superseded. Such a view respects the truth while not claiming that any one version is complete.

My argument is that it is both theoretically and practically possible to present a history in museums which respects the truth, and moves forward in search of it. More than this, I believe a respect for the facts in historical presentations sustains some of the better elements of human society. I want also to resist that kind of commercialism which does not care what it tells its public so long as they pay their money at the gate.



The first step is to suggest, that extreme forms of historical relativism, are theoretically untenable. One version of this view comes from Thomas Kuhn (1962), a seminal theorist of the history of science. Kuhn argues that scientific knowledge is organized around the paradigmatic work of a great scientist in the past. After a scientific revolution (such as that of Copernicus or Darwin) known facts from old paradigms are reassembled to fit into new paradigms. When they do not fit the new theory, they are quietly ignored.

Kuhn's hypothesis has been widely accepted, and, indeed, I have myself used his approach in a study of the quasi-scientific knowledge of an African people (Buckley 1985). Kuhn, however, is mistaken when he claims that a scientific paradigm will alter the very language of science so that adherents of different paradigms will be unable to communicate with each other. A similar viewpoint is expressed in the more radical book by Feyerabend (1975).

There are three broad objections to this sort of argument.

The first objection is that this extreme form of relativism contradicts itself. It casts a shadow of "irony" or doubt not only on the truth of the knowledge being investigated, but on knowledge as such (Woolgar 1983; Woolgar and Pawluch 1985a; 1985b). Relativism denies that there is any truth which is independent of particular, culturally-determined theories. Nobody judges a theory by whether it fits the facts. Rather the facts are dependent on the theory. In short, relativism implies, therefore, that all theories are equally true, and equally false. If effectively all theories are untrue, then it follows that the statement "all theories are untrue" is also untrue. This kind of paradoxical argument is, of course, unacceptable. Woolgar and Pawluch (1985a) call it "ontological gerrymandering" (see also Dixon1977).

A second objection comes from linguistics. There is an older view that each language divides the world into its own peculiar semantic categories and that these determine a people's perceptions and understanding (eg Whorf 1941): but this opinion has been seriously challenged. Berlin and Kay (1969) and their followers (eg Berlin 1978; Brown 1977; Collier et al 1976; Rosch 1972; 1977a; 1977b; 1978; Rosch et al 1976) have established that individuals from different countries, speaking different languages, see the world in the same "basic" categories. It seems there is a bedrock of common concrete experience which can be communicated between individuals of whatever culture. There is, in effect, a universal language which, at its simplest, consists of pointing at objects. This language of pointing translates easily into the more complicated human languages based on sound. And this procedure in turn enables individuals to teach each other their own languages and therefore communicate with each other. It is this facility that enables a European to walk through an African forest and understand what an indigenous healer means when he says "these leaves cure fever." (Buckley 1985)

The third objection to an extreme relativism is that it leaves the individual stranded inside his own head, unable to interact with the social and physical environment that sustains him. It seems more plausible to say that the theories which people hold bear some relation to the real world. They are not mere theories. People everywhere make practical judgements based on their knowledge of the world. We depend on such judgements to allow us to cross the road. This kind of pragmatic weighing of evidence does not produce "The Truth" in some final sense. This is because all representations of reality are partial, and will always exclude much of the data. Nevertheless, empirical experience exists independently of the theories which elucidate it. And a critical judgement which uses available evidence to decide between different versions of the truth is a universal human faculty.



Having argued that it is at least possible to be truthful, one must now ask whether the truth is worth telling. Why should historians and curators spend valuable time and money getting their facts right when the general public doesn't always seem to mind very much what it is told? I want to look at some ways in which people actually make use of history, and to suggest that truthful versions of the past are in fact a valuable resource. And then I want to consider the broad nature of curatorship in museums and elsewhere.


History as source of pragmatic models

One reason that people need to have their history cared for by curators is that the past is a source of pragmatic or operational models, models for action (Caws 1978).

It has long been known that when individuals act, they do so imitating the actions of individuals who have gone before them. Piaget (1954, 90) calls this "deferred imitation". One should not, however, see the imitation of past events as a confining activity. On the contrary, by imitating others, one learns a skill. And this skill can be applied for many purposes. More than this, in defining the nature of any given situation, we are not doomed to use only one limited historical metaphor. On the contrary, we may choose eclectically from among a wide range of model situations. And, indeed, the greater the number of models, the better.

It is true, of course, that an individual will sometimes model himself quite slavishly on particular historical figures, or imagine present events precisely to mirror past ones. One much used souce of metaphors for the present have been stories about Hitler. Since 1945, the image of Hitler and his associates has given metaphorical definition to a whole range of political situations, from Margaret Thatcher's unconcern for the poor, through Saddam Hussain's attacks on rich oil shieks, to the killings in Rwanda. Often this talk has been mere rhetoric. Sometimes it has provided practical models. For example, when Anthony Eden invaded Suez in 1956, he undoubtedly saw President Nasser as a "dictator" with insatiable "territorial desires", whom it would be folly to "appease".

Much more important than the slavish application of a particular historical metaphor to the present is a more relaxed use of a range of different models. When used in this way, the past can deepen one's understanding of present events. History in this way provides not naive model answers to practical problems, but rather food for thought.

Santino (1989) for example, discusses the true stories told by conductors on Pullman trains in the United States. These stories about the past give countless different variations upon the same theme, the interrelationship between the porters and their customers. Santino does not suggest that any one narrative will ever provide a conductor with a simple blueprint for action, enabling him to deal once for all with his problems with customers. Together, however, the narratives enrich his understanding of his working environment.

The past is not, of course, the only source of models for action. Popular songs, for example, work in an inherently similar way. Here too, the songs usually provide variations on one theme, in this case, relationships between man and woman. "Stand by your man"; "You will see a stranger across a crowded room" "Zing went the strings of my heart"; "In my solitude". The words of any one song may be banal. Taken together, however, such songs, like the stories of history add up to a sort of wisdom. From this wisdom, one can choose for oneself a course of action, even a kind of identity. As a Noel Coward character says of a song, "It's strange how potent cheap music can be."

And, indeed, there is a well-established psychological approach which suggests that the "scripts" which people employ in their daily lives are given shape not so much by history as by fairy stories. Bettelheim (1977) and Berne (1979) argue, each in rather different ways, that a child constructs important features of his or her identity by identifying with characters in nursery stories.

While historical stories are only one source of such metaphorical models, they are among the most important. "Cheap music", Hamlet, romantic fiction, fairy stories, even soap operas like Neighbours may, indeed, be "potent" in reflecting some present reality. History, however, consists of "true" stories.

History comes with the seal of having been based upon properly researched evidence. Scholars who have been "backstage" (Goffman 1959) during the process of writing know that history involves much interpretation, difference of opinion and even guesswork. Nevertheless, there is an important sense in which a scholarly history is closer to the actual events of the past in a way thatNeighbours or even Hamlet is not. Whereas in fiction, the writer is confined only by his imagination, in history, the writer or curator is confined also by the evidence and by the judgement of peers who are familiar with the evidence. This makes history (and other human sciences) a peculiarly valuable resource for deepening the common understanding of the human situation. And it gives to museum curators a special authority which should not be betrayed.


The past as the basis for rights

Another important use for history is as a basis for identity, and for the rights and duties which adhere to identity. These are negotiated between individuals who exercise social control upon each other (Buckley and Kenney 1995). Here too the past is relevant, for it is in relation to past events that an individual's rights and duties are most frequently defined.

Almost all rights in law, morality and politics are established by past actions. The fact that I own a house or a car depends on the fact that I signed documents and paid sums of money in the past. My property and other rights are deeply involved in past transactions which took place in the past.

The same is true in family life. Family life is rooted in relationships and actions (often marital and sexual ones) which took place in the past. My cousin, for example, is indeed my cousin because of events in the past: my grandfather begat four children; one of whom begat my cousin; another of whom begat me. The core meanings of kinship terms such as "father", "mother", "brother" etc., can only be explained in terms of past events.

Importantly, political rhetoric, demanding rights in the present, usually depends on the stated need to redress past wrongs. There is a whole array of groups whose present claims depend on their having been denied their rights in the past. The political claims, for example, of black people and women arise out of narratives which speak of past discrimination. Other causes arouse less sympathy, but have a similar pattern. German claims to territory in the 1930s, for example, were in part based on their claim to have been unjustly deprived of territory in the past.

I do not suggest that this relationship of present to past is simple. In law courts, in politics and in more informal discourse, there is often dispute about the way things were in the past. And the main reason is that the past can legitimize relationships in the present.

In such disputes, the relative power of the opponents can sometimes be decisive in deciding not only the outcome, but also which version of the past is finally accepted. In her celebrated study of one legal system, that of the Tiv in Nigeria, Bohannan (1952) shows how judges in the courts break their own rules, altering history to suit the powerful interests. When Bohannan tried to produce a definitive history of the Tiv which did not allow for such manoevering, her efforts were strenuously resisted.

And indeed most societies have problems reconciling the existence of powerful people with the principle that the law is based on impartially weighing the evidence of what actually happened in the past. One way out of this difficulty in our own society is for powerful groups to employ expensive procedures and skilled lawyers to ensure that (at crucial moments) a particular historical account favourable to their own cause is upheld.

However, just because the interpretation of history is subject to manipulation, one should not discount its value. On the contrary, since it is the powerful who are most likely to get away with manipulating the past for their own advantage, it is in the interests of the weak to insist that high standards of intellectual probity are maintained. Since evidence is ultimately independent of powerful interests, it provides a source of legal, moral and political legitimacy which ought to be safeguarded. Not least, this is so they may protect the weak against the strong. The past is too valuable to be allowed to become a matter of mere opinion.



Despite the importance of the past in our lives, it is a fact that most people are only trivially concerned about history. One might feel tempted to conclude that the activity of the curator who looks after the documents and artifacts which sustain this past is equally unimportant. And one might claim that the public unconcern for the accuracy or otherwise of historical accounts should be reflected in the curator's own attitude.

This, however, misses much of the point about the role of the curator. Curators ought not to expect their public to be deeply interested in what museums preserve and display. On the contrary, the curator's main role is to look after historical and other culture on behalf of people who are not very interested in it.

It is instructive to look at the curators to be found outside of museums. Curators do not exist only in museums. On the contrary, every interest-group, from the largest ethnic and class groupings to the smallest dramatic society or pigeon-fanciers club has its own traditions and history. And these will be looked after by a "curator" (Buckley and Kenney 1995).

Most museum people are familiar with such "curators". In my own museum, in Northern Ireland, we dub them "buffs". There are railway buffs, Titanic buffs, family history buffs, Orange Order buffs and so on. Such people are ususally a small minority in their own groupings. Nevertheless, they are crucial to the survival of the distinctive traditions of their enthusiasm and of the people who follow them.

One should not be dismissive of the antiquarianism nor of the partisan perspectives of these "curators" of popular culture. It is indeed true that popular "curators" are likely to produce partisan histories. Such people are centrally interested in collecting histories which celebrate their own favoured activity. But rarely will such people try to distort the facts. As Kenney and I have shown, even the notoriously partial histories of Catholics and Protestants in Ulster usually show a meticulous respect for historical truth (Buckley and Kenney 1995).

Not everyone, however, in any interest-group is likely to be interested in the group's culture, traditions and history. I know, for example, of a small club in Northern Ireland devoted to the Chinese system of exercise called Tai Chi. Hardly any of the participants in this activity knows much about Tai Chi's history and traditions. Despite this, the history is crucially important to the group. There is a leader who has studied in China and who passes on the historical anecdotes and fictional parables associated with the art. A few others repeat their leader's stories, reading books to learn more. Most members, however, listen contentedly to the tit-bits they are told, and pick up what they find of interest. One should not assume, however, that the ordinary adherents do not care about the history of Tai Chi. Rather, they are pleased that somebody else, the local curators of the tradition, are looking after it for them.

So too for the museum professional. The general public who come to a museum may not be very interested in history. They may well be looking for a children's entertainment, or for a place to go when it rains. Nevertheless, since they are visiting a museum (and not, say, a cinema) they may well also feel that they deserve to have the real thing, genuine history, well-researched and presented in an accessible form. One might well be surprised at the outcry if people began to suspect that museum curators were making it all up. Museum curators look after history and culture on behalf of a population which is not very interested in it. But this, indeed, is why curators are needed.



This chapter began by noting that part of the modern enthusisasm for relativism arose out of a tolerant desire not to crush the cultures of the poor and the weak. And it is clear that any attempt to redress the balance of relativistic ideas in museums must not do so at the expense of this highly desirable goal.

In particular, in reasserting the idea that historians and others can judge documents and other evidence realistically, I have not pretended that this removes the need to present a variety of different views. Even the most sophisticated work of history, or the cleverest of exhibitions remains only a representation. It will always be only a partial vision, never the whole truth. Each representation will reveal some aspect of past events, but also hide others.

Historians and museum curators, therefore, resemble the blind men with the elephant. To gain a reasonably accurate picture of the past, they need to ask different individuals about their experience of it. Such a dialogue, however, will be both creative and destructive. For when individuals learn from each other, their old partial visions will give way to new, more complete ones.

An important reason for listening to the other peoples' views has to do with is to do with the fact that individuals and groups claim to "own" particular versions of history (Harrison 1992), the history often echoing their present needs. There is an inevitable tendency for museums to reflect the aspirations of the social class to which museum curators themselves belong. Museums also tend to defer to powerful groups in society. To counterbalance this, museums should strive to present different histories, especially those belonging to less powerful social groups (Karp and Levine 1991).

The argument in this chapter, therefore, has had two features. The main point has been to argue that it is contrary to sound theory and good sense to assert that all versions of history (or any other domain of knowledge) should be treated as equally true. My aim here has been to reassert the idea that it is honourable to try to find the truth in history (as in other disciplines), and that this quest should be central to the activity of a museum curator.

I have also argued, however, that one should not therefore overturn an important insight which arose from the relativistic orthodoxy of the sixties. This is the idea that one should respect the diversity of opinion that exists. An implication is that museums should continue along the now well-worn path of representing the diversity of different opinions about the past. But one should do this earnestly, not to satisfy the whims of important groups in society, such as "consumers", but in the hope of enhancing the depth of human understanding.




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