This week in Public History we looked at the issue of Repatriation in Canada and the United States. I am very much pro repatriation. The whole concept of a museum, and the preservation of historical material culture as it supposedly was in the time period, is, of course, a construct, and not the only way to celebrate heritage and culture.
Last week our speaker was James Cullingham, a documentary filmmaker who specializes in issues of social justice. The subjects he has covered in his films include Native rights in Manitoba as compared to the rights allotted to Blacks during Apartheid in South Africa, as well as how Jews and Palestinians interpret the conflict in their education systems. In class he said something along the lines of he believes that cultures should absolutely represent the culture of others, and to set up boundaries in art is ludicrous. And I wholeheartedly agree with this.
But of course, that is part of the problem that led to the need for repatriation, one culture imposing their epistemology upon that of another, and deciding how culture is to be represented.
However, James Cullingham, and the speaker that we had this week after our discussion about Repatriation, Neal Ferris, are both people who use tools that are arguably from the White Middle Class epistemology, namely documentary film and archaeology, in a culturally sensitive way. Neal Ferris holds the Lawson Chair of Archaeology, and is cross appointed to the Museum of Ontario Archaeology and the University of Western Ontario.
In an earlier post I was talking about how Public History is full of irresolvable equally true, and mutually exclusive truths. This is another one of those.
I fully support the rights of nations and cultures to define themselves, and that certainly means control over how their culture gets disseminated. This is particularly true for those cultures who have not always had that right, though really it should be true for all cultures. But the trouble is, if a culture has ultimate control over their own cultural legacies then that means that each country or nation will only be allowed to investigate cultural artefacts specific to their own history. Which in part means that there will be nothing left in the British Museum, and also will mean that somewhat arbitrary definitions based on modern culture will have to be made on the past. To whom would the history of the Norse landings in Canada belong? Canadians, though the Vikings probably did not respect the Canadian border when they were sailing about? Natives, whose ancestors may have had contact with those people, and are the only peoples who now live in those traditional locations? Scandinavians exclusively? Anyone whose country may have had contact with the Medieval Norse culture? My inclination is that it is now so old that perhaps it doesn't matter, but that is not a valid argument when discussing the heritage of several cultures, and so it becomes dangerous to apply that haphazardly to the ones that are not as linked to current politics.
An extreme, one that practically is unlikely to come to fruition, but should be considered nonetheless, is the danger of cultural segregation. Another extreme would be where people are expected to have cultural sensitivity without having any exterior cultural understanding, as a true knowledge of a culture is limited to the confines of that culture.
This issue is also related to what was said in earlier classes about the accuracy of living history. Who gets to play a settler, if the ethnicity of the modern employee does not match the ethnicity of the original historical persona. This is very much related to who gets to decide how the culture is represented. And it is interesting, because while I fall on the side of repatriation I think, with some cultural sensitivity attached to the interpretation, that living history should make an effort to be accurate in their portrayals, but that ultimately the employees should be more representative of the modern culture that they are serving, rather than the historical culture they are representing.
And I guess that is what guides my views on repatriation, that I think history should serve our current communities rather than the other way around. Still, that does not mean that it should be manipulated any way one wants. And representation of a culture through art is not the same as the preservation of heritage through material culture, though they are very closely linked. And so, it is another issue that is unresolvable, but is made better by an awareness of the inherent problems. Who ultimately gets to represent a culture, and are the representations from outside of that culture invalid, or do they also bring something to the discussion?
(Wholly overuse of the word culture Batman).