Southeast Asian and Pacific National Museums as Sites of Memory

By Sarah Zwierzchowski

In an article for Representations (later published as the introduction to his book, Les lieux de mémoire), French historian Pierre Nora presented the concept of lieux de mémoire to describe entities where “memory crystallizes and secretes itself.”[1] Sites of memory hold symbolic value contributing to the memorial heritage of communities and can include a variety of concepts and places. Of these, museums are easily recognizable for their commemorative power. According to Nora, sites of memory are not common to all cultures because they hinge on the abandonment of “true” memory by Western culture; these sites emerge because “no longer a cause, the nation has become a given” and so citizens must be prompted to remember its history.[2] Nora’s concept was rapidly adopted by museologists and historians to understand the role of memory in forging national identity, but some have questioned its application to non-Western contexts. What if the nation is not a given, but is in fact recent and the result of lengthy, violent struggles? How do national museums contribute to the identity-forging process of new states in Southeast Asia and the Pacific? What is the role of memory in these contexts?

The concept of memory and sites of memory has increasingly interested scholars, especially regarding national sites of memory for recent events. In his book, Mediating Memory in the Museum, Silke Arnold-de Simine explores the ethical and political implications of remembrance practices adopted by museums and other heritage sites.[3] He argues that the new interest of curators in memory is rooted in the belief that knowledge of the past does not prevent repetition of violent and traumatic events; visitors to museums are now asked to identify with the suffering of others, adopting memories and working through the trauma of others. The role of museums is not simply to collect and organize objects; they must also embody the experiences of persecuted groups and create an environment where memory, trauma, and ultimately empathy are used to create a national identity. Arnold-de Simine argues these trends can be seen in museums around the world, especially in countries struggling to reconcile in the aftermath of wars and systematic human rights abuses. His work helps to bridge the gap between Nora’s separation of history and memory to show how the two can be combined to represent recent events of national importance.

While Arnold-de Simine brought Nora-esque theoretical approaches to museums within the perspective of broad global trends, other studies have focused on the advances of Southeast Asian and Pacific museums struggling to present national traumas as identity-forging events. In a 1994 piece, Adrienne L. Kaeppler notes that museums, originating as colonial institutions to demonstrate Western supremacy, have become celebrations of national identity and socio-cultural change in the Pacific.[4] These countries share the colonial experience and struggle for independence, which are complicated by the need to participate in world societies while asserting cultural distinctiveness and national identity. Kaeppler examines case studies of Hawai’i, New Zealand, Easter Island, Fiji, New Guinea, New Caledonia, and Vanuatu. In Hawai’i, the Bishop Museum’s collection of Polynesian and Kindred Antiquities represented an anti-American stance byemphasizing the religious importance of the island of Kaho’olawe, which had been used by the U.S. Navy as a bombing target. The museum has promoted the identities of Hawaiians, and also non-Hawaiian residents, and does not contain any European or Western objects. On Easter Island, museums provided the first opportunity for islanders to learn about and experience their history; in Papua New Guinea, museums are central to efforts to create national identity among its various warring tribes by tapping into shared memories. Kaeppler concludes that areas with large populations of non-indigenous peoples tend to have more traditional museums, which can nevertheless help to restore interest in indigenous cultural identity.

Along similar lines, Christina F. Kreps notes the increasing prominence and legitimization of indigenous curatorial practices in Southeast Asian and Pacific museums. She argues that while “the museum and associated practices are generally construed as modern, Western cultural constructs, museological behaviour is a cross-cultural phenomenon.”[5] The commemoration and celebration of national and cultural heritage varies and museums are increasingly reflecting the traditional practices of indigenous cultures. Kreps discusses the Museum Balanga in Indonesia, which blends local approaches with international frameworks of museum culture to varying degrees of success. She provides examples of indigenous models of museums and cultural preservation from Indonesia and the Pacific to demonstrate that practices of collecting and displaying treasured cultural objects exist outside of Western influence and contexts. In these developing areas, the local community and its customs are increasingly central to the development of exhibitions serving to help create and represent a sense of cohesive identity.

In a 2006 contribution to a work edited by Sharon Macdonald, Flora Edouwaye S. Kaplan noted that the twenty-first century has posed a challenge to the identities assigned and defined by nations and museums.[6] The rise of ethnic identity brought contention and innovation to the creation and construction of nations and museums; the post-colonial movement in Asia and the Pacific condemned the destruction of historic sites and thefts of artefacts as violations of cultural rights and destruction of global cultural heritage. Kaplan examined the construction of national identity through museums based on pre-existing ethnic, religious, and ideological identities or combinations of these identities within nations. Acknowledging that museums have functioned as racist and imperialist institutions, she identifies the new emphasis on social issues in curatorship. There has been controversy regarding the role of museums as national identities become fragmented due to various factors, as happened in states such as Indonesia. Cultural differences and conflicting national identities complicate how museums choose their subject matter, content, and interpretations, and museums continue to struggle to balance focus and representation. She argues these difficulties can be seen in the presentation of identities in countries dominated by Communism and dictatorship pasts. These issues are especially relevant in South East and the Pacific, where conflicting religious, ethnic, and ideological identities have both converged and come into conflict with each other.

The scholarship also reveals that the creation of national identity in Southeast Asian museums can occur in a variety of ways. Eric C. Thompson examines twelve museums in Southeast Asia demonstrating that national memory is constructed in part by communicating certain messages about the world and events outside of the nation.[7] Museums establish the outside world as a frame for the nation and use it to create an imagined national order. Thompson focused on how Southeast Asian museums depict the immediate region, especially in light of ASEAN efforts to create a sense of community among its member nations. Often neighbouring states are either ignored or blurred so that the nation itself takes precedence over its connections to other states and ethnic groups; some museums, however, have adopted the community-building stance of ASEAN. His study is based on twelve national museums in seven countries: Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, all of which were visited between 2005 and 2007. Overall, the study shows how many national museums in Southeast Asia create a nationalist dichotomy of “us” versus “them,” with the Other constituting the group through and against which national identity is perceived. Other exhibits, however, cast the ASEAN concepts of trade and foreign relations in a positive light, stressing a sense of community in the region.

The scholars discussed above have expanded and elaborated Nora’s concept of sites of memory, focusing particularly on the ways in which nationhood is constructed in museums in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Scholars have recognized that the nation is not always a given and national museums are influenced by their particular geographical and cultural contexts in forging distinct identities. These scholars examined national museums in context, adopting a cross-national approach to identify trends in approaches. Regardless of distinct national contexts, museums attempt to forge strong links between the image of the nation embodied in its objects and narratives and the reality of the nation as experienced by its visitors outside of the museum. Although they occur in a vastly different context from national museums in the West, museums in Southeast Asia and the Pacific nevertheless perform the functions of Pierre Nora’s sites of memory. Their exhibitions are prepared to communicate and even perform national identity and memory in distinctive ways, reflecting the diversity in form of sites of memory as well as their uniformity in purpose.

[1] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations 26 (Spring 1989): 7.

[2] Ibid, 11.

[3] Silke Arnold-de Simine, Mediating Memory in the Museum: Trauma, Empathy, Nostalgia (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[4] Adrienne L. Kaeppler, “Paradise Regained: The Role of Pacific Museums in Forging National Identity,” in Museums and the Making of “Ourselves”: The Role of Objects in National Identity, ed. Flora E.S. Kaplan (London: Leicester University Press, 1994): 19-44.

[5] Christina F. Kreps, Liberating Culture: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Museums, Curation and Heritage Preservation (NY: Routledge, 2003).

[6] Flora Edouwaye S. Kaplan, “Making and Remaking National Identities,” in A Companion to Museum Studies, ed. Sharon Macdonald (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 152-169.

[7] Eric C. Thompson, “The World beyond the Nation in Southeast Asian Museums,” Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 27, no. 2 (2012): 54-83.


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