Why museums matter
October is Museums and Galleries Month (MGM), but because of the pandemic, museums remain closed although their collections are thankfully available for digital viewing. Those who would like to immerse themselves more on discourses on history and heritage may attend webinars. The more interesting ones lately have been the 18th Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day Conference: “Imposition, Negotiation, Transformation,” organized by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), Embassy of Spain, and University of the Philippines Department of History; and the Symposium on the 75th Anniversary of the End of the Pacific War organized by the NHCP, Embassies of Japan and the United States, and the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Research Center for Culture, Arts, and the Humanities.
The former provided advance glimpses of the research done by several history scholars from the country’s top universities right in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville and other key archives in Spain. The studies will be presented more fully next year when the Philippines marks the quincentenary of the arrival of Spain in the country. The latter presented studies on various aspects of the war, its impact on the country, and the struggle to memorialize it: One study by an architect and architecture faculty from UST focused on “Developing the Tourism Potential of the Locator Site of the Mount Samat Shrine of Valor.”
Museums and memorials are important because they’re a reflection of how people value their history. Lack of them may indicate a collective malaise, a forgetfulness of pandemic proportions. “The most effective way to destroy people,” George Orwell declares, “is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
Singapore is not part of the Philippine celebration of MGM, but a web talk organized by the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) last Oct. 26 reaffirmed the importance of museums while recasting their mission in light of global events. NGS head Eugene Tan conducted a “conversation” with Indian-born Harvard professor Homi K. Bhabha. Now Bhabha may be a pet peeve to some scholars and critics who deride his neologisms and heavy use of jargon (“hybridity,” “mimicry”), but he continues to be required reading in postcolonial and cultural studies. Some of his arguments may sound tendentious to his detractors, but his NGS talk on the “Unprepared” (his personally chosen title) was insightful and, though filled with jargon, hardly academic; it was in fact adventurous.
By “Unprepared,” Bhabha meant the natural reaction of people when a “large natural tragedy” hits them, filling them with anxiety and fear because they’re “caught in the middle of a transitional moment, a traumatic moment.” He likewise meant the title to refer to “majoritarian governments called ethnonationalist and ethnopopulist,” which “keep their citizens in a situation of anxiety and unpreparedness so that their authoritarian policies can be more quickly and effectively imposed on populations.”
The two meanings somehow meld in the “unwarranted and unprovoked public death” in Minnesota of George Floyd last May, Bhabha said. It unleashed global protests against racism and injustice, resulting in street murals of Floyd and depictions in the performing and media arts of the last 8.46 minutes when he pleaded for his life, which was ignored by Caucasian police officer Derek Chauvin, who kept on pressing his knee against the African-American’s neck, causing Floyd’s death by asphyxiation.
“From the perspective of cultural imaging and aesthetic representation,” Bhabha explained, “these murals represented global translations of the universal spirit of rights and freedoms as they relate to the specific condition of living in the cities, in the towns, in the regions in which these images, these murals turn their gaze upon their own societies.”
It is the task of museums, Bhabha declared, to “translate” such images and representations across various societies and cultures. “Cultural translation as distinct from cultural transmission,” he explained, “is the basis on which museums establish a productive dialogue, engaging issues of the equality of difference, not the appropriation of identity and sameness.”
“Museums are great institutions of cultural translation,” he added. “They introduce to us the humanistic importance of being able to interpret and translate not simply works, but the relationship of works from different periods, different cultures and different locations.” “The museum is a great place for translated conversations,” he continued, “which is why it is a place where inequality, where the barriers between cultures, are continually being defied and broken down.”
Obviously Bhabha was providing a critique of museums as mere repositories of cultural artifacts curated or built around ethnonationalist, ethnocentric, “us-against-them” ideals. Without mentioning it, he was restating his influential teaching on “hybridity,” which argues against culture as a monolith and, in light of current events, explains the “worldwide protest against racial inequality and the violence that the state can sometimes inflict on its own citizens.”
The George Floyd murals across the globe “provided a mirror to society where they were installed,” a society plagued with “violence and oppression, racism and majoritarianism, inequality and indignity.” In the face of such conditions, museums should not be caught “Unprepared.” “Cultural institutions, I believe, have to raise their game,” Bhabha asserted, “to address the sensitivities and sensibilities of minorities and marginalized peoples, whose access to universities and museums have been held back by poorly resourced education systems.”
Lito B. Zulueta is a member of the Faculty of Arts and Letters of the University of Santo Tomas, where he teaches journalism, literature, and cinema.
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