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Motion and flow in heritage institutions. Two cases of challenges from within

Journal article
Authors Christine Hansen
Ingrid Martins Holmberg
Published in Nordisk Museologi
Volume 2016
Issue 1
Pages 40-51
ISSN 1103-8152
Publication year 2016
Published at Department of Conservation
Department of Historical Studies
Pages 40-51
Language en
Keywords heritage, subaltern histories, heritage institutions, Aboriginal Australians, Sweden's Roma People, ephemeral places, memory, Swedish Roma history, Swedish minorities, National Museum of Australia
Subject categories Public Administration Studies, Social Sciences Interdisciplinary, Cultural Studies


Through the lens of two case studies within two national contexts, this paper seeks to understand how purportedly stable and self-contained institutions such as museums, archives and local government repositories are re-formed through engagement with subaltern subjects. Although there is much analysis of heritage institutions that follows major ideological shifts of the 20th century (Grundberg, 2002; Lowenthal, 1985; Pettersson, 2003; Wetterberg, 1992), these organisations are still often considered to bear institutional legacies of the 19th century (Bennett, 1995). Rather than focus on these characteristics however, we will instead explore institutional permeability, noticing how meeting the subaltern in particular inspires ‘motion and flow’, which in turn affects notions of what constitutes ‘heritage’. As we unfold each case, we pay attention to the processes through which this permeability stimulates friction. This is most problematic when the commission of the heritage institution and the construction of national identity are entwined, with the (unarticulated) aim of reiterating established discourses of power (Smith, 2006). Alternatively, we also explore how heritage institutions can function, somewhat counter-intuitively, as sites of remediation. This happens when negative associations of institutional control are flipped, and instead become places for the previously marginalized to find a voice within the authorized national narrative. In our two examples we show how pressures applied by Aboriginal people in Australia and Roma people in Sweden respectively have forced transgressions of professional practice and in doing so have offered a challenge to the idea of what constitutes a heritage expert. Both cases, of re-ordered management protocols in the National Museum of Australia and the much more recent integration of Roma historical places into Swedish institutional memory, demonstrate the effect of the subaltern subject on heritage institutions. We can see that in one of the cases a radical inclusion has been achieved, while the other has begun what is likely to be a long-term, complex, cultural conversation. While these cases vary in scale – one bears the weight of a colonial history whilst the other does not – they nevertheless share the contemporary myths and misunderstandings around what happens when heritage institutions meet with subaltern peoples and the challenges they offer from within.

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