Curating memory: Dealing with the past at the War Remnants Museum

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Political and economic reform in Vietnam has opened space for re-visiting and re-presenting the past (Boyle and Lim 2016; Logan 2003; MacLean 2008; Schwenkel 2006). Vietnamese museums increasingly participate in cultural heritage networks (Asia-Europe Museum Network 2018), engage in capacity building training (Asia Europe Foundation 2019; Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism 2019; UNESCO 2014) and trial innovative approaches in an attempt to appeal to diverse new audiences (Hoan 2018; Were 2016; 2019). Vietnamese museums have been understood as powerful agents of state control that fix and regulate the past (Pelley 2002; Tai 1998). Recent ethnographic studies (Bodemer 2010; Were 2018), however, have shown how official histories are negotiated by curators who challenge ‘old ways’ of representing the past. These negotiations are rarely, if ever, given public expression. My research will therefore examine the behind-the-scenes decision-making processes that inform the way memories and histories of war are curated and exhibited in museum settings. In doing so, this research responds to calls (Schorch 2009; Schorch and McCarthy 2019) for more anthropological studies of curatorial work that can contribute to critically analysing, revising and energising curatorial theory and practice. It will also contribute to the long-running debate across the social sciences on how actors relate to institutions.

This study will produce a detailed ethnographic account of how curators at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City present the ‘Vietnam War’. By applying the concept of curatorship in my analysis I will explore the critical role played by curators in negotiating official histories and memories. In this way, I show how a museum is not only a building housing objects and collections but also a setting where multiple agents with multiple subjectivities make multiple choices that inform national narratives. The War Remnants Museum has a track record of successive historical re-presentations. A second concept, the archaeology of organisations, will therefore be applied to investigate whether its previous missions have left traces in its current structures and practices. My research will contribute to an emerging field of museum and heritage studies in South East Asia, specifically studies that examine the role of museums in shaping narratives in post-conflict settings in the region (Hughes 2017; Tappe 2011) and to the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of memory studies. The study will avoid ‘methodological containerism’ (Macdonald et al 2018) by transcending the boundaries of the museum field site and will study curators’ outreach visits. In doing so, it will provide methodological insights into conducting a multi-sited museum ethnography.
Original languageEnglish
TypePhD Confirmation Paper
Number of pages22
Publication statusUnpublished - 27 Apr 2020

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