museums – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Roots and Routes of the Cuban Revolution: Transforming Ideology into Heritage Wed, 28 Jan 2015 20:50:29 +0000 This post is part of a partnership with the International Journal of Cultural Studies where authors of newly published articles extend their arguments here on Antenna.

On January 2015, a new set of measures by the United States government opened a path towards the “normalization” of relations with Cuba after decades of mutual mistrust. However, as the expert in Cuban history Antoni Kapcia has argued, this should be seen as another milestone rather than a sea change in the long story of Cuban-U.S. relations. It is one thing to open up relations with the U.S. and another totally different thing to soften the internal power structure and the aggressive discourse towards the exile community in Cuba. Indeed, reconciliation between the “two Cubas” demands much more than political agreements or the abolition of the trade embargo. Since reconciliation is as much political as it is symbolic, it has to be preceded by a transformation of the public symbols and historic narratives that define what constitutes the imagined national community, and who is included or excluded from it. Cultural heritage and museums are tightly linked to the politics of recognition, defining the official discourses about past, present, and future. The politics of heritage have indeed played a fundamental role in this regard since the beginnings of the Cuban Revolution.

My IJCS paper “Transforming Ideology into Heritage: A Return of Nation and Identity in Late Socialist Cuba?” aims to shed light on the transformations of Cuban heritage policies in the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This contradictory period is characterized by pragmatism and ideological ambiguity, as Cuba has been hovering in no-man’s-land, not clearly transitioning towards capitalism nor abandoning its communist past. Since Cuba has not enacted a complete break with the symbols and heritages of its communist past, it is still more appropriate to talk about heritage management under communism than about the management of the heritage of communism. The latter applies in Eastern European countries, where post-communism has been characterized by a frenzy of heritage destruction and the construction of new monuments, as well as the musealization of the communist past and a popular nostalgic drive for communist material culture.

Cuba, however, is comparatively closer to countries such as China, Laos, or Vietnam where the communist party leads the transition towards hyper-capitalist economies. The ongoing process could be proof that Cuba is moving in the same direction in terms of economic and heritage policies, although a few decades later. These states endured the Soviet collapse because, as in Cuba, their revolutions enjoyed local support and were grounded on nationalist and anti-colonialist ideas rather than ideas imposed by the Red Army, as in Eastern Europe. The commoditization of the communist past in these Asian countries is paralleled by a growing divergence between the official heritage discourse and the capitalist values and beliefs that pervade their societies. The question remains whether Cuba will follow their steps or whether the representational regime inherited from communism will still be the dominant symbolic and representational regime. If this were the case, it is not feasible to expect abrupt short-term changes in the official discourse of the Cuban leadership — although the erratic trajectory of the Cuban Revolution defies any attempt to foreshadow its future routes.

The IJCS paper attempts to ground these questions in terms of heritage by showing how heritage policies have been tightly connected to government interests. Late socialist Cuba has concentrated on creating a sense of historic depth, triggering a memory-war to reinforce the idea of siege by an external enemy — globalization and the U.S. — and reinforcing the geopolitical links with Latin American left-wing governments. In addition, national identity has been highlighted over the class identity that had formerly permeated Cuban discourse under Soviet influence. These transformations are encapsulated in what I call the transformation of ideology into heritage. This process implies that every new ideological shift is immediately given heritage status through monuments and museums. The twofold aim is to emphasize the significance and future endurance of the new ideology, and to make it look older and therefore to appear more legitimate. The transformation of ideology into heritage involves a construction of identity in exclusionary nationalist and dialectic terms, thus posing a challenge to reconciliation. The revolutionary insistence in defining Cuban identity against an external Other and to reinforce the sense of collective belonging can indeed be problematic if a transition towards more inclusive forms of discourse is intended in the new period.

Statue of Cuban intellectual and national hero José Martí in the Anti-Imperialist Tribune, Havana. Martí is holding the children Elián González and pointing with an accusatory finger to the US Interest Section, the potential future full-embassy of the US. This hostile symbology of the area illustrates the need to revisit public symbolic landscapes in Cuba if new political and social identities are to be constructed.

Statue of Cuban intellectual and national hero José Martí in the Anti-Imperialist Tribune, Havana. Martí is holding the children Elián González and pointing with an accusatory finger to the US Interest Section, the potential future full-embassy of the US. This hostile symbology of the area illustrates the need to revisit public symbolic landscapes in Cuba if new political and social identities are to be constructed.

Reconciliation should not be limited exclusively to giving exiles the possibility to travel or live  in Cuba; it should consider their inclusion in the narratives and symbols of the nation, which still present them largely as traitors or “others” rather than as constituent subjects of the national community. Heritage has been fundamental in the negotiation of these identities, both in the island and abroad. In Miami, a parallel Cuban exile heritage industry has emerged where monuments and museums make different claims from the past, commemorating other Cuban stories, heroes, and values. On the island, an utterly ambiguous but clearly more open institution that could pave the way for reconciliation in heritage terms is the Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad (Office of the City Historian of Havana), led by the charismatic Eusebio Leal. The Office revisits the Republican and Colonial pasts of Havana while restoring Old Havana and packaging it for international tourists.

The official discourse of the Office avoids state propaganda and aims to establish more friendly relationships with foreign cultural and political institutions. Certainly, the new Cuban-U.S. agreements will boost tourism and will probably force the Cuban government to follow the path of the Office in presenting a friendlier image for tourists through heritage representations. The maintenance of two images of Cuba for different target publics (domestic and foreign) will not be feasible to sustain as tourism rockets. However, it is unlikely that the regime will market the communist past and symbols because those have become the official “language of power” and representational regimes of the state (e.g., socialist realism).

Understanding the roots of this process is fundamental to current prospects of reconciliation with Cuban exiles, as Cuba will surely not get rid of the burdens of the past right away. The radical nationalist approach to heritage policies and the politics of recognition deriving from it distort history prevent the possibility of learning from past errors and conflicts. Because inclusion can only be successful by recognizing the narratives of others and representing them publicly, the endurance of exclusionary and acritical heritage policies hampers any move in this direction. Cuba is thus beset by a complex conundrum. If the revolutionary past is ignored and the country draws a line under the past to move on, the society that caused the Revolution might reproduce their conflict. But, if Cubans strive to deal with the heritage of the Revolution, they will most likely cling to partisan views and be surely conditioned by their involvement with the system in one way or another. The new turn in the Cuban-U.S. relations therefore opens more questions than it solves in terms of the future political and cultural trajectory of the Revolution and the question of reconciliation. Without doubt, however, heritage will be a terrain of struggle for Cubans, both on the island and abroad, in the years to come.

[For the full article, see Pablo Alonso González “Transforming Ideology Into Heritage: A Return of Nation and Identity in Late Socialist Cuba?,” forthcoming in International Journal of Cultural Studies. Currently available as an OnlineFirst publication:]


Crowdsourcing as Consultation: Branding History at Canada’s Museum of Civilization (Part II) Wed, 19 Dec 2012 12:00:27 +0000 Canadian Museum of Civilization IIIn Part I of this entry, we discussed the recent announcement by the Ministry of Canadian Heritage that the flagship Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) will undergo a major transformation by 2017, becoming the Canadian Museum of History (CMH). The newly revamped museum will discontinue three longstanding installations to make way for a large exhibition focused on national history, which will constitute about half the museum’s total exhibit space. As we noted in yesterday’s post, the museum’s new focus on showcasing national “achievements,” “accomplishments,” and “treasures” appears to be a way to elide objects and events from the country’s past that tell a less positive or celebratory narrative.

What is also clear from the estimated date of completion in 2017 is that the government is placing symbolic considerations over practical ones. The CMC and Heritage Minister James Moore’s insistence that the renovated CMH will be open to the public by Canada’s 150th birthday indicates that they must either already have significant plans in place, or they have dramatically underestimated the amount of time it takes to design and curate a major exhibition. This only highlights the lack of serious consideration of the process of public deliberation. While museum staff have been holding community meetings in cities across the country to solicit ideas, their ability to take such ideas seriously based on their timeline is unlikely. Moreover, it’s unclear who exactly will be included in community meetings: citizens must express interest by clicking on a link on the museum’s website and then wait to be invited.

Consider the consultation process that took place during the development of the First Peoples Hall. When initial plans were deemed “too traditional” as a result of the controversy surrounding “The Spirit Sings” exhibit in the 1980s, museum planners went back to the drawing board. While the CMC’s inaugural exhibits opened in 1989, it took the museum about 14 more years to finally open the First Peoples Hall in 2003. Among the factors contributing to the delay was the formation of a consultation committee with First Nations people in accordance with recommendations from the Assembly of First Nations and Canadian Museums Association. In the case of the First Peoples Hall, First Nations participants actually helped to shape the themes and content of the exhibit from the planning stages.

As another point of comparison, the Museum of Anthropology of British Columbia (MOA) was similarly involved in a major design and renewal project titled “A Partnership of Peoples.” Collaboration was key in MOA’s case as museum staff worked with Musqueam and other local communities to design physical and digital museum spaces. Plans were in place in the 1990s for an expected completion in 2010 to allow ample time for collaboration and creation of spaces that would be useful and accessible to those communities represented within them.

CMC curators know very well what it means to participate in meaningful consultation and the benefits it can have for curation, if taken seriously. Many of the museum’s curators are talented, creative and in tune with some of the most important museological shifts occurring over the last 30 years, including the sensitive issues concerning exhibition and Canada’s First Peoples. However, it is not necessarily those talented museum staff who are driving the CMC to CMH transition, and whether those staff will be there throughout or after this transition is uncertain.

This too is troubling. Although the CMH plans to continue to include Aboriginal histories in the new exhibit, it is likely to include them only as they pertain to the teleological drive and accomplishment-oriented focus emphasized by the Canadian Government. The Heritage Minister’s vision for the museum includes a history told from the perspective of a conservative, non-First Nations majority. This suggests a convenient amnesia about past curatorial shifts in Canada toward meaningful consultation and collaboration with First Peoples and with Canadian citizens more broadly.

In the meantime, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has threatened to take the federal government to court for failing to hand over documents related to residential schools in violation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Despite the millions of dollars allocated to the CMH reorganization, the National Research Centre, which will house some one million records related to Canada’s Indian Residential Schools legacy in accordance with the TRC’s Mandate, remains unfunded by the government. While the CMC’s “What is the Canadian Story?” timeline currently lists the closing of the last residential school in the 1990s as a seminal event marking the nation’s history, what of the 120 years prior to that when the schools were in operation? The testimonials of residential school and intergenerational survivors about abuses in these state-mandated institutions are not in line with the discourse of national “accomplishments,” “achievements” and “treasures” which are apparently to constitute Canadian history in the new exhibit. Perhaps this is why the CMC claimed they did not have the resources to support the TRC’s collection. In this context, it seems that meaningful conversations about historical issues that are actually formative of Canadian culture are less compelling than the $25 million incentive that comes with the tunnel vision of the Ministry of Heritage.


Crowdsourcing as Consultation: Branding History at Canada’s Museum of Civilization (Part I) Tue, 18 Dec 2012 12:00:38 +0000 Canadian Museum of CivilizationThe year 2017 will mark Canada’s sesquicentennial: 150 years since the British colonies in North America came together to form the Dominion of Canada. The date is eagerly anticipated by Canada’s Conservative government, which is planning a series of commemorative events. The trouble is, these events are contrived to commemorate the Conservative government far more than the nation’s glorious (or inglorious) pasts.

History appears to be a pet project of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his elected officials. Since the Conservatives came to power in 2006, several cultural institutions have been pushed into service to articulate the government’s particular conception of Canadian culture: the twin pillars of monarchy and military. The 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, for example, has become an opportunity for the Conservatives to reframe the battle as a signal moment in Canada’s nation-building project. A budget of $28 million was earmarked for dramatic re-enactments, PSAs, a website and grade school curriculum, and an elaborate physical exhibit at the War Museum in the nation’s capital, all aiming to retrospectively situate the war as a pillar of Canadian identity. Never mind that Canada was little more than a frigid British outpost at the time; or that the outcome of that war remains a matter of scholarly and public debate. Suddenly, the government’s commitments in Afghanistan, its plans to purchase sixty-five F-35 fighter jets, and its desperate desire to thumb its nose at its American neighbor are placed on a teleological timeline whose origins can be traced to the bravery and dedication of those not-yet-Canadians in 1812.

In October 2012, Heritage Minister James Moore announced yet another project in the run-up to 2017: the rebranding and renovation of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, one of the most highly attended museums in the world, and arguably the most symbolically significant museum of Canadian heritage in the country (its collections stem from the mid-19th century and predate the founding of Canada). Its new name, the Canadian Museum of History, signals a novel mandate for the institution: Half the museum space, currently occupied by the dated Canada Hall, the Personalities Hall, and the Postal Museum, will be cleared to make way for a selection of Canadian “accomplishments” and “achievements.” So far, Mr. Moore has focused on objects as major drivers of the exhibit’s themes, pointing to iconic national “treasures” like The Last Spike, which completed Canada’s transcontinental railway in 1885, signifying the conquest of nature through human ingenuity; and items from Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope, demonstrating the strength of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity. Both, of course, are powerful, self-edifying signifiers for the nation itself. Moore’s vision for the museum has been heavily criticized in the local press, with journalists calling the rebranding “The end of civilization” and decrying the new collection as an uncritical “Hall of Fame.”

Even more egregious than this Whig version of history is the suggestion that the museum’s new role is to let visitors decide on the tenets of Canadian history. The museum’s Web site invites users to “Be part of its creation!” by clicking through to the “My History Museum” site. “What would you put in your national history museum? What stories would you tell? How would you reach Canadians across the country?” asks the site. Users are then presented with an array of options to participate in the creation of their “very own” museum. You can take the “Public Engagement” survey, which asks you to choose how you most like “to connect with history” (“Seeing real artifacts,” “Consulting websites,” Asking “people I know”?). You can scroll through the “What is the Canadian Story?” timeline, clicking the heart icon under images of the Calgary Winter Olympics or Expo ’67 to “like” different events listed on the timeline (with some of the milestones purposely removed to allow users’ suggestions to populate the gaps). You can make a video for the museum’s YouTube channel, telling the world which Canadian “you consider to be an icon for your generation” (recent votes: The Dionne Quintuplets and one user’s grandmother).

The museum is not alone in its attempts to use personal appeals to power public engagement. The digital media company ChinaOnTV recently launched “My Channel,” where visitors upload personal videos and stories about their trips to China, forming a kind of user-generated cultural diplomacy portal. Or witness the “Curators of Sweden” Twitter campaign, a fascinating if misguided effort by the Swedish government to encourage its citizens to tell the “true” story of Sweden by turning over the @Sweden channel to different, hand-picked citizens each week. Citizens duly took on their role as Swedish ambassadors by sleeping in, tweeting about their sexual proclivities, and in one extreme case, making racist and vulgar comments.

Other Canadian institutions have made similar crowdsourcing efforts. The Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) ran a “35 Million Directors” contest, in which the “entire country” was invited to upload videos of “their” Canada. One Talkback comment on the CTC YouTube channel puts the problem in relief:

User: Although this is a very beautiful video, and I am a very proud Canadian, there was only half a frame on aboriginals…it was their beautiful land to start with.

CTC: … We’re sensitive to the concerns you’ve raised, and we can assure you that visible ethnicity in this video is solely a function of the content that was submitted by Canadians during the 35 Million Directors contest period. All Canadians were equally able to submit content for consideration in the contest.

Beyond the obvious exclusions crowdsourcing can perpetuate, there is much else wrong with this tactic. Such social media strategies are increasingly seen by government institutions as a panacea for problems of civic participation, public deliberation and transparency. Online users do not only provide the museum with content for its website; they give it the appearance of consensus. “Soft” participation platforms like Facebook comments and interactive timelines mask the hard reality that all of the really consequential decisions – the removal of archival material, the intensely problematic indemnification of the collection, the several-million-dollar budget that will require cutting other parts of the Heritage Ministry portfolio – have already been made. If citizens were really meant to be central in deciding which themes are important in Canadian history, the government would have included citizens in the decision-making process at a much earlier stage. And lest we see social media as Democracy 2.0, we would do well to recall Evgeny Morozov’s (2011) observation that oppressive totalitarian regimes also employ strategies of crowdsourcing in the process of nation-building, where “netizens” are made to feel as though they’re participating in important decisions. It doesn’t take a Hill & Knowlton associate to tell you that making people feel involved in politics is an excellent way to paper over the denial of actual political participation.

In the case of a museum, and in the case of the contested terrain of history, having the whole public involved might seem like a great idea. But in the brave new world of Governance 2.0, the invitation to Canadians to “be part of the creation” of Canadian history is an invitation to say very little that matters. And it’s the only invitation they’re likely to get.

Part 2 can be found here.


An Incomplete History: “Women Who Rock” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Thu, 01 Mar 2012 14:20:15 +0000 I found myself in Cleveland last week.  My friend Amy Rigby, a musician who plies her trade in one of the parallel music industries that I talked about in my recent post about the Grammy Awards, had things to do in Cleveland.  I’d been threatening for months to take advantage of being on sabbatical to see the “Women Who Rock” exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a few hours from where I live, before it closed on February 26, although the thought of it made me queasy.  A road trip was born and Amy and I visited the exhibit.  It was all that I expected, which is to say, not much.

Critiquing it is like shooting fish in a barrel; it’s just too easy.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame reflects the worldview of Rolling Stone magazine and major players in the commercial music industry.  The “meta” issue at play is how to put rock and roll, or any type of music, in a museum.  What good is looking and reading about music when you haven’t heard it?  Posting individual listening stations at each display would make progress through any exhibit impossibly slow, compromising an institution’s ability to remain financially solvent.  Curators have to assume that we know what the music, at least some of it, sounds like.  The cultural authorization that results from exhibits of this type is also problematic, as are issues of inclusion and exclusion.  Who gets recognized, who doesn’t, and why?

These problems are especially germane to an exhibit about women and rock.  I imagine that although some of the people who saw the exhibit were music nerds like me and Amy, most were not.  Those of us who are already familiar with the music could “play” it in our heads.  What would everyone else do? We were there on the President’s Day holiday, and the majority of visitors in the galleries were either middle-aged couples or moms with their pre- or just-teen daughters.  The solution proffered by the Rock Hall was to focus on performers who visitors might be familiar with.  Hence a couple of displays devoted to Lady Gaga (the meat dress!), pop stars from the 80s on, the most well-known punk, new wave and “alternative” acts, several rap, hip-hop, and nouveau girl group artists, and some appropriately reverential educational videos about early blueswomen and R&B singers from the 50s and 60s.  Emphasis was on singers.  “Wait,” you may say, “I thought you were talking about rock?” Indeed.  “Rock” here is stretched so thin as to be a meaningless term – a common discursive move.  “Rock,” the exhibit claimed, is an attitude, and apparently these selected artists all have it.

We were a bit amazed by some of the performers who were barely recognized, or left out entirely. Wither the Slits? The Raincoats? Poly Styrene?  Patsy Cline? Emmylou Harris? Exene? Mo Tucker?  Oh yeah, listed in a paragraph on a small sign, maybe.  Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Kim Gordon, Kathleen Hanna, and Liz Phair were there, but where were the rest of the women from the 70s to the 90s and beyond who made or continue to toil in the rock trenches? Where were the non-Americans? (Joni Mitchell was included, but she’s lived south of the 49th parallel for a long time.) Pioneering female rock group Fanny was represented with a group photo on a swinging door that led to a side exhibit; Amy and I were relieved that it was not the entrance to the restroom, which is what it looked like.

After a while, it seemed that artists who were able to donate “stuff,” usually in the form of stage attire identified by the name of the designer, were the de facto focal points of the exhibit.  That wasn’t necessarily the case, as it turns out.  Upon my return, I asked June Millington of Fanny whether she’d been contacted about the exhibit. She hadn’t, although she knew that her photo was being used and that the curatorial staff had her contact information.  Too bad, as Millington has plenty of stuff, in the way of guitars, other instruments, and memorabilia that I’m sure she’d have been happy to lend and that could have formed part of more interesting exhibits. (I also emailed one of the Raincoats with the same question; if I get a response I’ll post her answer in the comments to this piece.)

The exhibit was accompanied by a PBS documentary, so upon my return home I watched that, hoping that it would fill in some blanks.  I’m sorry to say that it did not.  (It streams here: Although narrated by leading male and female critics, and hosted by Cindy Lauper, it omitted even more artists in order to create a smooth narrative from Bessie Smith to Janelle Monae, culminating in an implied celebration of “poptimism,” currently a vogue amongst writers, bloggers and some academics who think critically about popular music.  I think that the critical turn to poptimism is well intentioned, as it attempts to break down hackneyed binaries that as much as we don’t want them to continue to inform discussions of popular music (e.g., authentic/commercial, male/female, white/black, rock/pop), but believe it does not deal adequately with other things, for example: the political economy of the industries; entrenched sexism; the tyranny of playlists, Pitchfork, and tightly constructed radio formats that shut down possibilities for artists like Amy, a long-time critical favorite whose music has always fallen between the cracks; the tracking of women away from rock and into softer or more “appropriate” pop listening practices as they age; the myth of the “middle-class musician” who can actually afford things like health care and a guarantee of a decent living; and the politics of representation and identity in their myriad configurations.[1]

Calling it all “rock” does not attenuate or explore these and other issues.  Ultimately, the story of “women who rock” is not all about clothes and good feelings. Writing so much and so many out of what could, because of its institutional status, become the foundation of the sanctioned and commonsense history of women and rock threatens to erase or trivialize their past, present and future contributions.  We scholars and critics have our work cut out for us if we want to capture the more inclusive and nuanced history that the subject deserves.

[1] Yes, this is a bit of a shameless advertisement for Amy, a woman who most definitely rocks yet is, in my opinion, criminally unknown.  Check out her music and blog at, or legally download her albums from or iTunes.