Conference article

Thinking through the "Other"

Marzia Varutti
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID), Geneva, Switzerland

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Published in: Comparing: National Museums; Territories; Nation-Building and Change. NaMu IV; Linköping University; Norrköping; Sweden 18-20 February 2008

Linköping Electronic Conference Proceedings 30:20, p. 263-278

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Published: 2008-05-20


ISSN: 1650-3686 (print), 1650-3740 (online)


In this paper; I wish to analyse and compare the process through which cultural diversity is constructed and represented in national museums in the UK and in China.

I contend that the museum representation of alterity reflects not only specific culturally and historically determined configurations of the political; social and economic spheres; but also; and more to the point; contemporary processes of change in the perception of the past; the organisation of knowledge and systems of value. As case studies; I will consider the British Museum and the Shanghai Museum.

I want to ask: who is the “Other”? What forces; ratio and intellectual stances implicitly inform its museum representation? What is the role of the colonial experience (as a colonizer in one case and as a colonized in the other) in shaping the representation of alterity?

I show that the Shanghai Museum and the British Museum offer two quite different paradigms of representation of the “Other”. In the case of the Shanghai Museum; I maintain that the “Other” is represented by Chinese ethnic minorities. Conversely; I argue that in the British Museum the category of “Other” is multiple and open – indeed; the “Other” is everywhere; scattered in the different museum sections in a confusion of museological and disciplinary approaches. Aiming at making explicit and discussing the curatorial decisions informing the representation of alterity; the comparison will focus on the organisation of the collections; the selection of objects; the display techniques; as well as the amount and quality of information supplied by exhibitions.

The investigation confirms that the differences between the two paradigms are the result of different historical and cultural trajectories. Yet; I want to argue that these two differing approaches may also be understood as responses to different challenges: of inclusion and national cohesion in the case of Shanghai Museum; and of distancing from the colonial past in the case of the British Museum. In this sense; the representations of alterity in the two museums share a major feature: a generalized emphasis on the past and on aesthetics. I hold that the historicisation and aesthetisation of the “Other” are strategies to elude engagement with politically or socially delicate issues that might threaten domestic social cohesion and/or the harmony of international relations.

“The challenge now is to reinvent the museum as an institution that can orchestrate new relations and perceptions of difference that both break free from the hierarchically organized forms of stigmatic othering that characterized the exhibitionary complex and provide more socially invigorating and; from a civic perspective; more beneficial interfaces between different cultures” (Bennett; 2006:59)


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