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Journal Article

The Syntax of Objects and the Representation of History: Speaking of "Slavery in New York"

Bettina M. Carbonell
History and Theory
Vol. 48, No. 2, Theme Issue 47: Historical Representation and Historical Truth (May, 2009), pp. 122-137
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25478840
Page Count: 16
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The Syntax of Objects and the Representation of History: Speaking of "Slavery in New York"
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Abstract

The representation of history continues to evolve in the domain of museum exhibitions. This evolution is informed in part by the creation of new display methods-many of which depart from the traditional conventions used to achieve the "museum effect"-in part by an increased attention to the museum-visitor relationship. In this context the ethical force of bearing witness, at times a crucial aspect of the museum experience, has emerged as a particularly compelling issue. In seeking to represent and address atrocity, injustice, and the abrogation of human rights, museums have the potential to become "sites of conscience" and to encourage "historical consciousness." Through a series of three exhibitions devoted to slavery, the New-York Historical Society demonstrated how such sites can be constructed and how objects can be deployed to represent extreme or "limit cases." In this review/essay I investigate and interrogate these exhibitions, looking closely at the use of objects as a source of "indirect testimony" (Marc Bloch) and at the "dialogical situation" (Paul Ricoeur) that might arise in an encounter among objects, exhibit narratives, and visitors. Thinking in terms of point of view, I look at the variety of rhetorical platforms from which objects speak in these exhibitions; thinking in terms of syntax, I look at the effects of ordering and of the radical juxtaposition of objects; thinking in terms of irony, I look at the provocations of double-voiced narratives and at how objects are used to support those historical sentences.

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