Editorial - Material and Visual Culture: - Contributions to Narrating National Heritage in Global Contexts

Material and Visual Culture:
Contributions to Narrating National Heritage in Global Contexts

Jennifer Way
Guest Editor, University of North Texas

1 The authors of the seven essays presented in this volume share a commitment to examining the theme of national heritage in global contexts. They realize that "histories and historians play only a limited role in the process of continuous reinterpretation of the national pasts. A range of other media and genres play a much more important role in shaping national discourses" (Berger 2008: 7). Also, they understand that other media and genres "stand for and symbolize [the nation’s] essential values. Its meaning is constructed within, not above or outside representation" (Hall 2005: 25). The latter concept has led to loosening what Riello (2009: 29) calls "[t]he strict boundaries by which historians read documents in dusty archives, while art historians analyse paintings, and museum curators and archaeologists deal with objects." Belting’s observation (2005: 314) that it is erroneous to perceive that "media come rarely by themselves" but rather, "co-exist in layers whose characters vary according to their position in history" further supports the idea that media other than documents, paintings and archaeological objects can be symbolic of a nation’s values. All this makes it possible to appreciate that material culture deserves scrutiny in regard to its contribution to cultural tourism and the narration of national heritage. Moreover, notwithstanding that "other media and genres" besides texts shape national discourses, scholars, by and large, are remiss in studying the impact of cultural tourism on national heritage in global contexts. In redress, with their diverse attention to craft objects and stores, local history museums, art exhibitions, national and heritage exhibitions, family heirlooms, posters, television, film, civic space, domestic space, news media, brochures, heritage campaigns, sites, buildings, photography and montage, the essays in this volume of Material Culture Review/Revue de la culture matérielle observe not only material culture but also visual culture linking near and far, nation and remembrance, nation and future and national, international, transnational and global contexts.

2 It may seem obvious to study material and visual culture together because the theme of narrating the nation and its heritage in global contexts is "too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline" (Repko 2008: 12). Conversely, perhaps we realize that studying interactions of material and visual culture will lead us to take greater notice of their "integration" and this will generate work that is "something altogether new, distinctive, apart from, and beyond the limits of any discipline and, thus, additive to knowledge" (6). Indeed, many of the essays highlight circumstances in which material and visual culture necessarily integrate to accomplish a task or serve a need. As Watson and Waterton (2010: 2) observe, "[o]ur connections with the past are largely tangible, or have a materiality upon which they depend that makes them objects of heritage, and it is visual culture that lends these objects the means of representation and achievement of meaning." Correspondingly, reconstituting materiality can involve "treating photos as objects" and "placing photographs in particular geographical locations and their social and cultural contexts" (Rose 2007: 219) in order to grasp "how the material qualities of an image intervene in the world, particularly the world of people" (220) and appreciate that "seeing history through eyes rather than trying to understand the olfactory, tactile, auditory, or gustatory aspects of the past" (Smith 2008: 20) and present disregards the materiality of its cultural forms. Conversely, the essays in this volume also inquire how visual aspects of culture, including looking, seeing and being seen, not only follow from—but may contravene—the material forms through which they are conveyed.

3 In addition, we must also allow for the possibility that cultural tourism and other practices that tell about nations intensify or diminish connections with the past that images and objects intend to foster. There is the question of what narration brings to relationships of visual and material culture, too. Riello (2009: 30) says, "[a]rtefacts are multifarious entities whose nature and heuristic value is often determined by the diverse range of narratives that historians bring with them." Of interest to the authors here is how objects and images participate in telling national heritage. Of interest to readers is the additional theme of how the authors detect and convey what material and visual culture contribute to the narration.

4 The primary goal of this volume is to remedy a lack of scholarly attention to the question of what material and visual culture contribute to narrating national heritage in global contexts, and to generate more questions to further inquiry. What types of cultural and social work do images and objects do in relation to one another? How do material and visual culture work together to set forth the "complex strategies of cultural identification and discursive address that function in the name of ‘the people’ or ‘the nation’ and make them immanent subjects and objects of a range of social and literary narratives"? (Bhabha 1990: 292). Additional types of integration warrant attention, too. According to Edensor (2002: 106), "[i]n the insistence on the social ubiquity of human-object relationships, it is argued that part of what it is to be human is to interact with things in distinct object worlds." Thus, whether defined as a geographic territory or state of mind, the nation, as associated with society, is involved in the pervasive relationship of "humans and objects combin[ing] to constitute hybrids" (106). Moreover, "things emerge out of and mediate social relationships" (104). Equally, society is "partly enabled and characterized by the things which pass between people in the mundane material transactions of their everyday lives" (103).

5 Although each essay uniquely details how material and visual culture interrelate, together they also map a topography of cultural activity marked by the interplay of individuals and groups using material and visual culture to create, modify, destroy or help to sustain, reconstitute or remember national heritage, globally. They look at how material and visual culture establish contact zones through which national subjects and heritages interconnect within and outside of state borders. They reflect on ways material and visual culture facilitate the mobility of national heritage and foster, trouble or re-tell national memory, identity, history and tradition along global—if not also transnational—pathways established through exile, migration or travel, including to former émigrés and diasporic communities. At any of these points, individuals or groups may qualify human-object relationships as "certain forms of object-centered expertise … [that are] practices passed down over time so that particular skills are sedimented in particular cultures" (Edensor 2002: 105) and societies. Also, human-object relationships and types of expertise associated with objects can connote "notions of value [that] vary enormously between cultural contexts, notably between and within countries" (110). Importantly, the variations can lead to tensions in human-object relationships when  "… global commodities are domesticated but … they also compete with local goods" (112), or when objects become "‘out of place’ in the same way that people are" (114), or when "certain official modes of organizing things according to national significance … become somewhat decentered, and are complemented by more individual, affective, sensual forms of relating with objects to sustain memories" (117).

6 While the essays share a commitment to examining the theme of narrating national heritage in a global context—accounts of ethnic craft marketed to national and international tourists, industrial history as post-industrial heritage, museum displays speaking of piety and loss to popular and elite audiences, changing approaches to telling of the migrant experience, mass media characterizing domestic space as a civic and national heritage for global audiences, national heritage dispersing authority through visuality and the future of a former Eastern bloc city via a major international art venue—they reveal a common understanding of narrating the nation, heritage and cultural tourism. As we review interconnections of the concepts these essays share we will also come to appreciate the significance of their attention to material and visual culture.

7 All the essays treat narration as representing or conveying something about events, situations or other features relevant to or exemplifying national heritage, which in this instance is defined as human landscape as well as social, cultural and natural environments, objects, images, ideas and practices. As they report on their research involving Indonesia, Portugal, Canada and Iceland, France, Italy, England and Poland—with attention to specific regions and ethnically, socially or culturally defined groups—the authors attest to the relevance that narration has for studying national heritage insofar as "[n]ation is narration. The stories we tell each other about our national belonging and being constitute the nation" (Berger 2008: 1). The stories they tell about national belonging reveal that "… what the nation ‘means’ is an on-going project, under constant reconstruction" (Hall 2005: 25). Furthermore, like Hall, the authors interrogate the nation as an "on-going project" involving how "a shared national identity … depends on the cultural meanings, which bind each member individually into the large national story" (24).

8 Notably, the authors also take up the question of who or what may become unbound from the nation, the unity of which they understand may "never be fully realized, partly because the existence of ‘others’ remains necessary for the conceptualization of the nation and partly because unity in any community is challenged by the presence of different narratives about reality, different cultural traditions, and different sexual and ethnic identities" (Kramer 1997: 538). The challenge includes "conflicts over competing narratives that seek to define a social community" (537) as well as what Bhabha (1990: 300) calls "counter-narratives" of the nation that "continually evoke and erase its totalizing boundaries—both actual and conceptual—to "disturb those ideological manoeuvres through which ‘imagined communities’ are given essentialist identities." Corresponding signs of power and its contradictions, conflicts and disputes surface in the authors’ accounts: ethnic craftsmen re-narrating local and global identities, misrepresentations of miners and townsfolk in cultural heritage, the nation or region as narrator sublimating experiences of loss and eliding trauma in women’s histories of migration and settling, electronic media re-staging a collective civic story of the past, visuality empowering the nation’s selectivity in its heritage accounts of its past and the vision of a spectacularized future editing civic and national history for international audiences.

9 By coupling the nation with heritage, the essays engage with what Graham, Ashworth and Tunbridge (2000: 2) summarize as the modern era’s definition of heritage—"the contemporary use of the past." It has been used to "discover, delimit and thus name the basic entity, the nation"; subsequently, it provided "the means whereby variations from the national narrative can be managed" (187). Signs of power equally inform the essays’ attention involved with narrating the nation through heritage. Furthermore, their research shows that heritage has "act[ed] as a mechanism of dissemination for nationalism and other ideologically loaded discourses" (57), to the extent that "in appropriating particular constructions of the past, the representations of certain social groups are privileged at the expense of others" (62). In relation to this last theme the essays bring into question how states, organizations and groups manage their stories of the nation, including a "sense of belonging [that] depended on forgetting as much as remembering, the past being reconstructed as a trajectory to the national present in order to guarantee a common future" (60).

10 There is another aspect to how this volume approaches narrating the nation through heritage. Zuelow, Young and Sturm (2007: 2) write that despite Eric Hobsbawm’s and subsequent scholars’ pronouncements about the diminishment of nations, "many examples suggest that nations, national identity, and nationalism persist"; moreover, "no national community in the world acknowledges the demise of its national distinctiveness—each still believes itself unique and continues to point toward an assortment of exceptional national characteristics, traditions and places." The essays here grapple with how what is exceptional as well as commonplace about a nation has been "set within a growing awareness that tourism and leisure time were proper contexts for [the] public consumption of heritage" (Harvey 2008: 30) and remain so in national contexts as they interact with regional and global ones. Scholars tell us this can occur because the nation predominates in heritage as it is represented on the world stage. According to Graham, Ashworth and Tunbridge, "[t]he dominance of the national is now so all-pervasive" that "any discussion of sub-national heritages at the regional or local scale, or supra-national heritages at continental or global scales, must continually refer to the national scale which these complement or challenge" (2000: 183). Kramer suggests another way that narrating the nation through heritage acquires global dimensions: national identity develops in a supra-national context, " in terms of its differences from other places or people" (1997: 526). In her essay Jennifer Esperanza explores the theme by tracing the fashioning of identity in the work of craft makers and sellers in Indonesia, from the Dutch using craft to manage colonial Balinese identity to what recent changes in the production and sale of craft in Bali conveys about craft shop owners’ aspirations to achieve their own distinctiveness in a global framework and the significance this holds for tourists expecting craft objects to bear specific types of authenticity that reflect national character.

11 Opportunities for world and nation relationships that cultural tourism brings depends upon the intensification of connections that Robins (1999: 23) calls "re-localizations," "new and intricate relations between global space and local space." In the context of cultural tourism and national heritage, they can develop from economic, social and cultural dimensions of heritage-focused or related activities involving goods, information and images. Also, what is considered global relates to the nation where it is active, represented or marketed, and to former émigrés and potential immigrants: Conversely, the global world may play host and receiver to the nation’s "modernizing ambitions of enterprise culture and the retrospective nostalgia of heritage culture" (Robins 1999: 24) and to other initiatives to stage national heritage in a supra-national arena. Interestingly, several of the essays explore these themes in regard to museum displays and contemporary art. Maria João R. P. Silva analyzes the repurposing of some of the history of industrial pyrite mining in Portugal that had provided copper ore for the British Industrial Revolution. In particular, she analyzes the economic, artistic, cultural and social work of museum and art exhibitions in presenting pyrite mining as a post-industrial heritage intended to attract tourists to the impoverished south Alentejo region of Portugal. As part of her research on nationalizing migrant narratives, Laurie Bertram compares early-20th-century public spectacles of ethnic Icelandic difference with the assimilative gestures the Canadian government and cultural institutions later made to Icelandic-Canadians through displays of heritage objects. Maura Coughlin untangles narrative strands of piety, loss and mourning in the popular history and everyday life artifacts and art exhibited in different types of museums in Brittany.

12 According to the International Council on Museums and Sites’ (ICOMOS) Charter of Cultural Tourism, "[c]ultural tourism is that form of tourism whose object is, among other aims, the discovery of monuments and sites. It exerts on these last a very positive effect insofar as it contributes—to satisfy its own ends—to their maintenance and protection."1 And yet, perhaps as evidence of acts of appropriating monuments and sites in order to deconstruct their intended positive effects, as Aitchison, MacLeod and Shaw (2000: 24) observe, "alongside the national monuments invoking collective memory from the top down, we now have a range of monuments and public art forms that celebrate localized collective memory and local resistance to forms of national collective memory." Several of the essays provide intriguing examples. Anne Toxey inquires about the fortunes of local and mass print and electronic media narratives about the Sassi caves of Matera, Italy, as they register, evade and revise collective experiences of the caves that are specific to generation, class and location. As Watson and Waterton evaluate how heritage in England authorizes certain views of the nation, they also demonstrate the ways scholarly critique may expose, if not also resist, accepting the material and visual components of its hegemonizing tendencies. Kaminska and Nesselroth-Woyzbun critically gauge the ability of Warsaw, Poland, not only to stand as a convincing civic space but also foretell a utopian future based on engaging with a longstanding tradition of reimagining its past, as depicted by Polish photographer Nicolas Grospierre and collage artist Kobas Laksa in their photographic montage The Afterlife of Buildings prepared for the Venice Biennale in Architecture.

13 In conclusion, I would like to express my gratitude to the editors for embracing the theme of this special issue and convey heartfelt thanks to Marie MacSween for her meticulous editing and unflagging assistance with the project since its beginnings over two years ago. I now invite you to delve into exploring the seven authors’ fascinating and diverse research on the theme of national heritage in global contexts.

Jennifer Way, Guest Editor University of North Texas


Aitchison, Cara, Nicola E. MacLeod and Stephen J. Shaw. 2000. Leisure and Tourism Landscapes: Social and Cultural Geographies. London and New York: Routledge.

Belting, Hans. 2005. Image, Medium, Body: A New Approach to Iconology. Critical Inquiry 31 (2): 302-19.

Berger, Stefan. 2008. Narrating the Nation: Historiography and Other Genres. In Narrating the Nation: Representations in History, Media and the Arts, eds. Stefan Berger, Linas Erik-sonas and Andrew Mycock, 1-16. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Bhabha, Homi K. 1990. Nation and Narration. London: Routledge.

Edensor, Tim. 2002. National Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life. Oxford, UK: Berg.

Graham, Brian and G. J. Ashworth, J. E. Tunbridge. 2000. A Geography of Heritage: Power, Culture and Economy. London: Arnold.

Hall, Stuart. 2005. Whose Heritage? Un-settling "The Heritage", Re-imagining the Post-nation. In The Politics of Heritage: The Legacies of ‘Race’, eds. Jo Littler and Roshi Naidoo, 23-35. London: Routledge.

Harvey, David C. 2008. The History of Heritage. In The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity, eds. Brian Graham and Peter Howard, 20-36. Hampshire, UK: Ashgate.

Kramer, Lloyd. 1997. Historical Narratives and the Meaning of Nationalism. Journal of the History of Ideas 58 (3): 525-54.

Repko, Allan F. 2008. Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory. Thousand Oaks. CA: Sage.

Riello, Giorgio. 2009. Things That Shape History. In History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, ed. Karen Harvey, 24-46. London: Routledge.

Robins, Kevin. 1999. Tradition and Translation, National Culture in its Global Context. In Representing the Nation: A Reader, Histories, Heritage and Museums, eds. David Boswell and Jessica Evans, 15-44. London: Routledge.

Rose, Gillian. 2007. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials. Thousand Oaks. CA: Sage Publications.

Smith, Mark. 2008. Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Watson, Steve and Emma Waterton. 2010. A Visual Heritage. In Culture, Heritage and Representation, Perspectives on Visuality and the Past, ed. Steven Watson and Emma Waterton, 1-16. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Zuelow, Eric, Mitchell Young and Andreas Sturm. 2007. The Owl’s Early Flight: Globalization and Nationalism, an Introduction. In Nationalism in a Global Era: The Persistence of Nations, eds. Mitchell Young, Eric Zuelow and Andreas Sturm, 1-13. London: Routledge.


1 See http://www.icomos.org/tourism/tourism_charter.html (accessed Nov. 12, 2010).