Friday, October 06, 2006


Two examples in today's news exhibiting the impulse to incorporate and divide all history into national narratives. The headline of the Globe and Mail reads "Native Art Trove Heads Home."

The Story:

More than two dozen rare items of northwest native art will be returning to Canada for the first time since they were taken from northern British Columbia in 1863 after members of the Thomson family suddenly stepped up to the plate, spending more than $5-million (U.S.) during a record-setting auction at Sotheby's in New York.
Of course, in 1863 when these items were taken (bought, stolen, gifted - it isn't clear) what is now British Columbia was still a colony of the British Empire, as were Canada East and Canada West. And where is the 'home' that the art is returning to? It seems likely that the Thomson family will donate them to the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is currently undergoing major renovations to accomodate the Thomson family collections.

It is not necessarily wrong to portray this story in a nationalist context, it is only that doing so, particularly as so often happens in journalism, limits other ways in which the story of this art could be considered, for example the colonial, imperial and Aboriginal focused implications.

The second example, from Mongolia:

Mongolians are concerned about foreign companies, namely in China and Russia, appropriating the identity of Genghis Khan.
Mongolia has moved to register the name of its legendary conqueror Genghis Khan as a commercial brand.
"Foreigners are attempting to use the Genghis Khan name", one parliamentarian said, claiming that businesses in Russia, China and Kazakhstan were all portraying him as a native of their countries.
Again, modern nationalist identity makes exclusive claims on history's persons and events, that, in the context of the time, had nothing to do with a particular nationalism.

Of course, nationalism requires a certain degree of exclusivity; I am certainly not arguing for a collapsing of national identities. However, the past is best examined in its historical context. Further I am not attempting here to argue that national appropriation of history is outright wrong, only that there needs to be ways to reconcile nationalist historical narriatives with competing narratives that might be better considered outside a nationalist frame.

Posted by Matthew @ 11:01 a.m.