, Volume 42, Issue 1, pp 57-80

The political economy of memory: the challenges of representing national conflict at ‘identity-driven’ museums

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Abstract

This article investigates how national histories marred by racial conflict can be translated into narratives of group identity formation. I study the role of “identity-driven” museums in converting American’s racial past into a metanarrative of black identity from subjugation to citizenship. Drawing on a thick description of exhibitions at 15 museums, interviews with curators and directors, museum documents, and newspaper articles, I use the “political economy of memory” as a framework to explain how ideological and material processes intersect in the production of exhibitions. I show that in addition to struggles over the truth and interpretive styles, more prosaic issues of funding, attendance, and institutional capacity-building hve an impact on representational selectivities. I explain how these issues affect black museums operating during the civil rights and post-civil rights eras. I consider the motivations and consequences of “remembering” national histories of violence and intolerance through the prism of group identity formation.