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Back to the future : the museum exhibit Vancouver in the fifties and the problem of historicity Knights, Wayne Robert


Critics of the museum have repeatedly drawn attention to its paradoxical quality. On the one hand, the museum is an institution dedicated to the historical representation of the past. On the other, the construction of exhibitions and displays is almost entirely dependent on the act of separating historical objects from their actual, temporal existence and subsequently resurrecting them in totalized narratives of interpretation. Not only has the object lost its actual context and temporality in this process, but it is also enclosed in a reconstruction that is epistemologically problematic from the point of view of an accurate representation of that context. In an unexpected way, the museum takes on the metaphoric characteristics of the mausoleum. Consequently, the experience of historicity that the visitor might well take from museum is, in Maurice Merleau- Ponty's formulation, the historicity of death. Against this, curators can only hope to 'imaginatively' bring the past back to life, thereby running the risk of seriously misrepresenting both the past and our experience of historicity. I argue that this paradox cannot be transcended by the museum. Moreover, we can infer that historiography faces the same sort of dilemma. However, this is exacerbated by the tendency to focus on the problematic of history as representation over the notion of history as event and process when defining either historical consciousness or historicity. Through a careful reading of both Gadamer's work on historical consciousness and what I understand as a fundamental corrective to it offered by Reinhart Koselleck, I argue that any attempt to understand the experience of historicity must grasp the significance of the dimension of futurity. Whereas the emphasis on history as representation inevitably falls on the past and its relationship to the historian's present, the relation of both past and present to the future constitutes historical temporality. Koselleck shows how the tension between what he calls the space of experience and horizons of expectation constitutes historicity historically. In order to make this argument, I analyze a new exhibit entitled "Vancouver in the Fifties" at the Vancouver Museum. The virtue of this exhibit is that it manages to portray the tension between that particular present past and the corresponding horizon of expectation that shapes its future present. Potentially; the visitor leaves the exhibit with a sense of the play of temporality implied by the existence of an open future in the past. This stands as a kind of case study aimed at underlining the importance of the historicity of the future for understanding historical temporality.

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