Who are We? Museums Telling the Nation’s Story

By M. Elizabeth Weiser.

Published by The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Benedict Anderson (1983) noted famously that all communities beyond the family are imagined. How, then, do we identify with these communities—becoming, for example, Americans rather than Turks or Britons? My current research examines the nationhood narrative as rhetorical identification, the symbolic means by which we persuade others that we share common substance. Greg Clark (2004) argues that the rhetorical materials of a national place can transform individual experiences into shared, communal truth. I extend Clark’s insight by examining national museums, those collections of “treasures” that are ordered into a particular narrative of display. Museums are prime locations for studying the identification Clark describes, and each nation’s museum handles this rhetorical process differently. Its textual, architectural, virtual, and visual rhetorics create a nationhood narrative that reflects the collective identity, projects that identity to outsiders, and invites members of the “imagined community” to identify themselves with the values and history represented in the museum. Often the story is incomplete, and so alternative museums fill in the varying gaps left by the national museum. To demonstrate these ideas, I first lay out briefly the overarching theories that frame the argument of museums as rhetorical locations of national identity formation, then I describe a particular feature of the American story—its relation to the Native American story—as it is displayed in both national and alternative museums, and finally I end with a brief application of these national ideas to a new, local museum that is growing in importance.

Keywords: Rhetoric, Identification, Nationhood, Narrative, American Indian, Earthworks

International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp.29-38. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.148MB).

Dr. M. Elizabeth Weiser

Assistant Professor, Rhetoric and Composition, Department of English, Ohio State University, Newark, Ohio, USA

Elizabeth Weiser is a rhetorical theorist with a Ph.D. in English from Texas Christian University, Ft. Worth, TX. Her work to date has focused on the theories of Kenneth Burke, the principal American rhetorician of the 20th century. Her book Burke, War, Words: Rhetoricizing Dramatism is published this fall, and she was recently named the nation’s top emerging Burke scholar. Her next project, on Burkean identification in national museums, combines her Burke scholarship with her interest in international identity narratives. Weiser was a Fulbright Fellow in Ankara, Turkey, and is the winner of various scholarships and awards. She teaches discourse analysis, style, argument, rhetorical historiography, and travel writing at the Ohio State University at Newark.

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