Under Construction: National Identity and the Display of Colonial History at the National Museum of Singapore and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
In New Zealand and Singapore, national identity is inextricably linked to the processes of colonisation, decolonisation and the gaining of political independence. Unlike highlytheorized accounts of national identity, this study provides a deeper understanding of the ways in which it is actually developed, materialised and negotiated in 'real world' examples through history exhibitions at Te Papa and the National Museum of Singapore. The research provides a fresh perspective on recent displays of colonial history and how they shape and are shaped by the concerns of present-day nation-building particularly in former British colonies including Asia. It seeks to move beyond the existing literature which has been concerned with deconstructing national identity as a cultural construct to consider the ongoing process of updating, remaking and maintaining identity through museum display. Using a qualitative approach, this dissertation incorporates archival research, interviews, theoretical and historical literature, and visual analysis of exhibitions to contextualise and analyse the similarities and differences in the history exhibitions mounted at these two recently redeveloped museums. The Day 1 history exhibitions at Te Papa, opened in 1998, form the core of this study, while the chapter on Singapore provides an added layer of comparative depth, helping to broaden the picture of national museums and nationalism more generally. This research explores how national museums negotiate, on the one hand, the material and intellectual legacy of previous inherited definitions of 'the nation', while on the other responding to the contemporary expectations which arise from present-day conceptualizations of nations and national identity. My findings suggest that the construction of national identity is not independent from socio-political contexts, and that the political ideals of multiculturalism and biculturalism helped to foster inclusive and politically harmonious visions of national identity in the National Museum of Singapore and Te Papa. The conclusion argues that national museums' participation in the public articulation and definition of a collective idea of 'the nation' is unstable, contradictory and contested but nonetheless worthy of serious academic research.