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Seeing and Having to See the Past: Reconsideration of a Commemorative Historical Exhibition

Critique internationale, n°68

ISBN:  9782724633986
URL / DOI:  DOI of the article
Publisher:  Presses de Sciences Po


Since their birth in the 19th-century, historical museums have been endowed with a social role. Today, they are more particularly intended to disseminate a “shared memory” and encourage “tolerant citizenship”. This state of affairs has inspired numerous works. Yet, when confronted with an historical exhibit, the famous visitors’ gaze mainly remains to be decoded. The present article addresses it on the basis of original material: the 2012 historical exhibition sponsored by the City of Paris to commemorate the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup. As a member of the exhibition committee, I was able to conduct participant observation field work concerning its genesis. Employing a new approach and new material allowed me to understand how a public narrative concerning history is constructed by politics. In other words, what does it mean to present the past? A collective survey of visitors was subsequently conducted to determine how the exhibition’s presentation of the past via images was seen (or not seen). In other words, what does one see of the past when it is presented to one?