Elizabeth Weiser, 'New Rhetoric, National Museums' - Brown Bag, 21 November 2012

A tour around National Museums of the world; a chronological journey of rhetoric from Aristotle to Burke and beyond; and a fascinating insight into how these seemingly diverse concepts link together, through thinking of the museum as a rhetorical space in which communal identities are formed: so Liz presented her ideas in 'New Rhetoric, National Museums'.

This was a fascinating overview of 'New Rhetoric' propounded by Kenneth Burke, but one which was foregrounded in looking at what rhetoric is, where it came from, and what it may have to do with museums.  Museums approach their identities in different ways in different periods: examples were given of Buenos Aires National Museum and Te Papa - we can look at these through different lenses - psychological, sociological, linguistic, historical, professional - but actually Liz argued, the lens of new rhetoric provides a useful framework for exploring national museums and how they are identifiying themselves, their histories and their values.  Rhetoric after all is about asking what this language (in a museum) is trying to lead me to believe about the world, and what it reveals about its author (the museum).  In short, rhetoric is about persuasion.  In particular, epideictic rhetoric is about asking what it is that we value.

Liz discussed origins of rhetoric: from the Sicilians who trained the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, from the Greeks to the Romans, from the Romans to Augustine and the Early Church.  Gradually, the system devolved from a flexible one, to one more based on presriptions and figures of speech, or rhetorical devices.  Whizz forward through time and space to the USA where I.A.Richards then reappropriated classical rhetoric, merging it with semiotics, and there we have the 'new rhetoric' of Burke.

What has all this got to do with (national) museums?  Well, above all, museums are not neutral spaces.  Neither is intention the same as effect.  Through their displays, their objects, their people, they communicate.  They don't just communicate though by what is present, but also by what is absent.  Certain stories and histories are told by what is there, but also by what is missing.  And no history can ever be fully represented because of this: museums are selective, even if not intentionally so.

For Burke, this moves a step beyond what Aristotle was saying about rhetoric as persuasion.  For Burke, it's all about identity: I cannot be persuaded by someone unless I can identify with them.  Only then is it worth having dialogue.  Rhetoric consists of logic, emotion and truted authority all working together.  Liz pointed out that Te Papa has done a good job of representing this consubstantial relationship between its communities, between logic, emotion and community authority/memory: Maoris can identify with non-Maoris because their histories are similar in two respects: both groups made difficult sea journeys to get to New Zealand, and both groups have substantially altered, yet care for the land.  A particular action has led to a mythic communal action to give a sense of nationhood.

In a similar way, a mythic object may take on a significant status, or an emotional identity for a nation.  Or it may take on more than one meaning in a hierarchy of dialetic.  Examples were given of the Arbroath Declaration of 1320, Ataturk's Mausoleum in Ankara, and the questionable European identity (or lack of it) exemplified through a wordless anthem, and now being concretised in Brussels' House of European History.  Perhaps above all, there's an openness here to ambiguity: if museums are epideictic rhetoric, they are open-ended.

Liz finished her talk by posing some questions, and the discussion once more took us around the world - to Mexico, Canada, Australia, Argentina and Peru, to questioning the distinctions between a novel or theatrical performance and a museum, and finally to consider whether museums have a responsibility to deal with conflict and how they might do this.  Perhaps readers might like to reflect and comment on these questions:
Do museums have an ethical role?
Does this answer to this depend on the type of museum?
Do national museums have a role in the C21st?
Are there communcal myths and mythic images in our own communities?

Elizabeth Weiser is an associate professor at The Ohio State University in the Department of English Studies.  She specializes in modern  rhetorical theory, historiography, and narrative, and her current book project applies these to the national identification engendered in national museums around the world.  Weiser’s first book, titled Burke, War, Words: Rhetoricizing Dramatism, analyzed the birth of modern rhetorical theory as a “third way” between war and totalitarianism, and she sees in museums the potential to instantiate the dialogue that is difficult to sustain outside of aesthetic spaces. In 2008 she was named the best new Burkean scholar in the nation. Her other publications include Engaging Audience: Writing in an Age of New Literacies, and the forthcoming Women and Rhetoric between the Wars.

With a grant from the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, she has spent this fall working with the European Union National Museums Project both here and at Linkoping  University in Sweden, which she says has been a wonderful experience of getting to know European colleagues and their work.


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