Negotiating Identities


Jette Sandahl


As a person from a rural community, belonging to the first generation that moved away from the countryside, and as a psychologist by training and a museum professional by choice, I have always had great faith in the meaning of individual histories and collective heritages. But recently I find myself arguing more and more against the weight of the past and the power of history.

I am interested in identity as a dynamic rather than as a static concept, as a process and interpretation rather than as destiny or an essential given. I focus on the multiple, overlapping, fragmenting, dividing, hybridizing, merging and fusing elements of identity. I am also interested in personal and cultural identity, as well as identification, dissociation and detachment from national identities and symbols. I am also interested in heterogeneous histories and identities involving nationality, ethnicity and gender.

The Troll Mirror of Colonialism

When I consider national identity and cultural diversity, I often think of the troll mirror, a cultural image which is familiar to most Nordic people. You look into a mirror and your image is distorted into shapes of ugliness that you can hardly bear to recognize as your own.

The troll, in this case, is of course colonialism. The distorted image which stares back at you in the mirror is the strange reversal of values and meaning, or the inverse relationship created by colonialism, when words and concepts take on different or opposite meanings and consequences. Concepts such as indigenous peoples and first nations have completely different meanings for the national museums of the old Western countries than for the museums of America, Africa or Australia. Likewise, the term European carries totally different connotations in Europe than in the countries that have been subjected to European colonization or domination. This is obviously the case for a number of the terms that we use when we discuss cultural diversity and cultural identity. We cannot escape the distortions created by colonialism. This is clearly true for museums – institutions with the responsibility of exploring and documenting history and identity – on the level of individual, cultural, historical and national identity. None of these terms can be dealt with without also confronting the cultural heritage of colonialism, which is the basic asymmetry of relationships within and outside our institutions. There are no easy or neat symmetries in our world.

Museums Negotiating Identities and Histories

In museums, collections of objects obviously function - and always were intended to function - as a means of identity formation. In a European context, they have also had the fairly distinct function of exploring, defining and disseminating the value systems of European supremacy. Preoccupied, at first, with identifying and defining a European history and identity, as different from and as opposed to the cultures of people outside Europe, museums developed to the point of becoming prime agents in the process of defining national identity. They were also part of a process where history is invented and constructed as the defining mediator between a given landscape and its people. In the process, the people who supposedly belonged to the landscape were also represented as a supposedly homogeneous group. They were defined and united through a supposedly shared language and culture that set them apart from neighbouring peoples. On some level, we realize now that this has been mythologizing. On another level, the myth of monocultures has a strong hold, not least in the Nordic countries.

At this point in time, the whole field of identity and its representations is going through profound changes. Museums have had to re-examine their role and responsibilities. They have also had to start 'negotiating histories', reflecting a shift away from the nation state and homogeneous cultures that they were initially formed to support and define. For the generations that have grown up with the firm belief that there is a true and factual version of history, the notion that history is subject to negotiation is often difficult and paradoxical.

Can mainstream museums turn our traditional value systems around? Can we begin to show a heterogeneous context with rich historic roots? Can we represent cultural diversity as enrichment rather than a threat to or an erosion of cultural value systems? Can we begin to explore an element of choice? Explore how identity - in our world - always implies a wide range of options, and involves particularly personal choices and interpretations of the possibilities and faculties dealt to each of us. Can we begin to explore how identity is mixed and often contradictory and ambiguous? Can we begin to reorient our institutions and ourselves toward an open and dynamic concept of identity? Can we promote a national identity that encompasses a changing society and the migration of peoples, with respect for love of the land, love of a region or even a nation? Can we deconstruct the myth of homogeneity and transcend mechanisms of exclusion and of inclusion based on ethnicity, gender, age, class, regional and local roots, religious conviction, political and sexual orientation?

A crucial issue here is how we as institutions, cultures and nations deal with difference. How do we define or deal with the relationship between terms such as difference, likeness, sameness, and equality? Difference is the point from where we can gauge equality.

Museums explore the relationship between history and identity, as it is mediated through objects and memories. The objects and collections in museums tie together the formation of personal and individual identity with the formation of cultural identity. In traditional museums, but also traditional psychological theory, memories, history and identity are fundamentally linked. The past strongly defines or determines our present and our identities. I challenge that. I believe identity needs to undergo negotiation or renegotiation, the same way as history does.

We all know that memories and the past lie embedded in objects. They stick to objects like burs, in our personal everyday lives, as well as in the institutions officially designated to preserve these memories and our past. Within psychoanalytic thinking, there is a tradition that deals specifically with the ways in which objects are at the core of identity formation. They function as intermediaries for an emerging personal consciousness and occupy the space between absence, presence and longing. Museum items and collections are meant to be bearers of our individual and collective memories and heritage - and as such of our identities.

Identity as a Fusion of the Future and Past

We all know that memories are highly selective, subjective and partisan. Whenever we compare notes and memories about a conversation, a film, a visit or a shared event from the past, it immediately becomes clear how highly individual and different memories can be. Through memory we try to make sense of what we encounter and to create a sense of unity, wholeness and coherence in our experiences. Memory is "the administration of the past in the present," and "the medium of situating the past in the present." We use memories to structure our inner world. We also use them to guide and structure our search for meaning and interpretive truth in any given context. But then again, our memories are also structured by our self-image and desires.

Memory does not provide access to the past 'as it was'. The past is mediated – rewritten and revised – through memory. Memory is far from a neutral thing. It is accompanied by the twin concept of forgetting and selective and partisan amnesia. Memory is 'a secondary revision'. It is already edited. And memories are multi-layered; uncovering one layer leads to the discovery of another layer, and to the discovery of yet another truth – if not factual, at least another emotional truth. Memory as such is not history. And in the same way, I suggest, neither are memories as such identity.

Identity is often referred to as something one owns or has. As if one had a specific identity once and for all. As if identity is a constant and static entity. As if identity is the sum of memories. As if identity is made up of the past. As if identity is closely related to destiny. As if identity is something natural and god given.

I have often wondered about the concept of roots, as a metaphor for the formation of human identity. Where does it date from and in which cultures does the metaphor work and where is it at play? I find it interesting that not all roots work as metaphor. As somebody recently pointed out, it is the single taproot that gives shape to the metaphor and our notion of identity in the old Western nation states. To put it another way, there are hierarchies in the systems of roots. Trees rank high on this list – as do longevity and stability of place and deep-rootedness. But some of us – and I am writing now as an expatriate, a recent émigré and as somebody who finds increasing pleasure in exploration – learn to set roots like climbing plants, like ivy. Some of us multiply through subterranean side shoots. Some of us are resilient and like weeds adapt to various kinds of soil. Some of us can even live and thrive on rocks, in the desert, in clay or in swamps.

During the last few centuries, the prevalent theories of identity formation have mirrored a specific political and social situation or reality. Theories of identity formation or personality formation are now beginning to change to correspond to another reality, in which migration and movement between cultures become increasingly common, and in which all of us, in person or through media, are increasingly exposed to many different cultures. We live in societies with a certain degree of social mobility, a fair amount of geographic mobility, and with a high degree of exposure to multiple cultural expressions through media with global coverage. In my experience it is more productive to think of identity, not as a given, not as an entity – but as a construct, a personal choice, as personal interpretation of whatever situation, conditions and prospects one is given.

Identities are renegotiated on a personal level. They modify and change when people's lives undergo change. We talk about transitional identities, when one moves from one realm to another, from one culture to another, one country to another. These changes may concern ethnicity and nationality, but the same is true for other transitions. Being a woman and adding the element of becoming a mother changes one's identity. The same can be said of the element of divorce when added to one's identity as a father. In these transitions we multiply the elements of our identities, we hyphenate, we realize that our identities are double or even triple. A person can be an Afro-American, a female Russian Jew, a Muslim Bengali woman from Sweden. Elements overlap, fragment, merge; they divide, hybridize, fuse. And it is also rather obvious that the most fundamental or defining element at any given point in time varies – both in one's own consciousness and in the eyes of strangers.

So, for me, identity is dynamic rather than static; not something one has, nor something one is, but something one is in the process of becoming. If we view identity as a personal interpretation based on personal choices, these choices are not made from a limited or a restricted mass – although real life often makes us feel that our options are few or limited. It is the nature of the societal development of both globalization and internationalization that the number of possible choices is at present increasing. In our time we face a deconstruction or a revision of the concept of identity. We could probably say that the concept of identity itself is in transition. The point I am making is that we should never, in theory or praxis, essentialize identity. We should realize that identity is as much about the future as it is about the past.

This is obviously too glib, easy and simplistic, of course. Because people often get caught up in self-doubt and conflicting emotions, especially when our personal memories, identities and histories do not match those of our neighbours. We are confused, at best – and defensive and vulnerable – when crossing borders and trying to bridge the gaps between our personal memories and what supposedly are collective memories and the official version of history.

Multiple Versions of National Identity

In the old cultures of Europe, we are used to thinking of a nation as a shared space and of nationhood as a collection of shared events and memories relating to this space. But in this area we may also face countertrends and new developments. Recent studies indicate that national symbols and collective memories are no longer what they used to be or, to be more precise, maybe we are ready for different articulations and interpretations of these symbols, for a more pluralistic and diverse collection of national symbols.

It is obvious that national symbols are subject to rapid and continuous change. When I moved to Gothenburg in the spring of 2001, I was rather amused at the proud marketing of the national symbol of Kungsportsavenyn as 'the most famous street in Sweden'. During the June summit that same summer this street actually reached international fame. It was on all the global networks, and wherever I travelled, people would ask, "Have you got that street cleaned up yet?"

Both the content and the context of this national symbol – a specific street –changed from one day to other. It changed overnight from an example of provincial snobbery to a painful reminder of the fragility of democracy. We played and replayed the scenes of thrown bricks, fires, dogs, policemen, the masked faces/hooded men, the jubilant setting on fire of house plants, the frightened kids playing cards, the bricks, the fire. The symbolic meaning of the street as a national symbol had changed. So had I, as I was no longer a condescending or admiring outsider. By the same token there were no longer any innocent insiders.

National symbols and national collective memories are fragmented by more complex and instable and multiple associations. And these associations contain a number of dis-identifications or departures from a supposedly shared set of memories and histories. Complex, contradictory and paradoxical events or situations lead many people to reinterpretations of emotional attachments to shared memories and national identities. National identity shatters into a multiplicity of identities.

In these cracks of official history, there may be room for more of us and for the experience of difference and otherness. In these cracks and transitions in national memories, there may be room for a more heterogeneous, pluralistic and diverse set of memories, symbols and identities which would place us firmly and irrevocably in a more global context.


This article was originally published in Under [De]construction - Perspectives on Cultural Diversity in Visual and Performing Arts, published by NIFCA (Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art), 2002, under the direction of Søren Friis Møler and Marita Muukkonen.

Reprinted by permission of NIFCA and J. Sandahl.


Jette Sandahl is Director of the National Museum of World Cultures, Gothenburg, Sweden. She served as the director of exhibitions and public programs at the National Museum of Denmark. Also the co-founder and director of the Women's Museum of Denmark during the 1980s, after a decade of studying, teaching and research at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.











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