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First-Year Research Seminar: The History of Museums and the Politics of Space

Semester and Year SP 2018
Course Number FIRST-UG784
Section 001
Instructor Melissa Turoff
Days MW
Time 11:00 AM - 12:15 PM
Units 4
Level U


Open to Gallatin first-year students only.


The concepts of “cultural heritage” and “historic preservation” are capacious, including natural resources, man-made artifacts, monuments, folklore, myth, and tradition. Most importantly, these concepts connect the past, present and future within a coherent narrative. The construction of this narrative itself is an ideologically and politically charged process. This is a history and theory based course that explores how and where this process occurs. How does it manifest itself in the spaces of museums, archaeological digs, sacred spaces, and tourist destinations? And how do these sites shape communities or nations? This seminar traces how global imperial projects of preservation and plunder filled the museums of London, Paris, and Rome. We explore how museums become contested sites of postcolonial nation-building, historical reckoning, and as a means of integrating traumatic events into our historical consciousness. Combining insights from history, museum studies, postcolonial studies, and urbanism, we examine how “cultural heritage” and “historic preservation” relate to the history of museums. How can museums be understood as political spaces shaped by national, colonial, and postcolonial forces? How do colonial and postcolonial politics shape the processes of curation and “museumification?” We also visit museums in New York to discuss the power dynamics behind “museumification” in our own city. More informal writing assignments culminate in two formal research projects. The aim of assignments throughout the seminar is to hone critical thinking and writing skills, to disentangle concepts of “heritage,” and to explore how museums helped build civilizations, empires, and modern-day nations. Readings may include Sir Walter Scott, Pierre Nora, Michel Foucault, Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson, Susan Crane, Timothy Michell, Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Nezar AlSayyad, and Alexander Stille.


All Syllabi

Course Type

First-Year Program: Research Seminars (FIRST-UG)