Facts and power
Reflections around a community history museum in Shetland

Turid Markussen 

Department of Social Anthropology / Sami Studies, Institute of Social Science, University of Tromsø
Thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the cand.polit.-degree in social anthropology, Spring 1997


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Museum development in Britain
Understanding museums
Studying history in Shetland


Chapter 1: Modernisation
A period of transition
Northmavine perspectives
Theorising modernisation

Chapter 2: Memory
Perceptions of the past
Modes of memory
Memory and modernisation

Chapter 3: Museums
The exhibitions
Space and time
Life in Northmavine in the past
Nostalgia and knowledge

Chapter 4: Power
A political institution?
Norse imagery versus community history
The workings of power
The Museum as social and material manifestation

Chapter 5: Facts
Tangwick Haa Museum: facts and constructions
The institutional framework



The Coyote or Trickster, embodied in American Southwest Indian accounts, suggests our situation when we give up mastery but keep searching for fidelity, knowing all the while we will be hoodwinked. ... Perhaps our hopes ... turn on revisioning the world as coding trickster with whom we must learn to converse.

Donna J. Haraway


My sincerest thanks go to everyone in Shetland who took the time to talk to me about my (at times rather incoherent) project, including members of the history groups in Northmavine and Unst, the caretakers at Tangwick Haa Museum, and many people in various organisations and institutions based in Lerwick. They, along with several other individuals, generously shared their knowledge and views with me. Thanks in particular to everyone in Hillswick, at Hillhead, in Ronas Voe, in Bressay and in Baltasound who accommodated me, fed me, lent me their cars, offered advice, looked after me while I was ill, and generally did all they could to make my life as easy and pleasurable as possible. In addition to being vital for my project, the generosity and the company that was offered me wherever I went, were vital for me.

Also, my thanks go to many at the University of Edinburgh, where I spent the year prior to going to Shetland. The encouragement I received from Tony Cohen and the many discussions with fellow post-graduate students in the Department of Social Anthropology were particularly valuable at this early stage.

During the later stages of the project I have become indebted to several people in Tromsø. Thanks to all participants of 'avhandlingsseminaret' in 1995-96 for reading and commenting on earlier drafts, and to my supervisor, Trond Thuen, for helpful comments and an open attitude toward the project. Kevin McCafferty spent many hours reading proofs and suggesting improvements to my English, and might, to his dismay, discover that many passages have been altered or added since then. Thanks to him, and likewise to Bjørn Braaten for making his time and creativity available for the purpose of producing the front page. The discussions among students and staff at the Department of Social Anthropology/Sami Studies in Tromsø in recent years are reflected in this thesis in many ways, and all the fun has helped keeping me going. In particular, I would like to thank Trude Borch, Eva Klingenberg, Kristin Lervåg, Johnny-Leo Ludviksen, Finn Sivert Nielsen, Elisabeth Sandersen and Hege Aasbø. In various combinations, they have commented on many drafts or otherwise responded to my ideas, they have discussed with me, encouraged me, and not the least, laughed with (and often at) me. Their help and friendship have been indispensable. Lastly, I am thankful to my flatmates during the past eighteen months, Bjørn Braaten and Hege Aasbø, for many inspiring discussions, for having put up with more than most and for generally being on my side.

Tromsø, April 1997

Turid Markussen


Heading north from the Shetland capital of Lerwick, you arrive eventually at the impressive lava cliffs of Eshaness that face the Atlantic ocean. Shortly before the cliffs themselves and roughly thirty-nine miles from Lerwick, you encounter a wee road that leads down to the hamlet of Tangwick. The road cuts through the hill for a bit, then passes over one of Shetland's many cattlegrids, leads past a few croft houses, and lands you at the bottom of the road at a small car park next to a larger building. This building, the Haa of Tangwick, houses a museum run by the Northmavine Community History Group. Passing through a wooden gate and walking the few yards along the paved path running next to the narrow building, you arrive at the entrance: a low door half-way down the side of the haa. Once inside, new arrivals will likely be greeted by the caretaker on duty. After briefly browsing around, perhaps you leave. Or, perhaps something caught your interest, and you take the time for a closer look at some of the objects and photographs, or to read some of the information displayed alongside. This may give you a glimpse into 'what life was like before' in Northmavine, into the 'old crofting ways', into the perils involved in trafficking the surrounding seas, or perhaps into some odder bits of local heritage, like the story of the renowned Johnny Notions who, before his time, and with rather poor resources, invented inoculation against smallpox back in the eighteenth century. Perhaps also you chat for a bit with the caretaker, who would likely be very willing to answer any queries you might have, and may even ask you a thing or two as well. Then you leave, driving up the narrow road on which you approached, and perhaps now heading further into Eshaness, toward the cliffs you have seen such spectacular photographs of.


A growing literature on museums emphasises multiculturalism and the existence of multiple histories.(1) New museums are often intended to complement or reconceptualise the existing, authoritative histories. Some authors have voiced criticism regarding certain uses of the past.(2) A dominating perception seems to be that people construct enhanced images of the past in an attempt to halt processes of change. In Shetland the number of museums has increased rapidly in recent years. Also, the isles have gone through considerable changes in the course of a few decades. In this thesis I address the issue of how one specific, small, rural museum relates to those processes of change. Rather than resisting change, my contention is that, through relating to certain of the negative implications of modernisation, the museum established in the Haa of Tangwick influences the general course of change. Moreover, people have diverse and multifaceted relationships to the past and I argue that the effect that the Museum produces is achieved, not by constructing a fictitious past, but, among other things, through an increase in the awareness of facets of the past that are otherwise often ignored. In the remainder of the Introduction I provide a background, empirically and theoretically, for the issues under examination. Also, in the final section, I discuss the methods of approach.

Museum development in Britain

Tangwick Haa Museum, which was officially opened in the summer of 1988, is but one of a number of small community history museums to have opened since the mid-1980s in Shetland. In 1980 the Shetland Community History Project was launched, and following this several history groups were formed. The Project was focused on oral history, which by then had become a significant field of research in Britain. Gradually the focus of many of the history groups shifted or expanded, and several have now opened or are planning to open a museum or visitor centre, while many of those museums already in existence have plans for expansion. In recent years many of them have been working to fulfil the requirements set by the Museums and Galleries Commission(3) for registration as a museum, a move encouraged by the Shetland Islands Council's Section Leader for Museums. The museum sector in Shetland has generally been vastly expanded during the course of the last decade, and the community history museums make up a very substantial part of that expansion.

The situation with regard to museum development in Shetland is by no means unique; rather, it is mirrored by similar processes all over the world. Renewed interest in local culture and history, manifested in the emergence of museums, can be found in the most diverse locations. In Britain, small museums run by volunteers, usually with little or no public funding, have appeared throughout the country.

Prior to going to Shetland for the first time in the summer of 1993 I had spent somewhere between one and two years on the British mainland. Most of the time was spent in one of the two cities where I lived during this time, Norwich and Edinburgh. My time in rural areas had been limited to the odd day out of town and very short holidays in the Yorkshire Dales and on the west coast of Scotland. However, it did not take long before some general impressions formed. Anyone travelling around Britain will encounter scores of local museums, heritage centres, nature trails and the like - places that claim to draw attention to just how peculiar this little corner of the land is. Nevertheless, I was left with an impression of uniformity. So much of the interpretation of culture and nature alike is done within the frames of a common grammar. There are standardised ways of developing a place so that it is transformed into and easily recognised as 'a site'. If you should feel at a loss when it comes to how you should look at or understand what it is that meets your senses, ample help will be provided, in the form of well laid out paths, arrows marking entrances and the direction you should walk in, interpretive boards placed at strategic locations, and so on. All done so that whatever is decided to be the 'attraction' can be easily identified and digested, before one hits the road to sample yet more pieces of 'heritage' before lunchtime. It is very easy to find yourself trapped within this logic, the logic of worldwide travel and tourism.

People travel for many different reasons, and visits to places where the so-called 'heritage' is 'interpreted' are often not included. Britain, however, has been portrayed as a country particularly obsessed with its 'heritage' (Hewison 1987). This might be hard to verify, but a powerful conservation movement is indeed present and the rate of establishment of new museums is remarkably high; in Scotland there are approximately 400 museums, about half of them having been set up during the past two decades (Ambrose 1993, p. 5). Robert Hewison, in his book The Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline, issues a warning concerning this development. He quotes the Director of the Science Museum in London, Neil Cossons, who commented on the tremendous growth in the number of museums in Britain in a radio interview in the mid-1980s: "You can't project that sort of rate of growth much further before the whole country becomes one big open air museum, and you just join it as you get off at Heathrow" (1987, p. 24). The trend has continued in the decade after Cossons' comment, and is manifest also in Shetland. For a place with a population of 22,000, the existence of at least fifteen museums or interpretive centres, in addition to several sites managed by Historic Scotland or Scottish Natural Heritage, speaks for itself. Hewison's argument is that the obsessive preoccupation with the past has come about as a result of an idea that Britain is in a state of terminal decline. After the Second World War, although the British Empire was gradually disintegrating as processes of de-colonisation gained momentum, the domestic climate was one of modernisation and renewal. This was also the period when the Welfare State saw the light of day. In the late 1960s "a period of rapidly rising inflation and increasing unemployment" began, however, and subsequent change has taken place in "a climate of decline" (p. 40). Conservation work is supposed to counter the decline, but what actually happens is that the past is approached in a way that only serves to further deepen the crisis. This is so, Hewison argues, because the past is typically portrayed in a nostalgic light, so that it appears more desirable than the present. Other and more genuinely new developments are thereby stifled.

The presence of conservation work and museum development in Shetland marks the integration into a nationwide (and indeed worldwide) framework of interpretive facilities. The way in which the place is interpreted bears many resemblances to forms of interpretation encountered in other places. At the same time, in Shetland and elsewhere, there is considerable variation in how the so-called cultural and natural heritage is developed. Some of it is done by the large heritage organisations, some by individuals in their spare time; some is done to attract tourists and induce them to spend their money locally, some for the enjoyment of delving into the history of one's forebears. There are different kinds of actors involved: individuals, private businesses, charitable trusts, local authorities, independent or semi-independent organisations. And there are different kinds of motivations: personal, economic, social, idealistic, political.

In his book Managing New Museums, the Director of the Scottish Museums Council, Timothy Ambrose, boldly states that the causes of the swelling interest in museums in Britain "are not difficult to understand" (1993, p. 4). He goes on to note three different causes: (1) the increased pace of change in society since the Second World War, (2) the increased scale and rate of destruction of the environment and (3) the change in the economy from manufacturing to services. That the interest in history in many cases should be related to such developments, I find probable - these reasons do indeed bear certain resemblances to what one often hears people say themselves when talking about their interest in history - but they can hardly be claimed to qualify as reasons in themselves. Ambrose's third cause, the transformation of the economy from industry to service, is well documented, but the question of what exactly makes 'heritage' a profitable product remains to be addressed. An answer could be thought to lie in the first two allegations: that the increased pace of change and appurtenant rate of destruction create an interest in the past and the natural environment that makes heritage a profitable product. However, this leaves unanswered the question of why some people respond to change and supposed destruction by delving into the past, while others don't. Also, for those who do have an interest in the past, there is the question of whether it is actually motivated by change as such and, if so, why it appears a meaningful way of relating to change.

Ambrose does not find reason to contemplate such issues; rather, he states that, considering the quickened pace of change in society, 

"[i]t is not surprising that there has been corresponding reaction against such change. ... In a very real sense the past is enlisted to combat the present" (1993, p. 4). 

The understanding of the phenomenon that he thus offers can easily be correlated to the approach to the past that Hewison criticises. The kind of change people encounter is in both cases assumed to be experienced as a threat in one way or another, as representing a form of decline, and the past is evoked to counter this process. Although there are numerous examples that confirm this impression, as Hewison documents, no evidence is supplied that confirms the validity of this claim when it comes to all the new museums. In other words, it seems to me a preconceived, and thus potentially misleading, way of conceiving of the phenomenon. That it is presented in the Introduction to a book published by the Scottish Museums Council, addressing itself to people who are in the process of setting up new museums, does not improve matters. One should think that it is important that people around the country involved in setting up a museum would benefit from a more informed vision of what deeds the past may be enlisted to perform.

Considering the scale of the phenomenon, it is peculiar to find so little critical reflection in museum and heritage circles around the question of why the past holds such a fascination for so many people, especially within the institutions that act as the country's foremost promoters of this interest. There is much to Hewison's criticism of the obsession with the past: that nostalgia occupies a far too prominent role in perceptions of the past, and that in thus making the past seem more desirable than the present, attention is drawn away from the real problems facing people today. However, if better uses for the past are to be found, it might be fruitful to look at the various ways in which the past actually is approached. Assuming there to be more to the prevalent preoccupation with the past, than an attempt to evade the forces of the present, there is indeed a need to address the question of what that 'more' might contain. When I write in this thesis about one particular museum, it is with this issue in mind. I will not attempt an exhaustive elaboration of the uses the past might have. Rather, in pursuing a certain set of questions in relation to a particular use of the past, I hope to stimulate a more general reflection on what the past may be enrolled to do.

Understanding museums

The past and contemporary understandings of the past have been subjected to increasing attention by anthropologists. At one time the classical anthropological account was one in which people, due to the application of a particular style of writing, the so-called 'ethnographic present', were portrayed as living in an eternal present moment, as if the basic structures or patterns in their lives were not subject to change. However, criticism of the exclusion of change from ethnographic description has long since become commonplace in anthropology.(4) When the issue of change came to be recognised as central to anthropological understanding, it was first addressed in the context of integration into a modern and global world order. Later there has been an increasing recognition of the existence of history prior to the advent of modernisation processes, indeed of history as a dimension of all social and cultural reality. Kirsten Hastrup's formulation of this point in her Introduction to the edited volume, Other Histories (1992), is instructive. She criticises anthropology's propensity for defining its object of study in spatial terms only:

"We have dealt with societies and cultures as entities separated from one another in space. By contrast, historians have dealt with periods or epochs. A truly 'historical' anthropology must include reference to both space and time, not only because 'history' is the unfolding of society through time but also because 'society' is the institutional form of historical events." (1992, p. 7)

With the increasing recognition within anthropology of the existence of history in all societies, also prior to European intervention, the Western notion of history as homogenous, linear and continuous has been challenged, as Hastrup points out:

"The unified sense of history seems to be a discursive rather than a social fact and the product of a highly literate Enlightenment heritage. In Europe as elsewhere there is a multiplicity of histories." (1992, p. 2)

Following the recognition of the fundamentally historical character of all social reality, and thus of the existence of multiple histories, there has been an increasing appreciation of the importance of people's own perception of their past. As anthropologists have shown a growing concern with these perceptions, a particular theoretical approach has come to be favoured by many, an approach that feeds on the more general theoretical tradition known as constructivism. Essentially this approach sees the various perceptions of the past as 'constructed', 'invented' or 'created'.

This approach to folk perceptions of the past has, however, created problems of its own. An article by Roger M. Keesing, addressing conceptions of the past in the contemporary Pacific, presents a useful discussion of the sorts of issues that are at stake (1989). Across the Pacific, in the post-colonial era, myths of ancestors are being created, myths that come to act as powerful political symbols. However, Keesing argues that these 'created pasts' are often idealised versions of bygone times, and owe more to Western ideologies than to actual historic events in the region. In support of this he refers among other things to the propensity for people who are dominated to "internalize the premises and categories of the dominant", to the fact that "the discourse of domination creates the objective, institutional realities within which struggles must be fought", and to the tendency among Third and Fourth World people to form representations of their own culture "as counters to or commentaries on the intrusive and dominant colonial culture" (p. 23, original emphasis removed). These structural tendencies become manifest, among other things, in perceptions of the past that

"incorporate Western conceptions of Otherness, visions of primitivity, and critiques of modernity. The imagined ancestors with whom the Pacific is being repopulated - Wise Ecologists, Mystical Sages, living in harmony with one another, cosmic forces, and the environment - are in many ways creations of Western imagination." (Keesing 1989, p. 29)

When facing these kinds of 'created' pasts, Keesing states, scholars are often confronted with a dilemma: However mistaken the versions of the past might be, one may still sympathise with the political struggle that the recreated pasts facilitate, and to challenge the perceptions of the past by attempting to correct them may undermine that struggle. If the perceptions of the past thus created serve a cause that is just, perhaps one need not worry so much about their factuality, Keesing reasons, but then he considers the more complicated cases. For, the problem becomes more acute when it is considered that a situation is rarely that simple, as when a perception of the past resulting from a selective idealisation helps improve or consolidate the position of a local elite: "In the contemporary Pacific [the recreated pasts] are being used both to recapture just rights and to deny them" (p. 19).

Keesing's solution to this problem is to encourage more radical and sceptical conceptions of the past, to get beyond the idealisations:

"In Pacific communities on the eve of European invasion, there were multiple 'realities' - for commoners and for chiefs, for men and for women, for young and for old, for free persons and for captives or slaves, for victors and for vanquished. ... The 'authentic' past was never a simple unambiguous reality. The social worlds of the Pacific prior to European invasion were, like the worlds of the present, multifaceted and complex. Moreover, however the past may be constructed as a symbol, and however critical it may be for historically dominated peoples to recapture this ground, a people's cultural heritage poses a challenge to radical questioning. We are all to some degree prisoners of 'real' pasts as they survive into the present - in the form of patriarchal values and institutions, of patterns of thought, of structures of power. A deeply radical discourse (one that questions basic assumptions) would aspire to liberate us from pasts, both those of our ancestors and those of (colonial or other) domination, as well as to use them as political symbols." (p. 25)

I am sympathetic to this argument, as it goes some way in suggesting how one may relate to perceptions of the past so that they are complemented rather than undermined. However, there are further problems inherent in the constructivist approach to the past, problems that Keesing does not address. These problems are of a conceptual nature, that is, to do with what words one uses in talking about people's perceptions of the past, and what meaning those words have.

Keesing positions himself firmly within the approach I have characterised by saying it sees the past as 'constructed', 'created' or 'invented', and refers in this context particularly to the volume edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger called simply The Invention of Tradition (1983). In his Introduction to this book Hobsbawm defines the basic concept of 'invented tradition' in the following manner:

"The term 'invented tradition' is used in a broad, but not imprecise sense. It includes both 'traditions' actually invented, constructed and formally instituted and those emerging in a less easily traceable manner within a brief and dateable period - a matter of a few years perhaps - and establishing themselves with great rapidity. ... 'Invented tradition' is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact, where possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past. ... However, insofar as there is such reference to a historic past, the peculiarity of 'invented' traditions is that the continuity with it is largely factitious. In short, they are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition." (1983, p. 1f, my emphasis)

If Hobsbawm's definition is to be taken seriously, one could think of other traditions also instituted in response to a novel situation, traditions that did make a reference to the past, but were not 'invented'. Keesing, although he holds that the 'created pasts' may be both mythical and real, restricts his discussion to fictitious pasts. However, there are issues beyond the question of true and false when it comes to understanding folk perceptions of the past, and if terms such as 'invention' or 'creation' come to imply that the version of the past under discussion is false, there is a problem when the constructivist approach is applied to any perception of the past, true or false. The pasts spoken of then risk being dismissed even before they are subjected to analysis.

In a sense, what takes place when an anthropologist writes about someone's approach to history, contextualising it socially, politically, historically, is an act of deconstruction.(5) What is most commonly associated with deconstruction within anthropology is the questioning of the discipline itself, of the positions from which it speaks and the concepts it applies when speaking. The outcome of this process of questioning has been the recognition of the fundamentally positioned nature of anthropology, and thus of the need to be sensitive with regard to the political implications of what one writes. When the same deconstructive technique, consciously or unconsciously, is applied to other subject positions than anthropology, including those of marginal groups, the political implications are even more direct. Basically it is the political nature of someone else's position that is revealed, which means that the anthropological account enters a field where there is already a political struggle going on, whether explicitly or implicitly. This requires careful reflection on the part of the anthropologist on the role of anthropology in relation to this ongoing struggle.

This is exactly the problem Keesing addresses, but my allegation is that, although his perspective is valuable, it does not deal with the issue on the conceptual level. For when it comes to the application of constructivism to the multiple perceptions of the past that exist, this is often done in a way which suggests any of these perceptions to be mistaken. In Hobsbawm's case this is explicit, in Keesing's implicit. What I mean to imply is not that constructivism should be abandoned, but rather that the various applications of constructivism be approached critically. The problem arises when the way in which multiple histories are dealt with is such that any version of history is rendered invalid. This is a possible outcome, not of deconstruction in itself, nor of constructivism in itself, but of the application of concepts such as 'construction' and 'invention' to any perception of the past, if this carries the implication that the 'created' past is in fact incorrectly recreated.

In fact, this kind of application of constructivism is not in line with the approach that Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann developed in their classic essay on constructivism, The Social Construction of Reality. By saying that reality is socially constructed they do not intend to imply that the resulting constructions are fictitious. In fact the question of truth and falsity does not enter into it at all. Rather, the term construction is intended to capture a feature of all reality, namely that it is somehow made by the way in which human beings live their lives in it. Berger and Luckmann make clear that there is no contradiction in saying that something is constructed and that it is real. They end the Introduction to their book by making this point explicit, thus positioning themselves simultaneously in the traditions of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim:

"Durkheim tells us: 'The first and most fundamental rule is: Consider social facts as things.'(6) And Weber observes: 'Both for sociology ... and for history, the object of cognition is the subjective meaning-complex of action.'(7) These two statements are not contradictory. Society does indeed possess objective facticity. And society is indeed built up by activity that expresses subjective meaning. And, incidentally, Durkheim knew the latter, just as Weber knew the former. It is precisely the dual character of society in terms of objective facticity and subjective meaning that makes its 'reality sui generis', to use another key term of Durkheim's. The central question for sociological theory can then be put as follows: How is it possible that subjective meanings become objective facticities? Or, in terms appropriate to the aforementioned theoretical positions: How is it possible that human activity (Handeln) should produce a world of things (choses)? In other words, an adequate understanding of the 'reality sui generis' of society requires an inquiry into the manner in which this reality is constructed." (1971, p. 30)

I will not recount the argument that Berger and Luckmann proceed to develop on the way in which reality is actually constructed, but rather just point out that, in contrast to this approach, the application of constructivism to perceptions of the past sometimes seems to lose sight of the fact that all parts of human reality are constructed and that this in itself is not to say that it is somehow not real. As human beings we enter a world that is already constructed, and we have no choice but to go on constructing it. Construction is thus a precondition of all human life. Everyone does it: anthropologists, carpenters, civil servants, housewives, farmers, lovers, relatives, scientists; we do it today, as our forebears did it in the past and our ancestors will in the future. An implication is that not only are there different versions of the past today, but there were actually different pasts. An anthropological approach to the different contemporary perceptions in the past must recognise this, which is, of course, what Hastrup and others do in the volume quoted above, Other Histories, when stressing the non-unilinearity of history. Hastrup observes that "[a]nthropology's specific contribution to the study of history seems to be precisely this: to rewrite world history as a non-domesticated multiple history" (p. 3). However, anthropology is far from alone on the scene. The increasing interest in history seen in latter decades can in many ways be seen as an expression of this. When oral history emerged as a field in its own right in Britain in the late 1960s this was in an attempt at capturing the different pasts that existed, and furthermore, when an increasing number of local museums have been established, this is similarly often to draw attention to parts of the past otherwise overlooked.

If anthropology is to succeed in portraying history as a sort of complex unfolding in which many elements resist being subsumed underneath the dominating patterns, one must search for ways of talking about the various pasts produced from other positions that do not tacitly deem them invalid. Any version of history is exactly that: a version, and thus a product, to a point, of the particular situation that produced it, that is, of the present. The challenge is to be able to talk about the situatedness of history without explicitly or implicitly implying that it is misrepresented, and that recognises the existence of multiple pasts. This kind of application of constructivism to the field of 'created pasts' is what should be sought. If a contemporary perception of the past is mistaken or biased, there may well be good reasons for pointing that out, as Keesing argues. However, if the approach is one that deems any such perception invalid, anthropology indeed faces a serious problem.

Studying history in Shetland

The soaring number of museums, in Britain and elsewhere, is often remarked upon. Only occasionally is it noted that many of the new museums are different kinds of institutions from those already in existence. Writing on ethnographic museums, George Stocking remarks that when it comes to the historical processes that have led to the collection of objects in museums, the most important ones have been those of colonial domination (1985, p. 5). It has been a matter of collecting objects relating to someone perceived as 'other' in relation to oneself. This, Stocking states, also holds true for collections relating to 'folklore' in the same national context as that in which the collection is held. The processes of industrial development and social change that have generated them, he says, have sometimes been appropriately characterised as processes of "internal colonialism" (1985, p. 5). In both cases, it is thus a matter of museums that display representations of 'the other'. Such museum practices have frequently been contested in recent years, however, and increasingly one finds that new museums are ones in which the people whose past is exhibited are the people who manage the museums.

When professional museum people worry about the swelling 'museum sector', this often seems to be ignored - a fact which becomes very significant if they try to enforce the standards developed in the vastly larger and more affluent institutions in the new museums. If it is acknowledged that there are actually various histories, and that the new museums may be aimed at capturing those histories, it becomes apparent that politics is involved in the relation between the old and new institutions. What appears to be a matter of professionalism - the recommendation that standards should be heightened in the small museums - then turns out to be a very political matter indeed. In this perspective it is perhaps not so strange that it may appear convenient to present the reasons people have for delving into their past as having to do with their inability or unwillingness to change, and thus of their interest in history as a reaction against change.

What Shetland people involved with community history museums most often said regarding why they think their museum is important, was "to avoid things getting lost". This links the museums to change, as losing things indeed alters something. However, the question of how the museums relate to change remains to be addressed. In Chapter 1 I discuss the processes of change that have taken place in Shetland from the 1950s onwards. Museums represent a way of remembering the past. In Chapter 2 I discuss how different forms of memory are affected by change. A discussion of how the past is portrayed in Tangwick Haa Museum and of the conception of change it embodies appears in Chapter 3. This discussion involves treating the Museum as a discursive phenomenon. In Chapter 4, through a focus on power, I address the question of what the interest in the past does to the present. This involves including non-discursive facets of the Museum in the analysis. In Chapter 5 I discuss constructivism in the light of the preceding analysis.

The empirical research for this thesis was carried out during two periods: from June to November 1993, and from September to December 1994. For a good deal of this time I lived in different locations in the area of Northmavine, where the Tangwick Haa Museum is located. The exhibitions in the Museum provide an important part of the data under discussion. However, much data stems from other sources, particularly the conversations I had with the people directly involved with the Museum and written sources (reports and documents, statistics, magazine articles).

Participation in people's everyday lives is a methodological ideal in social anthropology. Partly as a result of the relatively short time I have been able to spend in the area, and partly due to the fact that I write about a process that has unfolded over several years, I rely extensively on questioning people involved with the Museum, rather than on participation in the activities in question. This approach has its limitations, as so much of what takes place in people's lives is never verbalised, or verbalised only in the specific context in which it naturally belongs. The challenge is to evaluate what one has been able to learn in such a way that one does not draw unsubstantiated conclusions. In making sense of the things people said to me I have relied extensively on impressions formed as a result of living in the area that relate to many other aspects of the place. Although much would have been gained with more in depth empirical study, the sort of information I have accumulated provides a sufficient basis for developing some perspectives on the interest in the past found among certain people in the area.

My account does not in any way claim to be the story of the Tangwick Haa Museum. I hope, however, that I have provided some perspectives - on the one hand, on the Museum and ways of relating to the past, and on the other, on the theoretical understanding of such phenomena - that may contribute to a continued reflection around both the theoretical and the practical issues involved.


Tangwick Haa Museum opened in 1988, and is run by Northmavine Community History Group, which started in 1981. The Museum is open to the public every year from May to September. A Trust(8) is formally responsible for the management of the Museum, but in reality it is the Committee of the Northmavine History Group that is responsible for the exhibitions, as well as the day-to-day running of the Museum. The exhibitions are mainly concerned with the cultural history of Northmavine, but there are also displays on natural phenomena. The Museum's Collection Policy is very open, and basically any item relating to Northmavine's past may be included in the collection. Due to the availability of objects, most of the collection is concerned with the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Part of the exhibition space in the Museum is devoted to permanent displays, but every season a new theme is researched and exhibited. Exhibitions have been mounted on such things as crofting, fishing, religious life, trade and the shoreline. The Museum is visited by substantial numbers of people every summer, local residents and visitors from afar. Particularly the latter category has been on the increase lately. However, when the Group takes the trouble to mount new exhibitions every year, this is to cater for the local public.

Along with many other community history museums in Shetland, Tangwick Haa Museum receives financial support from the Shetland Amenity Trust, a quango (quasi-independent non-government organisation) that relies for much of its funding on the Shetland Islands Council and its oil funds, while also working to secure funding from other sources. It was through the Amenity Trust that funding was found to restore the formerly derelict building in the first place,(9) and in addition to capital costs, the Trust also pays the running costs of the Museum.

Much of the work at the Museum is done on a voluntary basis by members of the Northmavine History Group. The Group was formed following the launching of the Shetland Community History Project in December 1980. By the time of the Community History Project, oral history had grown into a substantial field of interest in Britain, having been established as a separate field of research initially by a number of radical social historians in the late 1960s. The Shetland Project was also essentially focused on oral history, and aimed at generating as broad participation by the general public as possible. It was based at the Shetland Archives, where the collected material was to be stored. As it turned out, much of the oral history material produced was collected by people employed directly through the Archives. The history groups did, however, also collect some material, and in Northmavine one of the members made a substantial number of oral history recordings on the period between the two world wars. Most of the material that the groups worked with was of a different character, though. Large scale maps were distributed by the Community History Project, and on these such things as place names and fishing meiths were registered. To the meetings held by the history groups people also brought old photographs, documents and objects that were made available for everyone to view and discuss. These early meetings in the Northmavine Group were according to all reports very enjoyable.

Northmavine History Group still arranges meetings in the winter-time, as do many of the groups around Shetland, but now these meetings usually feature a speaker who addresses some aspect of Shetland or local history. Slide shows are also popular. Still, not as many people have been attending these meetings recently. Much of the activity of the History Group has instead come to be focused on the Museum. Every year a new topic has been researched for the purpose of making an exhibition. Among the members of the History Group there are many older people who are very knowledgeable about the past, and who have old objects or photographs in their possession. During the winter the members also get in touch with whoever in the area they know to be informed about the topic they are looking into, or who might possess items that could be exhibited. One of the members copies old photographs, another does the typing needed for the displays, and in the weeks prior to the opening of the Museum every spring, the actual exhibition is put together. For the most active members a considerable amount of time goes into the work at the Museum. There were several people in the History Group who expressed regret that not more actual recording was being done, though.

In recent years, much time has been spent preparing the Tangwick Haa Museum for full registration with the Museums and Galleries Commission. The Commission, a quango set up initially in 1931 as an advisory body, has increased its authority and now acts as an important regulator of the museum world. 1988 saw the implementation of its Registration Scheme for museums in the United Kingdom. The Scheme enforces a set of minimum standards on institutions that seek public funding. Formally speaking, the Shetland Amenity Trust, which, as mentioned above, funds the Tangwick Haa Museum, has nothing to do with the Registration Scheme. Still, many think that registration might prove necessary in the future to secure the continued availability of funding for the running costs and maintenance of the Museum, and the Shetland Islands Council's Section Leader for Museums strongly encourages registration. The requirements for registration include, in addition to such things as the adoption of a Collection Policy, the individual labelling of each artefact with a unique number as well as the maintenance of what is perceived to be a fairly comprehensive register of all items.

Getting registered is not the only concern of the History Group, however. Currently they plan to renovate a wing of the Tangwick Haa that only was secured when the first restoration took place. The extra space will be used for storage, research and exhibitions. Also, they plan to make a permanent display on Northmavine's history.

Chapter 1 Modernisation

I spent the greater part of my time in Shetland in the district of Northmavine, where the Tangwick Haa Museum is located. During my first stay I lived on one of the housing estates in the area. Although barely afforded mention in Mike Finnie's "architectural guide" to Shetland - he describes the estates as "featureless" and hurries on to more notable buildings (1990, p. 62) - such estates of grey, box-like houses, whether they are built by the Shetland Islands Council or by privately managed housing associations, are in fact most characteristic of contemporary Shetland.

A modern housing estate is a visible outcome of the period of transition experienced in Shetland in recent decades, as are such features as the modern road network that cuts across Shetland's many hills, the roll-on-roll-off ferries that connect the largest islands in the archipelago, the fish farms that can be seen in so many of the more sheltered voes, the plastic-coated silage bales dotting the fields after the grass has been cut, the huge cruise ships regularly at anchor in Lerwick harbour during the summer, the large fleet of Eastern European factory trawlers or the extensive oil terminal on the shores of Sullom Voe. Closely interwoven with such transformations in the materiality of Shetland are a wide range of other changes. Improvement of the communications network has changed patterns of movement, making it easier to travel between previously distant places for work or leisure; the establishment of the oil terminal has brought in a higher number of incomers; mechanisation of agriculture has transformed the co-operative patterns associated with crofting. Every conceivable field - social, cognitive, cultural, material - has undergone some sort of transformation.

What I have just described is a modern place. Modernity cannot be measured by the quality of roads or the number of incomers, however. Marshall Berman describes, instead, in his book All That Is Solid Melts into Air, modernity as a particular kind of experience:

"There is a mode of vital experience - experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life's possibilities and perils - that is shared by men and women all over the world today. I will call this body of experience 'modernity'. To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world - and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are." (1983, p. 15)

One of the things a visitor to Shetland soon comes to hear, is indeed how much things have changed, and how different they were before. It is this very experience of living in a world that keeps changing, that promises development and destruction in the same breath, that Berman terms modern. It was in this kind of atmosphere that people said they started the Museum. As one woman put it, "I guess we all felt that a lot would be lost." However, there has been change in Shetland before, without many museums having been established. It is thus not obvious why the experience of change has motivated the establishment of a museum, or why so many people now think it to be important that things should not get lost. To answer this, one needs to address the question of what exactly their experience of change is.

A period of transition

Although, historically speaking, change has been the rule rather than the exception in Shetland, it is the transitions experienced during the period from the 1960s onwards that people tend to refer to when they talk about changes, particularly those associated with the oil-related developments that took place in the islands in the latter half of the 1970s and early 1980s.

If a time were to be pinpointed for when this particular course of change began, perhaps the extension of the electricity supply to nearly every household in Shetland during the 1950s and 60s can stand as one of the more decisive moments. In addition to allowing for a whole range of modern conveniences, electricity brought with it television, which radically extended awareness of the outside world. Electricity was introduced at a time when the Shetland economy was in a slump. Public work schemes such as the provision of electricity and water supplies and the improvement of roads were initiated to relieve the situation and keep the menfolk off the dole (Donald 1983, p. 200). Employment of a more lasting nature was scarce, though, as the herring fishing which had boomed so spectacularly in the early part of the century, although still significant, was a shadow of its former self, and there was little to substitute for it (Donald 1983, p. 199; Smith 1977, p. 69). Up until the late 1960s there was a widespread pessimism regarding the future of Shetland. Indeed, it is easy to draw a bleak picture, reliable employment in the islands being scarce and the rate of emigration having nearly doubled during the 1950s as compared to the previous two decades(10). An indication of the prevailing sentiments can perhaps be found in the motion carried by an annual debate forum in Shetland, the Althing, in 1955: "Remote areas are a liability to the nation." (Donald 1983, p. 203.) I doubt that the question of why spirits were so low can be fully accounted for by these facts, however. Parallel to the process of decline was another process: the growing relevance of the national context. An increasingly well developed transport and communications system decreases isolation and brings a greater degree of interdependence, but, as Daniel Bell has argued,

"[A]long with a greater degree of interdependence has come a change of scale - the spread of cities, the growth of organizational size, the widening of the political arena - which has made individuals feel more helpless within larger entities, and which has broadened the span of control over the activities of any organization from a center." (1974, p. 42)

Processes such as these were significantly affecting Shetland in the 1950s - when the local economy was weak - and onwards. Television, in particular, has played a crucial role in nationalising the populations of modern states. However, television was also one of the ways in which the contrasts between different regions within the nation became increasingly apparent, in this case the contrast between Shetland as a backward and desolate place and the more prosperous parts of the mainland of Britain was brought to the front of people's consciousness.

The situation was soon going to change, however. Increasingly, from the 1950s onwards, the view that economic development in Shetland was possible, and could and should be stimulated by means of resources found locally, was voiced (Donald 1983, p. 202). Over the coming years a number of projects were launched, or attempted, with a varying degree of success. 1965 witnessed the formation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (later to be renamed Highlands and Islands Enterprise), and it was through their financial assistance that things really began to happen (Donald 1983, p. 205).

Still, it was only with the events of the coming decade that the speed of transformation was radically accelerated. The story is familiar to anyone with an affiliation to Shetland; it is the tale of the discovery of oil in the North Sea and the subsequent development of services to cater for the off-shore oil and gas fields - of greatest consequence was the construction of Europe's largest oil and liquefied gas terminal in the islands. That the coming of oil had a considerable impact on Shetland is beyond doubt. For a long time opinions were divided on the question of whether oil would be a good thing for the islands; apparently, emotion raged high in the "Our Reader's View" column of the Shetland Times in the 1970s. After the Shetland Islands Council (S.I.C.) had secured a deal with the oil companies, there was little doubt that there would be an economic benefit. Still, there was well-founded concern about the long-term effects upon the Shetland economy, which, when the oil and gas resources were depleted, would still have to prove viable. Also, there was concern about the sheer influx of people in the construction phase: 1980 saw a peak workforce of 7,000, most of whom came from the south and had to be accommodated and fed.(11)

Today, although there certainly have been problems with the oil-related developments in the islands, there is widespread agreement that oil on the whole has been a good thing for Shetland. Some of the benefits are obvious: Oil has brought employment, and also allowed for subsidised transport, social benefits, rural leisure centres and the like, on a scale unparalleled in most other parts of the U.K. It should be stressed that oil is not the only sector of the economy that has been developing since the 1950s and 60s. Massive investments in the fishing fleet, particularly in the islands of Whalsay and Burra, have turned the fisheries into a most lucrative industry for many; fish farming has appeared as an industry in its own right and now makes up a substantial fraction of Shetland's economy; income from tourism has since the early 1980s risen by well over 100% (S.I.C. 1995). There are sectors where there have been ups and downs, and certainly the easy availability of work on the oil terminal meant hard times for other parts of the economy; still, in spite of some turbulence along the way, the overall picture for the 1970s and early 80s is one of substantial increase in material welfare.

A substantial body of literature on the 'impact of oil in Scotland' has been produced, in an attempt to document or foretell the consequences of sudden industrialisation. In one of these volumes, an article by Anthony P. Cohen appeared, in which he argues that there are fundamental inadequacies in much of this literature when it comes to accounting for the actual cultural processes at work in such contexts. The cultural impact he identifies as the awareness people develop of themselves and their own values when having been made aware of others during the course of industrialisation (1980, p. 165). The development of oil in Shetland was instrumental in bringing this kind of awareness about, but as suggested above, and as Cohen also argues, the impact of oil can hardly be seen in isolation from the impact of all the other influences on the cultural process. Cohen argues, though, that from the moment the prospect of radical change in association with the discovery of oil in the North Sea was first presented, a process of cultural accounting began to take place. This process has found many empirical expressions. There was in the 1970s, parallel to the coming of oil, a big revival of local music, art and dialect writing. A greater interest in local history and traditions developed and found expression in new ways. A wide range of organisations and societies were formed all over Shetland, as a consequence of an increased awareness of the importance of community. A multitude of assertions regarding the special character of the 'way of life' in Shetland, the mental dispositions of Shetlanders, or the social life in the islands, have seen the light of day.(12) The fact that most of these affirmations portray Shetland and Shetlanders in either a positive or a self-ironic light testifies to the existence of confidence regarding what is perceived as peculiar to Shetland.

Following the decades when the economy was weak and the population trend negative, there was thus, on the one hand, a period of substantial economic development, and on the other hand, a period of cultural transformation in which the perceptions Shetlanders had of themselves and the place they inhabited altered. After the completion of the oil terminal in 1982 - the terminal had then been operative in four years - both the economy and the population levels have been fairly stable(13). The prevailing sentiment in this period regarding Shetland's future has been relatively optimistic. Reduced activity at the oil terminal in recent years has, however, already forced the S.I.C. to cut public spending, and this fact has served to underline the need to find other reliable sources of income. It is widely recognised that, even if the oil still may last well into the twenty-first century, there must be something in place to substitute for it when it eventually runs out. The optimism is checked, then, by an appreciation of the precariousness of the situation, a precariousness stemming from the limits of the natural resources, but most of all from the fact that decisions regarding their management often are taken outwith Shetland.

Northmavine perspectives

Although the patterns of change described above are characteristic for Shetland as such, the various districts are affected in somewhat different ways. The transformation of the economic structure of Shetland has implied a geographical restructuring of work, and a higher number of jobs are now found in the more central areas, particularly in Lerwick and at the oil terminal at Sullom Voe, where people from different parts of the islands are often employed(14). The improvements in the infrastructure (better roads, more buses, better ferry services) are crucial in this process, enabling more people to travel a longer distance to work. This remains an impossibility in the outlying parts of Shetland, but in the more central areas such commuting is common.

In Northmavine, which is situated on the north-western part of the largest island in the Shetland archipelago, Mainland, as many as 166 out of an economically active population of 364 had work outside the parish in 1991. Among the jobs available, both within and outwith the district, many are kinds of jobs that were not available a few decades previously. When it comes to jobs within the district, primary industries, particularly agriculture and fish farming, dominate along with services (primary schools, a health centre, a hotel, shops, etc.), but the one fish factory is also significant, providing 16% of the jobs (S.I.C. 1993). Some of the jobs outside Northmavine are not very far away, as the oil terminal at Sullom Voe, which employs many people resident in Northmavine, is situated within easy travel distance for those who have a car at their disposal. There are significant numbers of people travelling to Lerwick every day, however, and especially for those who go on the bus, the time spent travelling to work is substantial. The shortage of jobs locally is of particular concern for those who lack adequate transport, which means that the problem affects more women than men. It is obvious, though, that the increased availability of work outside Northmavine was crucial for the increase in population in the 1970s and for sustaining a stable population since. Before this time, the district had experienced very severe depopulation (see n. 10, p. 23).

Another feature of the local labour market is the relatively high proportion of part-time work. Indeed, an increasing reliance upon part-time workers is a characteristic of the national labour market. Whether or not this is a trend that significantly affects the situation locally I do not know. The proportion of part-time employment is high in the rural areas, anyway, if nothing else then for reasons of scale: Many jobs need to be carried out locally but are not extensive enough for someone to be employed full-time. The result is that a relatively high number of people combine a number of different jobs to get by. A very typical combination is that of a couple working a croft, where the man, and sometimes also the woman, has other employment. I know of several examples of married couples living on and running a croft, where the man has a full-time job either in Lerwick or at the oil terminal, and the woman a part-time job in health or other services within Northmavine. All kinds of combinations occur, however, and it is not in any way uncommon to encounter people who have three jobs or more. In addition to the problem of finding suitable work in the first place, there is also a question of logistics here: It takes something to make it all come together, particularly if there are children who need to be looked after, as there is no organised pre-school care.

What we see, then, is a situation in which many people have different kinds of jobs than they would have had before. Fishing in its current form and fish processing have their origins in the late 1960s and the 1970s, and fish farming is of even more recent date. The oil industry and associated services stem from the 1970s and 1980s and during this period more jobs have been created by the local authorities too (Ratter 1985, p. 134). Also, those having the same kinds of jobs carry them out differently, as is the case with crofting. Crofting has been undergoing change for a long time, but particularly so since the 1950s, since when it has ceased being the main source, or even a very significant source, of income for many people. Cohen writes that in Whalsay most of the island's approximately 130 crofts would not be said by their proprietors to yield an income that could be regarded as an economic return (1987, p. 100). Although crofting is a far more important contributor to people's incomes in Northmavine, the same tendency is present here. What once was a crucial means of survival has thus become far less important in economic terms to many people. Also, the agricultural sector has been steadily modernised and increasingly regulated. Apparently, keeping up with the alterations to the national and EU agricultural regulations requires a substantial effort.

There is a clear consciousness in Northmavine, as elsewhere, that without the oil and without the modernisation - whether induced by oil or by other things - it would have been hard to sustain a stable population in the area. A woman living in Northmavine once talked to me about the changes that have taken place, saying "everything now is the best". She quoted the new premises for the local school and the health centre as examples of this. She then related a conversation she had just had with someone regarding a stretch of road that had recently been improved. There had been resistance to the road, she said, as some thought it would damage the environment, and a petition had been signed against it. The road runs across the hill, at one point past a loch, where some thought the birdlife would be disturbed. The woman said now that the road has been built, one can see it is all very good: It has not destroyed the loch at all. There may be bigger shops elsewhere, but mostly people have everything they need in Shetland, she added in conclusion. Of course there are practical problems in relation to the new situation, like the problem of finding work in the first place, of dealing with the logistics of combining different jobs and other responsibilities, or of finding one's way about all the red tape resulting from ever new regulations. Apart from such practicalities, however, people did to all appearances cope very well with the new situation.

At the same time that people are well aware of and appreciate the material benefits delivered by modernisation, it is obvious that not everyone partakes in those benefits equally. While there has been an overall rise in material living standards, there are very obvious differences within Shetland, between those who have made the higher earnings and those who haven't. Housing is one field in which this is apparent. In the rural areas there are many different types of housing. There are the old croft houses(15), still the most common mode of housing in 1981 (Ratter 1985, p. 132), some substantially refurbished, some not; there are various other old buildings, like school houses, converted into private homes; there are a variety of flats and houses on modern housing estates, including some sheltered houses; there are different kinds of privately owned modern houses, ranging from the very modest to what comparatively speaking appears rather luxurious. The difference, in material terms, between an old croft house that has not been refurbished, or only minimally so - a common mode of housing, especially for many elderly folk - and a modern villa, is considerable. I came to understand that although many people spoke favourably of the last house in the area featuring an open fire, there were also those who were worried that their lodgings would appear backward.

In the face of all the spectacular products of modernisation, whether those in evidence in Shetland, or those documented daily in the national media, uncertainties regarding what Shetland can contribute are commonly encountered. Among young people, I was a few times confronted with the question, "What on earth are you doing up here?" Sometimes the tone of voice would betray an anticipation of an answer that in some way or other would confirm a positive image of Shetland. Other times, a genuine uncertainty surfaced.

There were two contexts in particular where I encountered such uncertainties. One was in conversations about the past, the other in relation to tourism. When it comes to the former, a woman who herself takes an active interest in local history at one time said to me she thought some of the old folk "were ashamed of the old stories". Indeed, some of the old people who talked to me about the past were clearly worried that the stories they told would not interest me. On another occasion the same woman said, while talking to me about her childhood experience of growing up in what she described as mainly a subsistence economy, that she sometimes thought she grew up in the Middle Ages.

When it comes to tourism, a few people said to me that they wondered whether the tourists would be disappointed with what they got to see on holiday. A woman living in a village where most of the coaches that take groups of visitors to Northmavine come by, once said she and others sometimes wondered what they came there for. You saw them walk in the middle of the road, expecting everyone to slow down, all stopping in the same place to take the same photograph, of the same view, and wonder whether they took that one photograph because they thought there was nothing else to see. "You wonder, 'cause there are so many of them," she remarked. For there is indeed a steady flow of people during the summer months, both organised trips and individual arrivals. Some stay in the area for a few days, most just visit for the day. Several people living in the area commented that the Tangwick Haa Museum was a good thing, for on a rainy day there was nothing else to see there.

Although there is a clear recognition and appreciation of the benefits of modernisation, and an argument could be made to the effect that confidence and optimism abounds in Shetland, such examples suggest that the increased awareness brought about by the increased presence in Shetland of people, ideas and technology from elsewhere also feeds certain doubts concerning what is perceived as indigenous to Shetland.

Theorising modernisation

Uncertainty and confidence, fear and pleasure, relief and sorrow - all sentiments that are characteristic of modernity, that is, of an experience of a state of changeability or flux in society. A theory of modernisation, the social processes that create the flux (Berman 1983, p. 16), would have to be able to grapple with such different kinds of sentiments, all of them characteristic of the present period in Shetland.

Berman's project in the book All That Is Solid Melts into Air, is exactly to find ways of understanding modernity that come to terms with such apparently conflicting reactions and sentiments. Parallel to the processes of modernisation, visions of those processes have been conceived. These different visions, or modernisms, Berman argues, were at their most vibrant in the nineteenth century, by which time the forces of modernisation had gained momentum and the world many people found themselves in already was a world of industry, urbanisation processes and mass communication. The 'definitive' vision of this modern environment Berman finds in Marx, whose writing captures and thrives on the contradictions of the modern world:

"On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces which no epoch of human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors of the latter times of the Roman Empire. In our days everything seems pregnant with its contrary." (Marx quoted in Berman 1983, p. 19f)

Thus, the very revolutionary forces that will overthrow the modern bourgeoisie are to be found in the bourgeoisie itself:

"The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and with them the relations of production, and with them the relations of society. ... Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones." "All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face ... the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men." (Marx quoted in Berman 1983, p. 21)

"Thus," Berman goes on, "the dialectical motion of modernity turns ironically against its prime movers, the bourgeoisie" (1983, p. 21). There are many other voices in the nineteenth century, but Berman holds that they can be likened to each other and to Marx, in that they face the inherent contradictions of the modern world head-on, in recognition of the simultaneously immensely productive and vastly destructive consequences of modernisation. Berman characterises the voice of the nineteenth century thus: "It is a voice that knows pain and dread, but believes in its power to come through" (p. 23).

"What has become of nineteenth-century modernism in the twentieth century?" Berman asks next (p. 23). The twentieth century has been extremely creative; a tremendous production of ideas and works of art has seen the light of day. At the same time, Berman laments, it seems we have lost our grasp of the modern life from which this production stems:

"If we listen closely to twentieth-century writers and thinkers about modernity and compare them to those of a century ago, we will find a radical flattening of perspective and shrinkage of imaginative range. Our nineteenth-century thinkers were simultaneously enthusiasts and enemies of modern life, wrestling inexhaustibly with its ambiguities and contradictions; their self-ironies and inner tensions were a primary source of their creative power. Their twentieth-century successors have lurched far more toward rigid polarities and flat totalizations. Modernity is either embraced with a blind and uncritical enthusiasm, or else condemned with a neo-Olympian remoteness and contempt; in either case, it is conceived as a closed monolith, incapable of being shaped or changed by modern men. Open visions of modern life have been supplanted by closed ones, Both/And by Either/Or." (1983, p. 24)

Whatever visions of modernity there are, these visions are not confined to the books and theses of the learned. Rather, they are implicit in most of what modern men and women do, feel and think, as these visions are part of the stuff that we are all made of. Berman's concern is that this century's visions, its modernisms, are lacking in scope, and that they are therefore unable to portray modernity in all its complexity and ambiguity. Whether they whole-heartedly embrace modernity or are overtly anti-modern, they seem to have lost touch with the sort of complexity and subtlety with which the nineteenth-century thinkers conceived of the modern world. I think Berman's concern is pertinent. The visions we have of the world in which we live are crucial when it comes to dealing with that world. If those visions are flawed, or otherwise inadequate, there is indeed reason for concern.

The reason I bring this up in the present context, is that museums are modern phenomena, and in any explanation of a phenomenon characteristic of the modern world, there will be implicit a notion of modernity. When Ambrose, the Director of the Scottish Museums Council, said that the establishment of museums amounts to "a reaction against change", there is implicit in this an assumption about how people experience change, that is, of the nature of their modernity. The development of a museum is conceived of as an anti-modern undertaking, and people are thought to engage in it in an attempt to reconstruct the assumed stability of bygone times. As suggested above, this would be a gross simplification of the sentiments found in Northmavine, including the people involved with the Museum. For a start it only addresses the uncertainties, but equally important, it entails an assumption about what it is that causes the uncertainty, namely the instability of modern life.

This kind of vision of modernity is most characteristic of the present time, and constitute but a variety of the visions Berman speaks of. It is not so strange that gloomy perceptions of modernity have been on the increase; after all, the time when modernity could be uncritically embraced are long gone, as the problems it causes are all too obvious, with the ever increasing divide between rich and poor and the looming threat of environmental disaster. Reactions to this include post- and anti-modern stances, but also, among those who continue thinking modernity is here to stay, there is a tendency to overemphasise its destructive or oppressive implications. Michel Foucault can be taken as an example of this, focusing as he did on total institutions (the clinic, the prison) and how the modern discursive regime gained a hold on bodies and minds that amounted to near complete control (Berman 1983, p. 34f). Only in his last work, The History of Sexuality (1990), does a more open perception appear, in the form of a notion of resistance.

Foucault's major works on power were published in the 1970s, when the disillusionment with modern civilisation was gaining force. Another deconstructive approach of considerable influence is that of Jean-François Lyotard, set forth in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984). Here he challenges what he calls the 'grand narrative', a kind of narrative that he sees as characteristic of the modern era. The grand narrative attempts to legitimise knowledge by way of reference to progress of one kind or another (emancipation, enlightenment, efficiency) (see in particular part 10). Although presenting itself as universal, the grand narrative, Lyotard holds, carries within itself the seeds of its own delegitimation. This is so because it separates itself out as a special field (science of one kind or another). In doing so, it is obliged to refer to something outside itself to obtain the necessary amount of legitimacy. As the claim to legitimacy is thus itself outside the narrative it seeks to legitimise, this claim cannot be deemed legitimate by reference to the rules of that narrative (part 10). In what Lyotard in this book calls the post-modern condition, this problem is avoided, as the discourse that seeks to legitimise knowledge is immanent in that knowledge itself (p. 54). When knowledge is legitimised locally, multiple small narratives may thrive, but they can never ignore the question of legitimacy - rather they have to commit themselves to continuously reworking the reasons why they claim their voice to be a valid one (p. 54).

This argument has led some readers to think that Lyotard sees modernity as a thing of the past. However, this is a misjudgment. There is nothing to stop the small narratives from trying to realise modern values. What Lyotard deconstructs, then, is not modernity as such, but a certain vision of modernity, that which expresses itself through the grand narrative. In a later piece, Lyotard clarifies his use of the concept 'postmodern', and suggests instead that we speak of 'rewriting modernity':

"I have myself used the term 'postmodern'. It was a slightly provocative way of placing (or displacing) into the limelight the debate about knowledge. Postmodernity is not a new age, but the rewriting of some of the features claimed by modernity, and first of all modernity's claim to ground its legitimacy on the project of liberating humanity as a whole through science and technology. But as I have said, that rewriting has been at work, for a long time now, in modernity itself." (1991, p. 34)

So, the postmodern is itself inherent in the modern, and rather than urging that the modern project should be abandoned, Lyotard can be read as contributing to that project himself. It appears, then, that the modern (in the sense of a rewriting) takes many forms, and that maintaining a critical stance may itself amount to a modern attitude.

Underlying the view that the establishment of museums is intended to resist the instability of the modern world is the assumption that people perceive modernity as essentially an evil, that is, that they think instability or change to be negative in itself. However, people may be thought to resist a particular course of change without thereby committing themselves to a quest for stability. Although there are signs of uncertainty with regard to the kinds of change that are taking place, this need not imply that change as such is considered essentially in negative terms. Such critical stances may rather turn out to be modern themselves. This is also consistent with Berman's conception of modernity. According to him, it is fully possible to lead a meaningful life in the midst of ambiguity:

"To be modern, I said, is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one's world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air. To be a modernist is to make oneself somehow at home in the maelstrom, to make its rhythms one's own, to move within its currents in search of the forms of reality, of beauty, of freedom, of justice, that its fervid and perilous flow allows." (1983, p. 345f)

This vision of modernity is critically at odds with perceptions of modernity that see instability, disorder, fragmentation, a state of change, as basically a problem and ignore the positive potential. Although such negative visions of modernity may find ample support in the modernisation literature, the question remains whether it might not be the case that such understandings produce the reality they purport to describe.

What has been suggested in this section is that the kind of experiences people have of the modernisation processes, of change, are diverse. On the one hand, it is clear that modernisation has brought material welfare (and thus security against certain of the hazards of life in the past) and grounds for confidence in what the future may bring. On the other hand, the change has also brought new kinds of social differentiation, bringing Shetland more closely in touch with the hierarchies of class found in other parts of Britain, and has perhaps more firmly than ever fed an awareness of the differences between Shetland and the outside world, an awareness that has inspired some uncertainties in things perceived as indigenous to Shetland.

Whether these uncertainties can be seen as a reaction against change as such, whether they just result from the effort of coming to terms with modernisation, whether they result from the feeling that other paths of change are blocked off - these are issues, then, that need to be addressed empirically. Moreover, how the Museum relates to experiences of change is equally unclear. Is it a way of dealing with uncertainty? Or, does it result from the new-found confidence? Is it an attempt at gaining more control over the course of change? Or is it a way of soothing the pain induced by loss of what was familiar? It could be any or all of these things, or perhaps the best questions are not even included on this list. The point I want to make is simply that the questions of how people experience the change, and how the Museum relates to those experiences, are not adequately accounted for. When these issues have been opened up, it becomes increasingly obvious that saying that the establishment of museums implies using the past to combat the present or that people experience change as a threat, is not as innocent as it may seem. It may well be that some experiences of a particular course of change, of instability, are painful. That is not to say that people may not at the same time find in that instability the promise of a better life.

In the following chapter I discuss the question of change with reference to different ways of relating to the past, that is, to different forms of memory. In the subsequent chapters I focus on what kind of change the museum in Northmavine addresses, and how the interest in the past can be seen to relate to experiences of change.

Chapter 2 Memory

On Tuesday, 29th September, 1812, at noon, wind west, a fine day, William Nicolson, tenant in Roeneep, was in the ebb taking limpets from the rocks at Roesound, near Roeneep, when he saw an animal come up to one of the rocks which he took to be a seal, but to his amazement the animal stretched out two arms of human shape and raised itself on the rock where it seated itself like a man of middle stature. The head and face seemed like a man's. The head was bare with very long hair which it turned aside from its face with its fingers, and seemed to wring the water with its hands. The face seemed red coloured, resembling a fine human complexion. The arms were covered with (seemingly) sealskin to the elbows and naked from there to the points of the fingers, which seemed white. The body was clothed seemingly with seal's skin which had the appearance of being drawn in plates round the neck. The legs were white and had the appearance of a cover on the feet, which the animal seemed to draw up with its hands over the legs and above the knees, and which it seemed then to fasten over its thighs. It sat the whole time (about ten minutes) with its back to Nicolson and turned round its head and both sides and looked repeatedly at him. The man was unable from terror to have called to it, even if he had intended to do so. The perfect resemblance of the animal to that of a man made him actually take it for one, and he is fully persuaded that it was a Norway Fin, a Norwegian which tradition says often travels the seas clothed in seal skin for the purpose of driving the fish off the coasts here to the shores of Norway.

The above declaration was made by William Nicolson in presence of John and Arthur Cheyne, merchants in Hillswick, and James Clark their servant, on 6th day of October, 1812. William Nicolson is willing to attest on oath that the above declaration is truth.

This story appears in a booklet published by the Northmavine Community History Group called North by Mavis Grind(16). It was issued in the early 1990s and incorporates a wide range of material in the form of stories or poetry, written either in the local dialect or in English. The contents either date from or refer to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Tales of supernatural beings, of foul weather and shipwrecks, appear alongside stories relating to the crofting and fishing of bygone times.

In the previous chapter I described some of the changes Shetland has undergone during the course of the past few decades. The result is a place characterised by a complex mingling of old and new. Practices with a long history of development within Shetland thrive alongside practices that have only recently gained a foothold in the isles. In the midst of this complexity, people get on with their everyday lives, and in the process create ever new instances of mediation between the new and the old. Most of the time the nature and existence of such a mediation is not made explicit; you just get on with it - 'it' being represented by such things as securing your winter fuel by having peat cut using modern machinery, relating the latest episode of Coronation Street to your friend in the local dialect, baking fruit loaf in the microwave. I also said that one of the characteristic features of contemporary Shetland is a particular kind of reflexivity concerning the place people inhabit, what Cohen has termed 'cultural accounting' (1980). This reflexivity is related to the changes Shetland has undergone in the last two or three decades, and takes a variety of forms, including an increased interest in the past. The booklet referred to above is a product of this reflexivity, as are the community history museums found around Shetland. Part of the modernisation processes, then, are changes in how people relate to the past, changes in the nature of memory, in other words. It is with these changes that the current chapter is concerned. I will begin by making some preliminary remarks regarding the nature of memory and its relation to the past.


The past is by definition something to which one has access only through memory. If something exists, whether it is of a material, social or cognitive nature, it is by definition a thing of the present. An object, idea or social institution may be old, but its past is nevertheless no longer in existence (Johansen 1989, p. 228). Or rather, its past only exists as memory, that is, in a mediated form. Different processes of mediation will have different characteristics, but what they all have in common is that a sort of dialectics is at work in which a modification or alteration of those things brought in touch with each other takes place. Material objects may be mediated by a wide range of natural processes, as well as by human manipulation. Ideas may be mediated through being confronted with other ideas. The passage of time always involves mediation of one kind or another, a process in which the original thing (a wooden stool, a flower, a social custom, an idea, crofting techniques) is modified, expanded, transformed. 'Memory' is a term that draws attention both to the end result of such processes of mediation, that is, to what remains, and to the material or capacity that contains that end result. It is on memory, in all its facets, that the reconstruction of history depends. There is no way of having direct access to the past; only its tracks remain.

At the same time, humans, and everything that surrounds us, are constantly emerging out of the past. In this sense there is no choice left us but to relate to the past, even if it remains true that that past only exists as remembrance. Numerous examples of trying to 'evade one's past' may be thought of, but the past is always there, as memory. The teenager's attempt at rebellion is just one example, here described by Salman Rushdie in his short-story "The Courter":

"And I looked at my choleric, face-pulling father and thought about British citizenship. My existing Indian passport permitted me to travel only to a very few countries, which were carefully listed on the second right-hand page. But I might soon have a British passport and then, by hook or by crook, I would get away from him. I would not have this face-pulling in my life.

At sixteen, you still think you can escape from your father. You aren't listening to his voice speaking through your mouth, you don't see how your gestures already mirror his; you don't see him in the way you hold your body, in the way you sign your name. You don't hear his whisper in your blood." (1994, p. 202)

This passage reveals that I think of memory in rather broad terms. However mediated the relationship with the past is, it remains the case that human beings are bound to the past in a variety of ways. Although conventionally thought of as a cognitive capacity, memory is also physical and biological. Thus, Paul Connerton argues in his book How Societies Remember for the existence of bodily memory:

"Our bodies ... keep the past ... in an entirely effective form in their continuing ability to perform certain skilled actions. We may not remember how or when we first learned to swim, but we can keep on swimming successfully - remembering how to do it - without any representational activity on our part at all; we consult a mental picture of what we should do when our capacity to execute spontaneously the bodily movements is defective. ... In habitual memory the past is, as it were, sedimented in the body." (1989, p. 72)

Connerton's conception of habitual memory is based on a notion of the body as being not just physical or biological but also social. An early elaboration of this notion within the social sciences is found in Marcel Mauss' essay "Body Techniques", originally published in 1950. By 'body techniques' Mauss means "the ways in which from society to society men know how to use their bodies" (1979, p. 97). Mauss explains how his notion of these techniques grew from the knowledge that people in different societies do such things as walking or swimming in different ways. The challenge was to be able to account for these bodily phenomena in a way which could also grasp their social nature. To speak of them as techniques does just that, as Mauss by technique means "an action which is effective and traditional". Techniques are effective in the sense that they are felt by the person executing them as "actions of a mechanical, physical or physico-chemical order", and traditional in the sense that they are taught: transmitted from person to person (p. 104, original emphasis removed). Such bodily competences as swimming or walking are thus deeply social, as the social is essential in the learning of these techniques. To know how to do something one must also remember how to do it, and this is what Connerton reminds us: that these techniques, being bodily, constitute a form of memory. Bodily memory is, in other words, a form of memory that is as socially specific as cognitive memory.

However, the limits of the body (themselves blurred) do not mark the end of remembrance. Everything this world consists of has the capacity of memory: In so far as something is temporal, existing in time, it functions as memory. The chemical balance of a beaver's brain, the genetic material of sunflowers, driftwood washed ashore, the behaviour of pet dogs, the geological composition of a rock, the gases in the atmosphere - everywhere tracks left by past times can be found. Different kinds of events leave their traces, traces that afterwards appear as material, cognitive, social, biological tracks. Some kinds of memory are obviously more durable than others. A person's memory is ultimately limited to the lifetime of the body, although a lot is forgotten much faster. The production of material imprints compensates for this transient character of human memory. The most important materialisations are writing and recordings of sound and pictures. And yet, even in material form, memory remains a thing of the present. Whether we speak of linguistic, physical, cognitive or biological memory, what remains will never be the same as what once was. The traces that are left of the past are, as I said above, mediated, transformed. In a sense this only amounts to saying that everything that exists is temporal, resulting from the simultaneous dissolution of one moment and materialisation of another. Memory, then, is what ensures continuity through time.


Looking at the recent development of interest in local history in Shetland, one might easily be led to conclude that prior to this development the past was largely ignored there. Employing a wider concept of memory, this impression is easily refuted, however. The past was, and still is, present in a multitude of ways (albeit in a mediated form): in physical objects, in speech, as traces in the landscape, in many of the practices of everyday life. The descriptions provided at the beginning of this chapter of how old and new constantly intermingle are examples of how the continuous mediation of the past actually takes place. Most of the time the mediation of the past is of such a pragmatic nature. This is why Cohen, writing about Whalsay, can describe practices relating to crofting, fishing with hand-lines, peat-cutting and the use of language as 'repositories of the past' (1987, pp. 98-141). These are all practices in which the past is tangibly present (in the form of memory), practices that maintain a strong continuity with the past. One could add that in the landscape in which the work is carried out and among the tools used to carry out the work, however many changes have taken place, there will also be ample evidence of past times. However, also these continuities may be said to result from the pragmatism of everyday life in Whalsay; as Cohen says, "the past has no inherent value [in Whalsay] but is prized, rather, for its present usefulness" (p. 135). When something old - a tool, a linguistic trait, a social practice, a certain skill - is kept, it is kept due to its pragmatic value, then, rather than for the sake of a supposed intrinsic value due to its age. This pragmatism is coupled to what Cohen calls a lack of 'sentimentality' regarding the past, and there is in Whalsay, he says, "a consequent disparagement of interest in anything related to the past which has no such practicality" (p. 135). Cohen goes on to state that although a selective idealisation of the past takes place, "[t]he past there is always just 'da aald days' rather than 'the good old days', as it might be farther south" (p. 136).

Cohen's description of Whalsay refers to the period between 1973, when he arrived there for the first time, and 1986, when he completed the book, and this fact may account for part of the contrast to what I experienced in Northmavine in the 1990s. In spite of many things being different between the two places, the relative lack of romanticism with which the past in Whalsay was perceived resonates in certain ways with how people I spoke to in Northmavine perceived of the old days. There was typically a sobriety in what people said, and no-one failed to recognise the benefits brought by change.

What one woman in her late thirties said regarding the change that has been experienced in latter decades can serve as an example. Our conversation took place in her kitchen one morning while her children were away at school. She lives in a relatively new house, and we were surrounded by the same modern conveniences that you would expect to encounter in a modern kitchen anywhere in Britain, in addition to a large Raeburn fuelled by peat. She said, "When we were children there was no road to the house, no water ... Our children have no idea what it was like. Even I can remember that we had no electric light." Although there will always be an element of idiosyncracy in a statement, however subtly expressed, the image this woman conveyed is a common one: A materially poor past is contrasted with the much richer present. This kind of contrasting of past hardships with present comforts also takes place with reference to a more distant past. Telling me about her interest in history, another woman - she is a teacher and works a croft with her brother - said the following: "It's something to do with the continuity of human existence in an area. I look at the yards and wonder how many people have cultivated there. ... You wonder what it was like a hundred years ago. Me and you wouldn't have been doing what we are doing now." She went on to say you learn to "appreciate your freedom": If you were born on a croft a hundred years ago, you would be getting married or go into service. There wasn't much choice, unless you were a merchant's or laird's offspring: "For a woman it must have been sheer drudgery."

As I showed in Chapter 1, the changes seen in Northmavine since the 1960s are substantial, and the material welfare, and the resulting range of options regarding how to live one's life are more or less universally acknowledged and appreciated. Too many people have memories of or knowledge about the hard work that was required to make ends meet for them to romanticise the past. A woman in her fifties who now has an office job told me about how her parents "almost killed themselves" working on the croft that they relied on for getting by when she grew up. Also, much of the work carried out in past times is embedded in physical remains: fields, buildings, fences, tools. These may not be in use anymore, or may be in a different kind of use, but much remains present - visibly, tangibly. Thus, it appears that much is remembered as a result of the pragmatism found in everyday life, as the activities people engage in leave biological and physical tracks: People's bodies become adapted to the tasks they are set to perform, the landscape is modified by farming, all sorts of things are produced that testify to the activity that once took place: a barn, a churn, a fiddle, a sweater. Due to these materialisations, as well as what people remember without the aid of such tracks, the hardship and toil that went with life in the past for so many people is simply too obvious for most of them to lapse into the sort of pastoral idealisations that have enjoyed and continue to enjoy such attraction in more urbanised milieux.

However practical people may remain when relating to the past, any talk about it is also reflexive, and although such reflexivity is hardly new, with the establishment of the history groups and museums it has taken on a new form altogether. For Whalsay, Cohen relates the heavy presence of the past to the apparent lack of interest in conservation work:

"With the past so much around them, both materially and conceptually, Whalsay people have no need to fetishise it. Old objects are not valued for their age and there is little evidence of interest in the preservation of relics." (1987, p. 134)

Whalsay is one of the by now few places in Shetland that do not have a community history museum.(17) I am unsure of the significance of this fact, as interest and participation in the museums elsewhere also varies. However this may be, in Northmavine there did not seem to be an opposition between the lack of romanticism with which the past is perceived and the positive interest in the past that the History Group is an expression of. Some examples of the kind of motivations behind this interest will illustrate the point.


Although a few people were very articulate about their interest in history, quite frequently, when asked why they had become involved with the history of the place, they would grope for words, eventually replying something like, "I've probably always been interested in history." And, as often as not, that would be the end of that discussion. Clues to understanding why people spent as much time and energy on work with the History Group and Museum would have to be sought in a different way. Whether or not, and in what fashion, people articulated their reasons for being interested in the past, for participating in the History Group and running the Museum, it is obvious from what I learnt about it whilst in Shetland that these reasons are complex and many. As documenting the full spectrum of variety obviously is impossible, I have limited myself to giving an impression of the kinds of differences that exist. The examples I include are chosen primarily with this end in mind. Although none of the cases are entirely unique, the degree to which they are representative of major motivational trends may therefore vary.

During a conversation I had with a woman, while she was visiting me during a spell of backache that bound me to the house, we got to talking about the past. She was asking me about Norway in the Second World War, which she is old enough to remember. In the middle of the conversation, she offered an explanation for why she was interested in history. She knew, of course, that this was the kind of thing that I was interested in. The woman said her preoccupation with history was "just for the amusement of it". She went on to tell me that she had recently listened to an oral history tape her son had recorded. She then related a story from the tape, a story about a sister and a brother who, when their family was struck by fever, had fled their home in the far south of Shetland and eventually ended up in Northmavine.

On a different occasion, I was visiting one of the members of the History Group, a man in his early 70s. I enquired about his interest in history, and the man specified that he was interested in the "old traditions", "the old way of life", and added, "I like to see that it at least is being recorded". He went on to say that he had seen "a big change" in his time. "Probably the biggest change up here", he said, "was the Hydro-Electric." After this he gave me a detailed and entertaining account of the different ways of producing light prior to the advent of electricity. He described the workings of the windmills that people used immediately prior to the extension of the electricity lines, as well as different types of lamps that were used before them - all in great detail and with genuine fascination. His enjoyment in talking about the changes that have taken place during the course of this century, many of them in his own lifetime, was obvious throughout the visit.

Yet another visit, this time to a woman who lives on a modern housing estate in the area. Her family used to run a business in the village where she lives. In the mid-70s, the time when the construction of the oil terminal started and higher wages became available, her father died, and the business was split up and sold off. When I asked her what she found most interesting about history, she replied, "I suppose it would be shops and trading, because that was my life." She went on to say that her father taught her a lot of history, but added, "Sometimes I feel I didn't listen enough." Then she told me about her father's early years, working on the beach. Later he started working in the shop, which he took over when the former owner emigrated to Australia. Gradually he expanded into new fields of business and built up a firm that employed as many as fifty people in the area by the time he died. On another occasion, when talking about the development of the business, she stressed that the village is "saturated in history".

Around the time of the actual restoration of the Tangwick Haa, an animated piece appeared in a magazine that was published in North Mainland at the time, written by one of the prime movers in the setting up of the Museum. He argues fervently in favour of the Museum. He points to people's enthusiasm and feelings for the project, compounded of elements such as, "desire to understand, curiosity, a felt need for continuity and also regret that so little, perhaps nothing, can actually be known of our past as it really was". He then moves on to say that in this enthusiasm there are grounds for optimism, as it is a mode of resistance toward the Thatcherite representations of the past that filter through the media.(18)

Someone else who were involved with the Museum when it was first set up was a man, now sadly deceased, who was incredibly knowledgeable of past times. He produced an impressive compilation of local residential histories, among other things. He explained his interest in the past humorously as "a sign of old age". Other old people talked of their involvement in the History Group and Museum as "a night out" or a chance to meet others and "yarn".

In these different accounts - and I stress that they are only examples and do not account for all the different reasons for being interested in the past, nor are they in any way exhaustive of the interest of the individual people in question - in these accounts the interest in the past appears to be grounded in very different ways. The first example points out the sheer pleasure in hearing stories of the past, the second relates this to a general tide of change experienced in one's own lifetime, the third links it to family history, the fourth is explicitly political, and the fifth links it to age. None of these themes exclude one another; on the contrary, they are often combined in individual people's motivations, although the particular configuration of these and other themes will vary for each individual.

Perceptions of the past

Although the motivations people have for being interested in history are multifaceted and varied, some clues to more general patterns can be found in what they actually said about the past. When people talked about earlier times, they addressed the most diverse topics: family history, bad winters, crofting techniques, folklore, social events, disasters at sea, notable personalities, material culture, social inequality - in short, every conceivable aspect of life in the past. If I made enquiries concerning what it was about the past that interested people, the answers would be equally diverse. However, there were certain more general themes that seemed more recurrent than others, and that many also explicitly drew attention to.

Above I have argued that people do not romanticise the past, and that there is a firm recognition of past hardships. There is, however, more to the stories of deprivation than I suggested above. Different times have offered different trials for those who are not of great means. The first half of the nineteenth century is a period people quite frequently refer to in this context.

From the late eighteenth century onwards Shetland-based merchants began to attain prominence, gradually replacing or complementing the position of the lairds, as the feudal landowners were called (Smith 1977, pp. 24-26). Some of the lairds had begun improving the economy prior to this development, and those who successfully adapted to the changing times remained central to the processes of economic development that took place. However, as the influence of the merchants increased, the lairds directed most of their attention toward the improvement of the land. The most radical measure involved the replacement of small tenant holdings with larger areas of arable land, a process that took the first half of the nineteenth century to accomplish. This process is known as the evictions, as it involved forcibly moving people off the land. However, as the lairds in Shetland were also involved in the fishing and their tenants served as fishermen for them, it was most often a matter of shifting people about, often to poorer land, rather than forcing them to emigrate, as the latter option would have deprived the lairds of their fishermen (Smith 1977, p. 33). The period of the evictions is frequently referred to when people speak of the more distant past. I was told several stories of evictions in Northmavine; one involved a man who was evicted three times, first at Hillswick, where a hundred people were ordered to leave in 1822, and later from other locations in the area. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries also saw a series of famines, which hardly made the situation easier.(19)

Tales of past deprivation or hardship are, however, often at the same time tales of how people managed to cope under harsh conditions, whether due to poverty, bad weather or exploitation. One of the male members of the History Group told me about the famines of the early part of the nineteenth century to illustrate what interested him about history. People, he said, were "very, very poor, in fact they were starving". What fascinated him, he said, was, "how they lived, how they actually survived during that period of deprivation". At an earlier point in our conversation, he talked about how you tend to think that everything about the modern life is so smart. He went on, "When you start looking back at what your forebears were doing ... They really were very clever." With a little twist of emphasis, a story of hardship turns into a story of ingenuity. In such twists of emphasis an idealisation of the past surfaces, but note that it is very selective. It is the skill and ingenuity that enabled survival, even when there was very little to support that survival, that is in focus. This aspect was stressed in many of the things that were said about past times, sometimes very explicitly so, as when a woman exclaimed, as she was telling me about how they had discovered the walls of a particular building to have been filled with sawdust for insulation back in the 1890s, "It's amazing what ingenuity can do!"

Ingenuity is a complex concept, involving both practical competence and a measure of inventiveness or imagination. The fascination or respect many people had for the skills and talents of their forebears is in a way reminiscent of the kind of fascination many people have for art, at least if one adopts the perspective on art forward by Alfred Gell. He has written an article on why it is that art, in all its different forms in different parts of the world, impresses people (1992). The reason art captivates us, he holds, is that we find it hard to comprehend how it came into being:

"The power of art objects stems from the technical processes they objectively embody: the technology of enchantment is founded on the enchantment of technology." (p. 44)

In order to elucidate this statement, Gell recounts the following story:

"When I was about eleven, I was taken to visit Salisbury Cathedral. The building itself made no great impression on me, and I do not remember it at all. What I do remember, though, very vividly, is a display which the cathedral authorities had placed in some dingy side-chapel, which consisted of a remarkable model of Salisbury Cathedral, about two feet high and apparently complete in every detail, made entirely out of matchsticks glued together; certainly a virtuoso example of the matchstick modeller's art, if no great masterpiece according to the criteria of the salon, and calculated to strike a profound chord in the heart of any eleven-year-old. Matchsticks and glue are very important constituents of the world of every self-respecting boy of that age, and the idea of assembling these materials into such an impressive construction provoked feelings of the deepest awe. Most willingly I deposited my penny into the collecting-box which the authorities had, with a true appreciation of the real function of works of art, placed in front of the model, in aid of the Fabric Fund.

Wholly indifferent as I then was to the problems of cathedral upkeep, I could not but pay tribute to so much painstaking dexterity in objectified form. At one level, I had perfect insight into the technical problems faced by the genius who had made the model, having myself often handled matches and glue, separately and in various combinations, while remaining utterly at a loss to imagine the degree of manipulative skill and sheer patience needed to complete the final work. From a small boy's point of view this was the ultimate work of art, much more entrancing in fact than the cathedral itself, and so too, I suspect, for a significant proportion of the adult visitors as well.

Here the technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology come together. The matchstick model, functioning essentially as an advertisement, is part of a technology of enchantment, but it achieves its effect via the enchantment cast by its technical means, the manner of its coming into being, or, rather, the idea which one forms of its coming into being, since making a matchstick model of Salisbury Cathedral may not be as difficult, or as easy, as one imagines." (p. 47)

If one thinks (rightly or wrongly) that one could produce the same work of art oneself, surely it fails to captivate one. The power of a work of art can thus be attributed to its ability to resist our comprehension. This argument is based on that of Georg Simmel when it comes to his ideas about what it is that constitutes a valuable object. Gell quotes Simmel, who holds that:

"We desire objects only if they are not immediately given to us for our use and enjoyment, that is, to the extent to which they resist our desire." (p. 48)

It is from this resistance to our desire that the value of an object stems. However, when it comes to art objects, their power does not stem from our desire to possess the objects themselves. Of course, if an art object is within our price range, we may want to buy it, but, Gell argues, the resistance which it offers is not primarily found in the limitation of our purchasing power, and the main desire regarding art objects is accordingly not the desire to actually own them:

"The resistance which [art objects] offer, and which creates and sustains this desire, is to being possessed in an intellectual rather than a material sense ..." (p. 49)

In some places the coming-into-being of art objects is attributed to magic, in other places to 'talent'. In art circles in the West there have been endless discussions about what exactly it is that makes something art. Whatever the culturally specific explanation, I think there is something similar at stake in people's fascination with other's 'ingenuity', as there is in the case of art: an 'enchantment' with the coming-into-being of products of people's efforts. 'How, indeed, did people cope in times of hardship?'

Often when people talked about ingenuity, skill, talent, they would comment that these kinds of competences were getting lost. A man I spoke to elaborated on this theme, saying that before there were more talents about. Every district would have a joiner, a blacksmith, someone who did shoe repairs, someone who did woodwork, and so on. People would be competent in many different kinds of things. These skills were handed down through the generations: "But I say a lot of that is gone." Another, younger, man said that among the old folk in the area there were many extremely intelligent people, people who, had they been young today, would have gone away to study and been lost to the community.

Another thing that people worried was being lost that is not unrelated to the loss of ingenuity or skill, were the old stories, as well as the story-telling traditions that sustained them. A woman in the History Group said they tried to encourage people to write things down, so as not to lose them entirely. She said it was a shame that the "story-telling traditions" were being weakened, while television was taking over.

In fact stories were another recurrent theme in what people emphasised when it came to history. Very commonly when people talked about the past, whatever their exact topic, what they said was organised in the form of stories. The man who was evicted three times and the sister and brother who fled to escape a fever are quite arbitrary examples. One of the younger women in the History Group said what she found most interesting about history was "oral history". She continued, "I like people speaking about things, old stories..." Many said that what they found most enjoyable about the meetings in the History Group, were the breaks, as that was when "the old stories came out". The history groups have public meetings during the winter, featuring speakers and often a slide show. Both during these and museum meetings there is always a break when tea and biscuits are served, as is the case on most public social occasions in the area. One of the men in the History Group, himself around forty years old, once said, "It is very interesting at the meetings hearing [the older people] speaking among themselves about things that have been handed down. When preparing the exhibitions we have tea and biscuits, and that is when the stories come out."

Storytelling is different from ingenuity in many ways, but it is similar both in that it is itself a kind of skill, and also in that the stories themselves constitute a form of knowledge in much the same way that practical competence does. I would not be the first to suggest that story-telling at its best may approach art. However that may be, suffice it for the moment to say that these themes, stories and practical competence (both kinds of knowledge) frequently surfaced in what people said about the past. It must be remembered, however, that this is a matter only of the relatively higher density of certain topics; as pointed out above, and in spite of individual differences, people are interested in the most diverse aspects of past times.

Modes of memory

What we see, then, is a situation in which a pragmatic attitude toward the past is coupled with an increased reflexivity regarding that same past. The kinds of practices involved in these two attitudes, practices such as telling stories, publishing booklets, cutting peat, gathering sheep, or knitting, are different from one another in a number of ways. What they do have in common, however, is that they constitute modes of memory, modes of relating to the past. The differences between them are consequently also differences in qualities to do with remembrance. Different kinds of activities leave different kinds of tracks (are remembered in different ways) and different kinds of tracks behave in different ways. These differences are what the current section is about.

A critical distinction relating to modes of memory is that between those modes that depend on the human body or mind for their effectiveness, and those that do not. A piece of writing, a building or a tool may outlive the person and the situation that produced it by hundreds of years, and still bear witness to that earlier point in time. A way of doing something, a social practice or a story, in contrast, will soon be irrevocably lost, unless material traces are left. To be remembered, the latter need to be in use, while the former do not. Consequently, the latter become more intimately linked to the situations or contexts in which they are reproduced, than are the former.

A classic example of what can be characterised as a context-dependent form of memory, is that of citing genealogies. An early analysis is that of Laura Bohannan, set forth in an article from 1952, based on research among the Tiv of northern Nigeria. The Tiv are organised in lineages, and to know one's place in a genealogy means knowing which lineage and which segment within a lineage one belongs to. Bohannan states:

"To understand things Tiv one must know Tiv genealogies. By genealogical reference a Tiv traces ties of kinship and marriage, claims a place to live and farm, argues his case in a moot, conducts matters of magic and ritual, and decides against whom he will fight on any given occasion. Genealogies are the key to Tiv social organization." (p. 129)

These genealogies are learnt as a person needs to know them. You will thus only know the part of the genealogy which concerns your daily life. As a consequence, much detail is lost, and several versions of a genealogy may exist alongside one another. However, contrary to what one may think to be the case from the point of view of a literate tradition, the facts of the genealogy do not unambiguously determine present affairs. This is so, because any part of a genealogy that is referred to in any one context is only discussed in relation to the state of affairs that brought it up in the first place, and not in relation to other parts of the genealogy. It is thus in the everyday that one finds proof of the validity of a genealogy (p. 136):

"Genealogies validate present relationships; these relationships prove the genealogies; and the form of the genealogy is modelled on the form of present relationships." (p. 142)

The result is a rather flexible system in which the genealogies are gradually altered to be consistent with changes that have taken place.

However, Bohannan notes that the introduction of writing tends to make this system more rigid:

"To place on record the genealogy which upholds the status quo is to strike a blow at the possibility of change without the accusation of forgery. To prefer one genealogy throughout time is to make rigid a charter which, if it is to work, must remain fluid - and to a certain extent is also to make rigid a fluid social system." (p. 145)

In this fluidity the uniqueness of oral modes of memory can be seen. The kind of consistency favoured by the Tiv practice of citing genealogies is a social consistency. Thus, when the Tiv to a certain extent adapt their history to the actual state of affairs at any one time, they retain a certain flexibility when it comes to dealing with that particular state of affairs. This flexibility stems from the very nature of an oral mode of memory, namely its high degree of context-dependence, referred to above. A context-dependent form of memory promotes a certain kind of continuity, namely continuity of the social system as such. This continuity is assisted by the very flexibility that is allowed within the system. Thus Bohannan concludes:

"The way in which Tiv learn genealogies and the lack of written record allow changes to occur through time without a general realization of the occurrence of that change; social change can exist with a doctrine of social permanence." (p. 145)

It must be noted, however, that it is not the basic principles of the social system that change, or at least, that such change will be very slow.

For this kind of memory to work, then, there must be a recurrence of events. The citing of genealogies, is but one example. Other oral modes are clearly comparable, such as story-telling. However, any kind of practice that relies on the recurrence of events for them to be remembered, will display similar properties, such as the practices of the body, insofar as they are learnt by doing, and not through consulting a written description. The competence involved in any particular kind of work will only be remembered insofar as that work keeps being carried out. When that is the case, the continued relevance of the competence will be ensured, as it will be adapted to new situations in a parallel way to that of the genealogies Bohannan discusses. In fact, coping with new situations is part of the competence, and in this lies the flexibility of practical knowledge. If the events where the practice is carried out (and thus learnt) no longer take place, the memory of it is eroded, first becoming confined to the human mind, but eventually completely obliterated.

Kinds of memory that materialise outside the human body or mind, however, have other properties. In Bohannan's article these are negatively defined, as she states that the introduction of writing made the system of dealing with current affairs by citing genealogies more rigid. Once committed to writing, the flexibility characteristic of the spoken word, the flexibility that allows for a certain pragmatism when relating to the situation at hand, is lost.

However, as speech has its special characteristics, so does writing. A useful formulation of these for the current purpose is that of Paul Ricoeur. In a classic text, Ricoeur discusses the distinction between the written and the oral (1971). Both speech and writing he sees as kinds of discourse, that is, in distinction from grammatical systems, they are realised in the world.(20) They have several disparate properties, though, and these Ricoeur specifies. Firstly, he regards speech as a fleeting event, while its inscription is a fixation, not of the event as such, but of 'the said' of the event (1971, p. 532). It is what is articulated in speech, what is literally said, that the text can capture. Some of the non-articulate aspects of a speech-event, such as gestures or mimicry, may be conveyed by punctuation, but much escapes the text, as do the effects that the spoken word produces. Secondly, with the spoken word the meaning of what is said is the same as the intention of the speaker, whereas with the written text, the intention of the author and the meaning of what is said cease to coincide (p. 534). Thirdly, although both speech and writing, according to Ricoeur, refer to 'a world', in spoken discourse that world consists of the situation shared by the interlocutors, while in written discourse it consists of what the text projects. Any text, being for a start freed from the situation in which it was produced, opens up an 'ensemble of references', so that when we today speak of the 'world' of Greece, we do not refer to the specific situations that those people who once lived there found themselves in, but to something beyond those situations that is projected by our particular discourse (p. 535f). This world does not consist of a world of meanings behind the text, but rather in front of it, a world that the text opens up. Lastly, whereas the spoken word is only addressed to those present at the time of speaking, a piece of writing is addressed to everyone who knows how to read (p. 537).

The meaning of the spoken word is thus intimately related to the situation in which the speech-event takes place, as a specific and identifiable number of people are present, and what is said closely resembles the intention of the speaker and itself refers to the very situation speaker and audience find themselves in. Some of the characteristics of such context-dependent forms of memory were specified above, with the aid of Bohannan's analysis of the use of genealogies among the Tiv. Ricoeur's argument is that, in contrast to speech, it is the nature of the text to transcend the context of its production, and thus to open up for a world beyond that context. Speech that is inscribed is thus always different from speech itself. Some of the things characteristic of speech escape when it is written down (that is, when it is mediated, transformed into text) but at the same time the fact of mediation adds something else, as the text opens up 'a world'. A story that is written down is thus not just a poorer (and more static, as with the Tiv genealogies) version of a story that was once told. Through being displaced, removed from the context which once produced it, it opens up for the possibility of new kinds of meaning being read into it. When the text opens up 'a world', what it opens up for is a different kind of reflection, and thus for the imagining of other modes of being.

When Ricoeur discusses the meaning of texts, he means texts in a rather broad sense:

"[Interpretation] covers ... a limited category of signs, those which are fixed by writing, including all the sorts of documents and monuments which entail a fixation similar to writing." (p. 529)

Interpreting this in the broadest possible way, one could say that the notion of the text covers all kinds of materialisations of human action: not just objects designed to be expressive, but also all other material manifestations of action. In much the same manner as conventional texts, such things as objects of art, a farmed landscape or a knitted shawl transcend the immediate context of their production, and being freed from that particular situation, they project references to a much wider context. The meaning of a boat is thus different from the meaning of the work implied in building the boat, obtaining a wider frame of reference.

However, the main contention of Ricoeur's article is that all meaningful action, and not just its materialisations, may be considered as a text. This is so, because, and to the extent that, action shares the characteristics specified for writing. Let me consider those characteristics again. Firstly, Ricoeur said the text implied a fixation of 'the said' of the event of speaking. In a parallel manner, what is fixed in the events of action is 'the done', the mark left by action on time (p. 540). This mark, the meaning of action, remains after the event of action has passed. Although action, as event, disappears in the same way as speech does, it transcends itself in a parallel manner to how the text transcends speech. Secondly, Ricoeur said that in the case of the text, its meaning was not identical with what its author intended. In like manner, the more complex an action, the smaller is the overlap between what the agent intends and the meaning of the action (p. 541). An action is thus to some degree detached from the agent who produced it. Thirdly, as the text opens up, or projects, 'a world', so does action:

"[A] meaningful action is an action the importance of which goes 'beyond' its relevance to its initial situation. ... The meaning of an important event exceeds, overcomes, transcends, the social conditions of its production and may be reenacted in new social contexts." (p. 542)

Finally, an action is addressed to an indefinite range of 'readers', as is a text. Its meaning is 'in suspense', Ricoeur submits, and thus open to interpretation through future practice (p. 544). In sum, there is a sense in which all meaningful action can be seen to transcend the immediate context of its production, quite as the text does. Whereas the written word leaves a spatial mark, the text, the documents of action are temporal marks:

"Could we not say that history is itself the record of human action? History is this quasi-'thing' on which human action leaves a 'trace', puts its mark." (p. 542)

What is the difference, then, between modes of memory dependent on the recurrence of events for continuity and modes that leave physical imprints, if it turns out that also the former can be argued to leave imprints, albeit in a metaphorical manner? It seems problematical to speak of an absolute distinction, as the (temporal) tracks left by human action in established ways of performing specific tasks, in social institutions, in ways of doing (and ways of talking), may prove equally (or maybe even more) durable than the (spatial) tracks left by practices that are exteriorised through a materialisation. Perhaps the critical distinction is just this: the durability of different kinds of memory. The question of durability (and the degree and form of mediation) is in part a matter of the physical limitations of the memory; the human brain, rock carvings, a wooden stool, a manner of speech, and written documents are obviously widely different in this respect. However, knowing many kinds of memory to be dependent on a recurrence of events for their effectiveness, the question of durability is also a matter of the extent and manner of repetition, and thus of social and cultural context. The question of durability is, in other words, both a matter of physical characteristics and of politics. Who has the power to decide how and whether things should change?

Memory and modernisation

Having established the existence of a divergence in qualities between different modes of memory, I can move on to addressing the question of how these contrasting types of memory are affected by change. It is widely recognised that modernisation processes may affect all different aspects of life - social, religious, technical, cultural, linguistic - and the descriptions I presented in the previous chapter should have made it clear that Northmavine is no exception. Accordingly, all the different forms of memory are affected: social, linguistic, physical, cognitive. As patterns of work change, old tools and implements go out of use, and over the years much has ended on the scrap heap or been left to rot. The landscape as such has also been transformed, as crofting has become increasingly mechanised, and sheep have come to dominate the crofting scene. With such alterations, material evidence of substantial aspects of past times is lost. An altered economy has altered social patterns, along with the improved infrastructure and greater accessibility of the town. With that, kinds of information and cultural knowledge is eroded. Television and incomers, clondykers (the Eastern European factory trawlers) and museums, the Internet and swimming pools - all have contributed to innumerable changes, small or big, many of them implying that things that used to be remembered and passed on cease to be so, simply because people are busy doing something else.

However, although it is the nature of modernisation to obliterate all kinds of memory, the kinds of things that people regretted were getting lost - skills, ingenuity, stories - are all things that to a considerable extent rely on a recurrence of events for their reproduction. Without performing specific kinds of work, or engaging in specific kinds of social activity, the practical knowledge involved in the work, and the stories that were exchanged on social occasions, will be lost. The durability of these ways of remembering were mainly secured, not by their physical but by their social manifestations. Of course, old objects do get lost as well, but to the extent that there is a sense of urgency when it comes to losing things, that urgency is associated particularly with non-material parts of local life.

When modernisation processes effect changes in the kinds of memory that rely on a recurrence of events for their durability, that implies no act of destruction, as when physical remains are obliterated to make way for new developments. Rather, a social form of memory, such as a story-telling tradition, is destroyed as an indirect consequence; as one performs different tasks, as the patterns of social life change, the old ways are simply not sustained anymore, and go out of use. With them, a large pool of knowledge and competence is lost. Instead, other kinds of knowledge become socially or practically relevant. These may be kinds that local people may master as well as anyone else, but typically the experts have been from elsewhere. If you grew up on a croft, you may have had every chance of becoming very proficient in whatever work you engaged in: tending animals, knitting, churning, thatching roofs, etc. Those chances may not be equally great within the new industries in which people engage. It certainly does seem as if a high proportion of people in highly qualified positions are from outwith Shetland. The point, then, is not just that things are getting lost, but that when it comes to the new life, it cannot be taken for granted that local people will have the same chance to become proficient. One woman said, when talking about how so many of the hotels were run by people who were not from Shetland, "I don't know whether it is just that Shetlanders couldn't manage it", then let her voice trail off.

This goes some way toward substantiating the uncertainties I discussed in the previous chapter. Confronted with ideas and technology clearly originating somewhere else, it is not so surprising that one may wonder about the value of what one had before. And once the change has taken place, it is not so strange that some may feel regret that many of the old ways are being lost. There are different kinds of responses to this. Night-classes in such things as spinning and kishie-making are regularly held in many parts of Shetland. Part of the work of the history groups has been to record stories and other kinds of evidence of the past. And, of course, the museums aim at preserving the remains of the past. The kinds of skills that are taught at night-classes, although once central to people's ways of making a living, are now regarded as leisure activities. Likewise, recording or preserving the material evidence of past times, does not amount to a revitalisation of past ways. Indeed, trying to do that would mean a radical break with the otherwise pragmatic attitude toward things of the past. The question remains, however, of why the history groups so often turned to museums, with their focus on material objects, if what motivated their formation in the first place, was the loss of oral and practical forms of knowledge.

Chapter 3 Museums

The Tangwick Haa, which houses the community history museum in Northmavine, is an attractive building. It is typical of the sort of buildings known as haas, with its thick walls, two storeys and small, irregular, deep-set windows. The haas were originally the houses of gentry or prosperous merchants, as is the case with this one. It was built in the eighteenth century and used to serve as the home of the Cheynes of Tangwick - landowners and fishcurers. The haas stand out as unusually tall buildings, as compared to the cottages that housed the crofters and fishermen serving on the estates. By the time the question of using the Haa of Tangwick as a museum arose, it was a long time since there had been a resident laird - the last of them, John Cheyne, died in 1840 - and the building had been left in disrepair for so long that it was now "lying open to sheep", as one of the members of the History Group put it. A restoration scheme was undertaken after the current owner, a descendant of the Cheynes, had donated the building to the History Group on condition it was run as a museum.

The interior of the restored haa is white, thus making the most of the light that filters through the narrow windows. The ground floor holds a sales point, some exhibition space and a microfilm viewer, while the first floor, which is reached by way of a pine stairway situated in the middle of the rectangular building, is all exhibition space. There is also a loft, which provides some storage space for the collections. Although not a very spacious building, a great amount of material can be found in the Museum. Upstairs one of the two rooms holds a more or less permanent exhibition, consisting mainly of furniture and other objects that might have been found in a living room in the area during the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. The remainder of the exhibition space is devoted to exhibitions that change annually or every other year. The changing exhibitions serve to document many different facets of life in Northmavine in the past. Exhibitions that have been staged over the years have covered a variety of themes, including crofting and fishing, trade, the world wars, the shoreline and religious life.

Giorgio Agamben has written, "[e]very conception of history is invariably accompanied by a certain experience of time which is implicit in it, conditions it, and thereby has to be elucidated" (1993, p. 91). Whatever the motivations behind the Museum were, and in the previous chapter I showed them to be manifold, the Museum delineates a past - a past which is distinguishable from the present by certain characteristics. No such conception is possible without a simultaneous experience of time. The vulgar conception of time in Western culture is that of an unbroken, empty, infinite progression of instances. An experience of time, however, may be discontinuous, full and finite (cf. Agamben, p. 104f). A feeling that society is changing, or has changed, amounts to a particular experience of time. Instances are not empty, but filled with deprivation, joy, nostalgia, fascination, thrill. Being implicit in any conception of history or the past, those kinds of experiences can be elucidated. Through an examination of the exhibitions of the Tangwick Haa Museum I therefore aim to say something about the conception of change that they embody.

The exhibitions

I said above that much of the exhibition space is devoted to temporary exhibitions. One room holds a semi-permanent display, however. This is one of the two upstairs rooms, often referred to as 'The Laird's Room'. In 1993, a poster near the main entrance to the Museum stated the following about this room,

"It is not intended to represent any particular period but shows what a 'ben room' or parlour might have been like and contains some of our most popular exhibits."

A 'ben room' or the 'ben end' is the best room of a croft house or cottage. The cottages were becoming the dominant mode of housing in Shetland by the early nineteenth century. They were the houses of the crofters and fishermen serving on the estates of the lairds. The cottages still provide a substantial part of the total housing stock in Shetland, although most of the cottages in use today have undergone more radical modernisation (see n. 15, p. 30). In spite of bearing the name 'The Laird's Room', the exhibition is thus meant to represent the mode of housing that was in use by the majority of folk in Northmavine at some point in the past. The room features a newly crafted fireplace and contains furniture that seems to date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is also a range of other objects such as a record player made in Northmavine in the 1930s, an old radio, a model ship made by a Northmavine man in the 1920s or 30s, a wooden crib and some tools for use at the fireplace. On the walls there is a range of pictures, and various smaller items (lamps, crockery, etc.) are spread around the place. In addition, some information on the Cheyne family is available, as well as a collection of photographs retained from a crofting exhibition that was staged some years ago. In a corner some objects and information about a man known locally as Johnny Notions can be found. John Williamson, which was his real name, lived in the eighteenth century and is best known for having invented a successful inoculation against the dreaded smallpox that pestered the islands successively throughout the eighteenth century. The room is also used for smaller temporary displays of such things as teapots and clocks.

Most of the remainder of the exhibition space in the Museum is used for temporary exhibitions, although the possibility of mounting a more permanent display on the history of Northmavine has been discussed. I have visited the Museum during two seasons, those of 1993 and 1994. In 1993 the other upstairs room adjacent to 'The Laird's Room' held several smaller exhibitions. There was one on the post offices in the area, one of lamps, one of irons, and two photographic displays about transport. Also, a glass cabinet containing church silver was placed there. Downstairs an exhibition called 'Aboot da Banks' (along the shoreline) was retained from the previous year. It contained things that can be found around the shore, such as different types of stone, sand, shellfish, etc., as well as some examples of the abundant debris that washes ashore every year. A wide range of photographs were also included. The focus in the pieces of text pinned up along with the objects and photographs was on the shoreline as a resource in past and present times. A corner downstairs holds an exhibition of a variety of agricultural and domestic implements, such as tools for extracting peat, kishies (straw baskets), kirns (churns), and the like, retained from earlier exhibitions on women's work and crofting. Also, there is a large photograph of Stenness beach, which has accommodated an important fishing station, as well as some information about Stenness and the 'haaf fishing' (deep sea line fishing) that it supported. Other items on display downstairs include some old toys, a ship's wheel and other items from ships wrecked in the area, and a number of photographs of birds and plants, as well as general views from around Northmavine. For the 1994 season, much of the 'Aboot da Banks' exhibition was retained, and the transport photographs had been moved downstairs. The greatest alteration made was upstairs, however, where the various small displays had been cleared to make room for the exhibition 'From Ewe to You', describing "some of the processes required to convert raw wool into finished garments".


The question of what perception of the past is implicit in the exhibitions is not as straightforward as it may seem. The moment an item is put on display, that is, when it becomes an exhibit, a statement is made about that which it is thought to represent. That statement is never a passive reflection of the represented; rather, it lends form and content to it. Exhibition practice thus involves a process of objectification. Exhibiting old things is instrumental in forming ideas about the past, in constituting the past as object.

Foucault discusses the formation of discursive objects in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972). When analysing discourse, Foucault is not concerned with judging whether or not discourse represents the world in an accurate manner, or with writing a "history of the referent" (p. 47), whereby "prediscursive" experiences can be unravelled. He states clearly that he does not deny the possibility of such tasks, but the task he is concerned with is of a different order altogether; it is,

"...[a] task that consists of not - of no longer - treating discourses as groups of signs (signifying elements referring to contents or representations) but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak [emphasis added]. Of course, discourses are composed of signs; but what they do is more than use these signs to designate things. It is this more that renders them irreducible to the language (langue) and to speech. It is this 'more' that we must reveal and describe." (p. 49)

Implied in this approach to discourse is the notion that the world cannot be seen as having an objective existence independently of our ways of speaking of it. It exists, to be sure, but is formed by our ways of talking about it or relating to it. The task Foucault sets himself is the revelation and description of the rules governing the discourse whereby the world, as object, is formed - an enterprise which does not involve a denial of the existence of a world prior to discourse. The world exists, but its existence is only accessible to us as something specific, and what Foucault does is to illuminate the properties of that specificity, that is, the conditions whereby discourse relates to the world.

Reformulating this task to fit the field of museums, the challenge is not to treat the museum exhibitions as statements about an independently existing world. Obviously that world existed, and is what the exhibitions aim to represent. Without denying their referential function, the current problem consists of the disclosure of those elements in the exhibitions whereby their object is being formed, whereby the past becomes recognisable, known to us as something. For a representation is always distinguishable from what it represents, and the task is to specify in what ways a representation gives form and content to the represented, in what ways its object is constituted. By such a method the object it brings into being, as opposed to its referent, will come into light. This task implies examining the ways in which the artefacts in the Museum are labelled, interpreted and displayed. Asking questions about such features of the exhibitions will illuminate how the object of the exhibitions is constituted.

Space and time

I will begin at the most detailed level, with the individual objects and photographs on display. The majority of the items in the Museum are individually labelled. The object labels may include such bits of information as the name of the object, what it was used for, who donated or lent it to the Museum, or where it was found. Some more or less typical examples include,


The implement traditionally used for cutting peats"

"Hand harpoon, R. Johnson, Uradell"

"Moose Faa for catching mice"

"Miniature kirn (milk churn) made by Tom Tulloch, Cullivoe. Donated by Lisa Tulloch."

When it comes to photographs there is a strong emphasis on naming the location and any people appearing, in addition to describing what is going on in the picture:

"Benigarth, N. Roe"

"Mowing Hay at Punds, Sullom. Charlie Johnson and Peter Johnson"

"Cutting corn, Ollaberry"

"Urafirth Secondary School. Pupils learning to card and spin. Helen Clark, Ruby Johnson, Anna Scollay, Margaret Moar, Emily Anderson and Jessie Anderson."

This strong emphasis on naming locations and people shows a concern with accuracy in documentation. It makes the Museum an effective archive of local history, as it becomes possible for anyone possessing prior knowledge to develop it. It also shows that the Museum is not intended just for the occasional visitor to the area, but addresses the local public too. That this is an explicit concern may also be the reason why in some photographs where the old original includes a caption a new label is added. A photograph taken by the Lerwick-based photographer R. H. Ramsay that appeared in a series of three in the hosiery exhibition is illustrative. The original caption, "Washing a Shetland claith web", is supplemented with one that reads, "Robbie Jamieson, weaver, Ronas Voe, with his daughter Maggie washing a claith web, taken about the turn of the century". There is an obvious change in perspective between the two. A generalising statement about Shetland has been replaced with a statement that makes the photograph visualise a very specific part of the past in Northmavine.

While there is a clear concern with identifying locations and people, dating of objects and photographs is more often approximate or left out. When the date of a photograph or phenomenon is known, it is given, but in many of the commentaries provided the only temporal references given are simply 'the past' and 'the present'. This is mirrored by the ways in which people talk about the past. Often the past is simply referred to as such ("In the past we used to...," "In the past people didn't ...," "Before, there was ..."), or the temporalisation emerges as a result of the alternating use of the past and present tenses of the verb.

Referring to the past in such ways need not be as inaccurate as it seems at first sight to the outside observer. Locations and people can often more easily be recognised, while dates may be trickier to establish in retrospect. When the past referred to is a past that people have experience of themselves, people may know exactly when it was, however, if not necessarily in terms of the calendar. Renato Rosaldo has reconstructed the history of the Ilongots of northern Luzon, Philippines - a people who, at the time he worked with them, had no idea of the Western calendar (Rosaldo 1980, p. 41). Instead of mentioning dates when talking of the past, the Ilongot would refer to names or places:

"For Ilongots to say where they were living when an incident took place was to tell their listeners how to fit that incident into the larger sequence of past events." (p. 47)

The problem with dating was thus the problem of the outsider, who did not have adequate knowledge of the local context. In contrast,

"Ilongots in fact care intensely about the relative sequence of a succession of events, but these excursions into the past are meticulously mapped onto the landscape, not onto a calendar." (p. 48)

To place events in space is thus for the Ilongots also to locate them in time. This technique for temporalisation is in fact most widespread. Who have not responded to questions of 'when', by saying 'where' they were at a particular time? Thus, the apparent inaccuracy when it comes to chronology need not imply ignorance of chronology or the existence of change in the past, but may reflect the close association of the exhibitions with the place that they refer to. To people with a relation to the place and its people a different scale of measurement will be available than the calendar, namely that set by their own and their forebears' lives.

However, as items stemming from very different historical periods are displayed alongside one another, and the only historical process stressed is the period from the 1950s onwards, this contributes to a particular kind of perception of the past, and of time, particularly for the visitor without prior knowledge to the local context. I will quote one of the interpretive displays at length to show how this temporalisation emerges. I have chosen the one that went with the 'Aboot da Banks' exhibition, as it employs both the techniques mentioned above, while also specifying the point, or rather period, of change in calendar terms:


In this exhibition we try to show a selection of items which may be found 'aboot da banks' (along the shoreline).

Most of the commonly occurring shellfish are shown here. Some, like limpets, were used as bait for fishing - fish forming an extremely important part of the diet in times past as well as a means of eking out a living. Others, like spoots (razorfish) were used for human consumption - and still are, though not to the same extent. There is also still a limited demand for whelks (winkles).

Historically, the sea has always been much more than a source of food, and a way of making a living. In an area with no naturally occurring timber, and little money available to most of the population, any wood coming aboot da banks was a very valuable commodity - whether it was as the result of the loss of a deck cargo, the wreck of a ship, the loss of timber from logging operations, etc.

The sea also provided fertiliser in the form of waar (seaweed). This might be added to the midden during the course of the winter, or might be used on its own.

The last 30 to 40 years, however, have seen considerable changes. Now, there is comparatively little timber - partly due to a reduction in the amount carried, and partly due to containerisation. There is still plenty of firewood, however! The development of man-made materials and their increasing use in all aspects of industry and everyday life has led to large amounts of plastic bruck (rubbish) being washed and blown ashore every winter, most notably on the west coast of Shetland. A few examples are shown here. Much of what comes ashore can be used for some purpose (recycling is not a phenomenon of the 1990s!) but much is rubbish. In many cases the seaweed is now too polluted by rubbish to be of much benefit as fertiliser since plastic either does not rot or, if it does, takes a very long time to do so.

The annual Voar Redd-Up at the end of May sees a tidying up of many of the accessible beaches. This is organised by Shetland Anti-litter Enterprise.

In this text, the turning point is specified as a gradual change, having commenced three or four decades ago (in the 1950s or 60s) but continuing into the present day. This mode of temporalisation produces a particular perception of the past in Northmavine; in Foucault's terminology, it forms a particular object. It forms a past that is relatively more stable than the present, if the present can be understood as the period of change unfolding over the past few decades.

Considering that many of the visitors are local people, who know from their memory, from stories told them by their elders, or from having themselves studied the history of the place, that change was a feature of the past as well as of the present, it is clear that this perception of stability is not a necessary inference. Different visitors will obviously perceive the exhibitions in different ways. Still, as Sharon Macdonald writes,

"[m]useums not only exist within a particular time and space, they also help articulate particular temporal and spatial orders. It is in this respect that we can see them as not just existing within a context but also themselves creating cultural contexts." (1996, p. 8)

Through the ways items are arranged and labelled, then, the museum displays serve to form perceptions of the past and historical processes.

A further point that is interesting to note, is that the criterion for determining whether or not something should be included in the exhibitions at the Museum is not necessarily that it be a thing of the past. It was once said that the main activity of the History Group was to "collect and preserve artefacts and information about Northmavine's history and culture". Here, the critical criterion for inclusion of something in the collection is that it should relate to Northmavine rather than be old. Indeed, looking at the actual exhibitions, it appears that objects still in use today are often included, as was very obvious in the hosiery exhibition. Many of the garments on display were produced relatively recently, and the photographic displays focused, among other things, on how work with the sheep is carried out today, and on the revitalisation of spinning techniques that has taken place. Material from earlier this century was also included, but the focus was as much on the present as on the past. When the exhibition was being dismantled, a couple of the items on display were taken home for further use. The exhibition 'Aboot da Banks' showed a similar concern with the present. The Museum is thus devoted to Northmavine, and not just its past.

That said, most of the activities of the present are not included. Mostly, when it comes to things of the present it is those that show a continuity with the past that are on display, such as old tools or implements still in use. Some genuinely new occurrences are also represented, for example peats cut using modern machinery and photographs of sheep being sheared with electric shears. But even most of these examples can be argued to document modifications of traditions or practices with a much longer history locally. However, the fact that some things of the present are regarded as eligible for inclusion in the collection, if not everything, shows that an orientation toward the place (Northmavine) as much as an orientation toward the past, is at stake.

On the one hand, then, the exhibitions show that a concern with place inheres in the Museum. On the other, the perception of that place is informed by the basic distinction between a past and a present, as distinguished from one another by the particular period of change beginning in the 1950s, but gaining momentum with the advent of oil in the 1970s. The perception of time implicit in this is that, in the present, time is precarious, as it moves at a high pace. Stories and local knowledge generally are in immediate danger of being lost. In contrast, in the past, time appears slower, and more uniform.

A question that arises at this point is whether the preoccupation with place, coupled with this particular perception of time, entails a longing for an assumed stability of the past. Indeed, this would confirm the assumption made by Ambrose is his book Managing New Museums, referred to in the Introduction. Considered that this specific temporality is created by the exhibitions, and do not directly correspond to people's individual experiences of time, I don't think an argument to that effect can be sustained. Even if the past is construed as more stable, that is not to say that people long for timelessness or that people resist processes of change. Even if people wish to retain the memory of the old days, that does not mean they want to revitalise the old ways. I will return to this point below, in the section on nostalgia. First, I would like to take the discussion of the exhibitions one step further.

Life in Northmavine in the past

On the whole, there is a relatively large quantity of objects and photographs exhibited in the Tangwick Haa, considering the modest size of the building. Although some exhibitions are clearly demarcated, the organisation is not very strict. Also, although interpretive displays beyond the labelling of individual items are present, there are not so many of them, and, being typed in normal size, they are fairly inconspicuous. These facts serve to give the Museum a special character, reminiscent in certain ways of cabinets of curiosities: It features a collection of items or curios, largely from bygone times. This was not the case with some of the displays, like the permanent one called 'The Laird's Room', which showed objects in a semi-natural setting, or the hosiery display, which showed items in the context of the process of converting wool to finished garments. In other parts of the Museum, however, less context was offered, objects simply being loosely grouped together according to type (toys, churns, clocks, shellfish) if there was more than one specimen present. As distinct from the classical idea of a cabinet of curiosity, the items on display are not curios from distant places, but rather from the past; however, the overall impression they create is not unrelated. Nevertheless, for the local visitor who has knowledge of the past, context need not necessarily be provided in the exhibitions for items to appear meaningful in relation to it. What are uncontextualised curiosities to some may thus appear as memorabilia to others.

That said, context is provided in many instances, and although sometimes subtle, different kinds of variables serve to delineate and organise displays. Above, I focused on spatio-temporal organisation. The spatial is important in providing a basis for the existence of the Museum itself, as it limits the exhibitions to the geographical area of Northmavine. Although locations within that area are often specified, these do not serve to organise the displays as such, and items pertaining to specific kinds of locations within Northmavine (districts, villages; inside houses, outside houses; fields, the hill) are only occasionally presented together. Two exceptions are 'The Laird's Room' and 'Aboot da Banks'. As for the temporal dimension, the materials in the Museum largely date from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which lends the Museum a specific temporality. Furthermore, past and present are also distinguished, but again the distinction does not serve to organise the exhibitions as such, although it frequently surfaces in interpretive text. Beyond that, temporal sequence is not referred to, although individual objects or photographs may be dated.

However, the most fundamental organising principle in the Museum is perhaps neither temporal nor spatial. In the collection management policy adopted by the Tangwick Haa Museum in 1991 in partial fulfilment of the requirements for registration with the Museums and Galleries Commission, the following description of the collection appears:

The Collection is mainly associated with the trades of crofting, fishing (prior to the advent of motorised vessels), whaling and knitting as practiced by the people of Northmavine. The domestic, social, cultural and commercial activities of the population are also represented.

Objectives for the future are also stated in the policy, and among them the History Group includes the following:

The Group particularly desires to increase and develop its recording (written, oral and photographic) of all aspects of the history, tradition and culture of Northmavine and its people.

The main objective is thus to document the perspective of the population, including the great majority who were not of great means.

These things are mirrored in the exhibitions. For a start, there is the focus on people - typically people doing things, rather than posing for the photographer (although such photos are also present). As will be seen from the choice of themes for exhibitions, and keeping the Laird's Room apart, what most of them have in common is that they focus on activity of one form or another. During the years in which the Museum has been in existence, exhibitions relating to most of the industries practiced in the district in the past have been mounted - fishing and fish-curing, crofting and women's work, whaling and hosiery production all having been represented. Even when other themes have formed the basis of an exhibition, such as trade, the world wars, transport, religious life or schools, the focus has remained primarily on everyday life as experienced by members of the local population. Even in the aforementioned display of things found around the shoreline, the interpretation provided focused mainly on the actual use of the resources found beside the sea by people in the area, that is, the perspective was more social than natural. Also the smaller displays have often focused on kinds of activity: play, ironing, motoring.

A general impression of the past in Northmavine, as constituted in the Museum, is thus that of an active past. The story told in the exhibitions is the story of how people managed to make a living within the confines set by the natural environment as well as by the social and economic circumstances that obtained. Different kinds of economic or social activity that have taken place in the area have accordingly been represented. In addition to the practicalities, the hardship or pleasure of everyday life, attention is also drawn to local skill and creativity. The small display on the local man who invented inoculation against smallpox is one example of this. Other examples include the record player from the inter-war years crafted by a Northmavine man, and all the garments exhibited as part of the hosiery exhibition. These things together produce an image much in line with that which emerges from people's ways of talking about the past that I addressed in Chapter 2. Practical skills, creativity and ingenuity are stressed along with the existence of an active community.

The fact that these features are stressed, reflects a particular experience of change. As described in Chapter 1, the modernisation processes have implied that some of the most important centres of activity for folk in Northmavine are now to be found outside the parish. Many people work outside it, and much leisure and commercial activity takes place in the nearby village of Brae or in the island capital, Lerwick. Several crucial services that used to be found in the parish have been closed down, such as secondary education. Although certainly dependent on the outside world before, particularly economically, the parish was comparatively self-sufficient. Furthermore, before the population level stabilised following the establishment of the oil terminal at Sullom Voe, the population had been dropping sharply for a very long time (see n. 10, p. 23), a fact which has also served to alter the character of social life. Once I visited a pair of siblings living in a small hamlet not far from where the Museum is located. When the family moved to the hamlet in 1930, eighteen people lived there, whereas today there are only the two of them. This mirrors the story for many of the remoter hamlets of Northmavine. In contrast to an impression of Northmavine as a place where people moved out and initiative too often involved going elsewhere, the Museum serves as a reminder that in the past this was different.

I will leave this issue here, to be discussed in further detail in the following chapter, as this touches directly on the politics of the Museum. To end this chapter, there is one further issue that I would like to discuss, namely that of nostalgia. Does the impression of an active and more self-contained past contradict the pragmatism regarding old things documented above, succumbing, rather, to a romanticised version of the olden days?

Nostalgia and knowledge

In Britain a very particular way of relating to the past has developed during the course of a few decades, namely that resulting from the concerted efforts of what is known as the heritage industry. Such is the contention of Robert Hewison's book, The Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline (1987), anyway. Hewison's chief thesis is that much of the present preoccupation with the past in Britain is due to a deepening disenchantment with the present, and that the resulting perception of the past is glossed by a nostalgia that looks with longing toward even the most distressing periods of the past, such as the Second World War. The post-war period in Britain is on the whole perceived as a period of decline, but particularly during the 1970s this impression was intensified. However, Hewison contends,

"whatever the true figures for production and employment, this country is gripped by the perception that it is in decline. The heritage industry is an attempt to dispel this climate of decline by exploiting the economic potential of our culture, and it finds a ready market because the perception of decline includes all sorts of insecurities and doubts (which are more than simply economic) that makes its products especially attractive and reassuring." (p. 9f)

The soothing of present worries being the primary effect from which the heritage industry profits, the 'heritage' that it claims to preserve rather comes to stand in the way of knowledge of real historic events, screening them, at best, behind a veil of nostalgia. As a result, Hewison states, "[t]he past becomes more homogeneous than the present, it becomes simply 'yesteryear'" (p. 137).

Hewison does not unequivocally condemn nostalgia; he says it might serve a function in helping adapt to change or loss (p. 46). Still, he issues a warning:

"The paradox, however, is that one of our defences against change is change itself: through the filter of nostalgia we change the past, and through the conservative impulse we seek to change the present. The question then is not whether or not we should preserve the past, but what kind of past we have chosen to preserve, and what that has done to our present." (p. 47)

Hewison is quite clear that the obscurity in which the past is left, due to the dominating role of nostalgia, is the aggregate result of the development of the industry as such, and need not reflect the intention of any individual institution within it (p. 9). Still, the underlying logic is so powerful, finding expression not just in the museums and heritage institutions of the land, but also in the media and in politics, that it might be hard to remain unaffected by this impulse. And surely, the tremendous upsurge in the number of museums and heritage centres around the country can hardly be seen as unrelated to this general state of things. Being related to the obsession with the past that has swept the country during recent decades need not mean being identical with it, however, and although I think Hewison's criticism is both justified and pertinent, I also think it important to recognise differences among museums and heritage centres, this being after all where a different course of development must start.

There are likenesses between the development of community history museums in Shetland and the nostalgic impulse that the heritage industry simultaneously expresses and profits on, but there are also significant differences. When it comes to the changes that have undeniably taken place in Shetland since the 1950s, it is not uncommon to hear some of them spoken of with regret. Limiting myself to topics that came up in conversations with members of the Northmavine History Group, there were two kinds of things whose disappearance or weakening were spoken of a number of times with regret. On the one hand, that goes for such things as skills and knowledge. Practical skills, old stories, knowledge of place names or past events - all are on the wane as the old folk who know the old crofting ways, the stories of the everyday or the extraordinary, die: Who lived where at what time, what were the schools like in the olden days, what ships were wrecked along the coast, who saw the selkies (creatures that were half human, half seals). On the other hand, several people expressed regret concerning the general weakening of the community associated with depopulation of the remoter hamlets and the relocalisation of services and activities elsewhere. Whether, and to what extent, the community has actually been weakened, I do not know, and surely there is disagreement about this within Shetland. However, it remains the case that some certainly experience a sense of loss regarding this.

These kinds of sentiments are also reflected in the exhibitions, as they focus, among other things, on skills and creativity. Also, sometimes regrets surface concerning the loss of community spirit, as in the following piece of interpretation, which was included in the photographic exhibition on transport.


The Hillswick Van sent out from Messrs W. S. Manson & Co. played a very important role in the life of the community. This Van service started about 1924. The driver and the salesman was Harry Manson (a most remarkable young man). ...

In the 20's and early 30's no one in the district owned a car. So Harry Manson who went to Lerwick once a week was folk's only contact with shops at Lerwick and he shopped for everyone who asked him, no matter what sort of item they wanted to buy.

The day the van came was a sort of social occasion. The van stopped at different places along the road. And housewives gathered with their kishies (straw baskets), their knitting and in the winter time their lanterns to wait for the van.

There was many a story told, many a bit of gossip circulated, and many a laugh waiting for the van.

This van service continued all through the war years and right up to the time that oil changed everything.

Here, the development of oil is seen as producing a rupture in the community. Without denying the reality of such a rupture, it is clear that there is an element of nostalgia in such statements. The same can be said of the sense of loss that sometimes is expressed regarding the weakening of story-telling and the loss of the competence and versatility on which survival was predicated in the past.

However many examples of nostalgia one could come up with, this is not to say that the perception of the past communicated in the Museum is predominantly a nostalgic one. Indeed, there are several features of the exhibitions in the Museum, as well as of how people generally relate to the past, that suggest otherwise.

I will mention two different factors here. Firstly, when the exhibitions are produced, some research is always carried out to find out as much as possible about the phenomenon in question. Among the members of the History Group there are many people who are very knowledgeable about various aspects of the past in Northmavine. Also, a number of elderly people living in the area are incredibly well informed concerning the history of the parish, and are often referred to as 'local historians'. They may be consulted when information is gathered for new exhibitions. That the labelling of objects and photographs is generally very detailed also indicates a concern that actual historic events should be brought to light.

Secondly, although the focus in the Museum, in both choice of topics for exhibitions and the interpretation produced, often has been on what is regarded as typical in some way of Northmavine in the past, several factors serve to nuance this picture. Although the larger exhibitions may be quite clearly demarcated, much material in the Museum is not included in any of these, leaving an impression of a past that is not fully accounted for, and thus open to individual interpretation. The fact that interpretation is relatively discreet adds to this open quality of the exhibitions. Also, there are numerous examples of the extraordinary or odd in the Museum. Although exhibitions often focus on what is regarded typical for the area and interpretive material frequently is written in a generalising tone, the overall impression is still one of considerable complexity and nuance. Taken together the emphasis on research and the complexity and openness of displays convey an impression of an open-minded attitude toward the past.

Much of the pleasure and enthusiasm associated with the Museum, with old objects and accounts of the past, had to do, not so much with what they said about the past, as with the process of discovery, with the acquisition of knowledge about one's past. It is not just the image arrived at, but learning about and demonstrating the existence of a history - perhaps a history with which one can legitimately associate oneself - that makes the difference. This kind of attitude cannot reasonably be reduced to an expression of nostalgia. Nor can the motivations for participating in the History Group that I referred in Chapter 2. Perhaps most typically, people explained their participation in the Group by saying they were "just interested". Although 'interest' in and 'enjoyment' of the past may well be nostalgic, these kinds of attitudes cannot be reduced to nostalgia.

Nostalgia is conventionally perceived of as a conservative response to change. Nostalgia certainly implies a perception of the past which blocks out the unpleasant parts of past existence. Whether it seeks to alter the present in terms of that perception is a different matter, however. Indulging in nostalgia, in other words, does not necessarily imply an opposition to everything new. The experience of change expressed in the Museum, as well as among people participating in its work, is an experience that something is indeed irretrievably gone, and that the processes of change work rapidly. Naturally, this may be associated with some regret or sorrow. But that does not imply that change as such is negatively conceived of. Whatever there might be in the way of nostalgia, it is coupled with a widespread and genuine concern with authenticity, with learning about the real events of the past in the district. This attitude is clearly different from that documented by Hewison for many major heritage institutions around the country, with all the expertise they have available. The Museum is certainly about saving evidence of the past from obliteration, but exhibitions do not thereby paint a rosy picture of past times.

Chapter 4 Power

That things from bygone times may engender a considerable amount of enthusiasm is beyond doubt. This was made abundantly clear when the Northmavine History Group organised their first exhibition, "Northmavine as Eense Kent", in one of the village halls in September 1982. In the words of one of the history group members the exhibition, said to be the first of its kind in Shetland, proved "a tremendous success". In fact everyone who mentioned it spoke of the exhibition as a memorable event. Hundreds of people visited the Ollaberry Hall during the weekend, to view the "amazing amount of stuff that was brought forward". One of the people who told me about the exhibition, a woman in her late 60s, said with delight, "You saw artefacts you didn't know existed." After having pointed out to me that the hall where the exhibition was held is a big hall, she added that it was full of stuff all the way around. Following this success another exhibition was organised the next year. The review in the local magazine Nort Aboot included the following passage:

The exhibition was not just another exhibition, it was a social and community event, an opportunity for people to come together and recollect the past, for the young to understand the past and a meeting ground where Shetlanders were able to explain exhibits' functions to tourists and recent islanders. (1983, No. 33, p. 8f)

It was these exhibitions that inspired the idea of developing a museum in Northmavine. A tremendous interest had been part uncovered, part generated, and the question of what to do with all the items that were presented found its resolution in the proposal of opening a museum.

In the previous chapter I discussed the perception of the past found in the exhibitions in the Tangwick Haa Museum. This involved treating the exhibitions as discourse, as statements that 'systematically form the objects of which they speak' (Foucault 1972, see p. 68 above). This is in line with the approach developed by Ricoeur, which I discussed in Chapter 2 when talking about how different kinds of memory work. Ricoeur focuses on the ways in which discourse, or any meaningful action, creates an 'ensemble of references', a 'world' (see p. 58 above). Discourses, used in this broad sense to encompass all manner of 'documents' of human action, including that action itself, differ in their nature, however. Written texts, artefacts on display, and meaningful action - there are many parallels between them, but their differences are more striking. In her Introduction to Theorizing Museums, Macdonald has pointed out the need to account for the non-textual features of museums:

"[W]hile the analysis of museums as texts has been extremely important (and still underdeveloped) both for suggesting literary theoretical techniques for analysing exhibitions, and for raising questions of authorship and of readers, we also need to move towards further elaboration of ways in which museums are unlike texts." (1996, p. 5)

Looking at the review of the exhibition quoted above: It is obvious that the impact of the exhibition was far wider than what a narrow textual analysis would have been able to account for. It is talked of, not just as an opportunity for learning about the past, but as a social event that brought different kinds of people together. In the last chapter I concluded that the perception of time inherent in the museum exhibitions is one where time is perceived as moving more rapidly in the present as compared to the past, but that change is not thereby negatively conceived of. In this chapter I take a broader look at the Museum, and ask what it does with the present, still considering the Museum as discourse, but expanding the analysis to include a discussion of the features of the Museum that result from the very specific kind of discourse that it is: items put on display for a general public, in a building specifically designated for the purpose, in a particular geographical location. To ask what the Museum does with the present, what difference it makes, is to pose a question of power. In the previous chapter I briefly touched upon this issue, in relation to the exhibitions, suggesting that politics may be involved. Here the nature of that politics will be substantiated. First, however, there is a need for some theoretical clarification. In what sense can the Museum be said to be about power?

A political institution?

It has often been pointed out that political meetings in Shetland attract few members of the public, and that most people generally tend to avoid political confrontation. I do not know how widely this applies, but granted that there is at least a small measure of truth in it, might it not then be a little strange to conceptualise an institution such as a museum in political terms? Very few people actually spoke of the Museum in an explicitly political manner. I referred in Chapter 2 to a piece that appeared in the Nort Aboot magazine that spoke of the interest in local history as resistance (see p. 48 above). The passage reads as follows:

That such a desire for continuity and urge to incorporate and understand the past is so prevalent, is ground for optimism, I submit, in that it is a mode of resistance in a time when dominant representation of 'the past' as it filters through the media is a model of the post World War II period, allowing for a golden age (the post war boom, incorporating the creation of the Welfare State by the Labour party), a period of decline (the 1970's) and somehow, the return of the Dunkirk spirit and hence recovery. Mrs. Thatcher may vary the time scale, but this is the real sequence of events upon which her case is erected (the third part remaining debatable). Pre World War II, although perfectly accessible to living memory, has been relegated as a mine for mythic images, arbitrarily negative or positive, blandly and unashamedly contradictory; conceived in fact, as reinforcers of the desired interpretation of here and now.

It works too. Insofar as we ingest this bland diet day out day in, the ignorant inanities of our leaders and their media mouthpieces, we soon find that it has become an Herculean effort to think of our history in any other way. Yet it is an effort which we must make if we are to be able to escape from the myth of an eternal present moment and see any grounds for hope and development between a past which is obscured and a future which is denied. (1983, No. 35, p. 8)

Here, the interest in the past generated locally is opposed to the way the past has been construed by the Conservative Party in Britain, which came to power in 1979 and sits there to the present day. Even a desire for continuity is seen as holding a progressive promise in this conception.

Most people, however, do not articulate their interest in anything like a similar manner, and certainly do not bring party politics into it, whether or not they would agree with this particular understanding. In Chapter 2 I included some other examples of people's reasons for being interested in the past, reasons that were quite different from one another, although not necessarily contradictory. However idiosyncratic such motivations might be, for most people things like the joy of learning about the past, and ensuring that what remains of it is not lost, are among the most important motivations. "I'm just interested in history," many said, or, "It's very interesting to listen to the old people." And with particular reference to the Museum, the reason given most frequently was "to avoid things getting lost". In the conventional sense there is nothing very political about these attitudes. For all appearances, a way of relating to the past that has become very widespread in the world today has been adopted, and no particular political case is made on that basis.

Michel de Certeau has developed a perspective in his book The practice of everyday life (1984) which is of interest in this context. He discusses the question of how the dominating elements of society (for instance its language, its culture, its buildings) are used by those who are conventionally seen as passive consumers, mere users, of other's products. Contrary to the conventional view, de Certeau identifies activity and creativity in this use, or consumption, of the dominating structures:

"To a rationalized, expansionist and at the same time centralized, clamorous, and spectacular production corresponds another production, called 'consumption'. The latter is devious, it is dispersed, but it insinuates itself everywhere, silently and almost invisibly, because it does not manifest itself through its own products, but rather through its ways of using the products imposed by a dominant economic order.

For instance, the ambiguity that subverted from within the Spanish colonizers' 'success' in imposing their own culture on the indigenous Indians is well known. Submissive, and even consenting to their subjection, the Indians nevertheless often made of the rituals, representations, and laws imposed on them something quite different from what their conquerors had in mind; they subverted them not by rejecting or altering them, but by using them with respect to ends and references foreign to the system they had no choice but to accept." (p. xiif)

The Indians' subversion, like that of any other dominated party, is the result of the creativity involved in relating to the products of the dominant social order. It is a question, in other words, of what is made of those products. This kind of resistance, in fact, is an unavoidable feature of everyday life, as the practices it consists of cannot but relate to whatever products are imposed, be they of a material, social or cultural nature.

Relating what de Certeau here submits to the current context, it can be said that although most people do not talk about the Museum as a political undertaking, there is still a question of power. Although there is nothing overtly political to be deciphered from such statements as, "I've always been interested in history", or, "I enjoy hearing the old stories", the implications of the ways of relating to the past that such statements are associated with amount to an active and creative way of relating to the cultural conceptions, social structures or material features that have increasingly made themselves felt. In specific ways of talking about the past, in specific ways of exhibiting it, resistance may thus be grounded, resistance against the perceptions of that past produced by those who hold the hegemony. Although the Museum is not a political institution as such, it is nevertheless about power. In the following section I substantiate this argument by comparing the perception of the past produced in the Museum with another version of Shetland history that was developed a hundred years earlier. The comparison will further illuminate the discursive object that the exhibitions in the Tangwick Haa produce. Already at this level of analysis the question of power emerges, in the form of the question of who has the power to define what the past and present culture of Northmavine is. In the remaining sections of the chapter I also consider the politics of the social and material sides of the Museum, and address the question of the different ways in which the resistance involved in the Museum makes itself felt.

Norse imagery versus community history

The late twentieth century is not the only period in which Shetland's history has been contested. A century earlier a group of intellectuals began devoting their attention to a part of the more distant past in Shetland, namely the Norse period. The historian Bronwen J. Cohen has written a thesis (1983) on the history of what she terms 'Norse imagery' in Shetland. What this phrase refers to are the various expressions of interest in the Norse period in Shetland that developed among Shetland intellectuals toward the end of the nineteenth century. Testimony of the products of this interest is still apparent in a number of ways. Lerwick street names such as 'King Harald Street' and 'St Olaf Street' date from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, as do the stained-glass windows of Lerwick town hall, which illustrate stories from the Norse sagas.

What counts as Shetland's Norse period began toward the end of the eighth century AD, with the first Norse settlers in the islands. Formally, Shetland was under Norwegian, and later Danish, rule from about a century later until 1469, when the islands were pledged for part of a dowry in a marriage settlement between Denmark and Scotland, thereafter remaining part of Scotland and subsequently Britain. In the late nineteenth century certain people began to cultivate a fascination with this particular part of Shetland's past, and it is with the nature of this fascination and the forces that conditioned it that Cohen concerns herself. The intellectuals in question developed their interest through their literary work (articles, poems, novels, children's books, etc.). Also, the 'Norse imagery' was expressed through such things as the formation of learned societies, political activities, architecture and the alterations made to the mid-winter fire-festival, the Up-Helly-Aa - a festival, still celebrated every year, in which squads of men dressed up in costumes inspired by popular images of Vikings lead a procession to a site where a replica Viking longship is set alight.

Cohen's thesis traces the preconditions of the particular perceptions of Shetlanders that developed. These include, on the one hand, factors that contributed to the general interest in the Vikings that developed among British and European scholars in the nineteenth century. At this time the Icelandic material made its way into Europe and, interpreted in the light of the theories on racial and constitutional matters that flourished at the time, this material stimulated the significant changes in the perceptions of the Norse that took place in Britain. These perceptions were further developed through the cultural production that took place in Shetland in the late nineteenth century, a cultural production that gave rise to images of Shetlanders as being of "hardy Norse stock". On the other hand, changes within Shetland were also paramount in giving both form and substance to the process. Factors discussed by Cohen include the ongoing development of trade and communication, and the increasing urbanisation of Lerwick. These developments laid the ground for the particular discourse on Shetland and its inhabitants that emerged.

The most persuasive of the images that resulted from these influences was the idea of the Norse as a freedom-loving people, due among other things to the existence among them of institutions such as democratic assemblies. In opposition to this stood images of oppressive Scottish feudalism, the latter, Cohen submits, merging "into concern at the continuing encroachment of the south, in a way that reinforced both past grievance and contemporary fears" (p. 412). This particular conception of Shetland history is very much in evidence in Shetland today, as Cohen indeed affirms:

"It is an inescapable impression that many Shetlanders do still, to some extent, see themselves as possessing a distinctive identity grounded in their Norse origins, and setting them apart within Britain from the Scots, Irish, English and Welsh." (p. 3)

Of course, today this historical perception takes on a different form and occupies a different place in Shetland society from what it did a century ago, not least because many Shetlanders now have first hand experience of Norway and Norwegians, communication across the North Sea having developed significantly in latter years. However, such things as the replica Viking longship anchored in the Lerwick harbour every summer testify to the continued production of Norse symbolism in Shetland. Particularly from the late 1960s onwards, an increasing number of Shetland intellectuals have contested what one critic called "Viking waffle", however (Cohen 1983, p. 481). Indeed, Cohen herself maintains that what still remains of a Norse component in the Shetlanders' self-perception has resulted,

"not from the natural observations of all Shetlanders of such solid evidence that still exists of their Norse past in the language, traditions, and place-names, but from the positive emphases that were placed on this evidence by an identifiable group of intellectuals in a process that is recognisably coherent in the last quarter of the nineteenth century." (p. 4)

The particular perception of Shetland's history discussed by Cohen differs in most apparent respects from the perceptions that find expression in the community history museums. This holds true whether or not individual members of the history groups subscribe to the idea of Shetland owing more of its heritage to Scandinavia rather than Scotland. The history groups have from the very beginning focused their work on the relatively recent history of their own district. This is, consequently, what constitutes the subject matter of the collections and exhibitions in the museums they run. As compared to the perception of Shetland's past that stresses the link with Scandinavia or the Norse, the subject matter of the perceptions encountered in the museums is thus drawn from material that is much more in evidence in everyday life, whether in the form of objects or photographs, of stories told by old people, or indeed of lived experiences.

Whether one speaks of the recent or the distant past makes in itself little difference for whether what is said should be regarded as fact or fiction, however. Of greater importance are the ways in which the past are approached. The notion that Shetlanders essentially constitute a Norse people amounts to a gross simplification as it claims continuity with one specific (and rather distant) part of Shetland's past, leaving other (and more recent) parts out. In contrast, the community history museums, although generally concerned with the very recent past, do not seem to privilege any specific part of that past depending on its origins. Also, the concern with research and the complexity and openness of displays in the Tangwick Haa point toward a more open attitude toward what the past may tell.

Furthermore, the focus on the more recent past expresses a different concern than that which found expression in the conception of Shetland history which developed in the late nineteenth century. Whereas the positive emphases on the Norse period found their counterpart in the perception of Scottish culture as fundamentally oppressive, the consciousness of one's own district and its history finds its most prominent counterpart in perceptions of ongoing modernisation. In spite of differences between the two perceptions, to the extent that the sources of modernisation are perceived as being localised 'down south', a continuity extends between them. That does not make them identical, however. Although modernisation can be associated in many ways with the national context, it cannot be conflated with it if one aims to understand either. The difference also finds expression in the two different perspectives on the past: In the nineteenth century, when the significant other of the developing perceptions on the past was the Scottish oppressor, those perceptions focused on the specificity of Shetland as such, whereas in the twentieth century, when the significant other rather is the Modern, the focus is on the district within Shetland with which one is most intimately associated.

The change in focus might seem paradoxical in the sense that there is probably a much more widespread sense of Shetland's specificity today than there was a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, in substantiating the developing perceptions of the place they inhabit, people have looked to material from the area with which they are most familiar, namely the local parish. These parishes, as they are delineated today, are of course historical entities as much as Shetland itself is a historical entity, but neither is any less real for that. Directing attention to the local context, that is, the parish, people shed light on the ways and lives of the folk that lived there before them, including the activity, ingenuity and skill that existed prior to the modernisation processes. Thus, adding to the notions of backwardness, dependence and marginality notions of self-sufficiency and a rich social life, and to the notion of the smartness of the modern world a notion of local sagacity and inventiveness, they produce a perception of a place that cannot so easily be disregarded in the face of the modernisation processes. The parish of Northmavine amounts in these conceptions to far more than just an administrative area. Through adding these dimensions to the understanding of the parish and the people who inhabit it, the place is shown to harbour values that cannot so effortlessly be slighted or overlooked.

Ingenuous as a conception of the past thus produced may be, it is important to note that what amounts to an inversion of meaning is taking place. For the centuries following the transfer of Shetland from Danish to Scottish rule, initiated in 1469, a predominant image of Shetland's history is one of dependence and poverty for the majority of the population. Whereas in the earlier parts of this period authority was in the hands of the Scottish landowners, later, following a process that shares most of its general characteristics with societies all over Europe, authority has been exercised from far more distant locations, most importantly the government quarters of London. Regardless of the locus of authority, the overwhelming impression of Shetland history during this period has, nevertheless, been one of dependence, poverty and, increasingly, marginality. Entrepreneurship and creativity were largely exercised by lairds and merchants. Although the passing of the Crofting Act in 1886 marked the beginning of a new era (Smith speaks of the fishermen and crofters as the new entrepreneurs of the time (1977, p. 56)), other problems were in store, and by the 1950s the economic situation did not look very promising (see Chapter 1). Although this conception obviously describes a real state of affairs, it is not the whole truth. The inverse image, that of a community possessing a vitality of its own, in which people imaginatively relate to their changing circumstances, holds equally true.

The workings of power

In such transitions of emphasis the play of power can be seen. Who has the power to define either the past or the present? It is a symbolic power, but, as we have learnt from Foucault, such power is hardly just a surface expression of the real workings of society; rather it has an effect in 'forming the object of which it speaks'. No perception of the past is therefore 'innocent'. It may not be misconceived, distorting the real events of the past, but however meticulously documented and argued, no perception can fail to add something to the past that once was, through the perspective chosen or the questions asked.

The analysis needs to be taken a step further, however, as the Museum is about far more than shifting perceptions of the past. When speaking of texts in the broad sense that Ricoeur does, it must not be forgotten that different kinds of texts have different properties. Discourse, Ricoeur said, is language realised in the world (see p. 57 above). That means that it will have a materiality, whether it consists of electric circuits in a computer, ink on paper, or the materiality of voice and bodily movement. It also means that it does not exist independently of people, that is, it has a social dimension. The Museum consists of objects, photographs and pieces of text publicly on display in a building located in a specific place. This means that it has both a materiality and a sociality. These two aspects, the social and the material, are intimately linked with the power aspect of discourse.

A conception of power that accounts for the material and social dimensions of discourse, in a complementary manner to Foucault's perspective, is that set forth by de Certeau. Above I introduced his view of consumption as itself representing a kind of production that is subservient to the production of the dominant economic agents, a form of resistance. The difference between the two kinds of production, that of the dominant economic order and that of those obliged to manipulate the products of others, de Certeau defines as having to do with their respective ways of making themselves socially and materially manifest. The former kind of production, he says, works according to a strategic model, whereas the production implied in the consumption of others' products works according to a tactical model:

"I call a 'strategy' the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an 'environment'. A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre) and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, 'clientèles', 'targets', or 'objects' of research). Political, economic, and scientific rationality has been constructed on this strategic model.

I call a 'tactic', on the other hand, a calculus which cannot count on a 'proper' (a spatial or institutional localization), nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of a tactic belongs to the other. A tactic insinuates itself into the other's place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance. It has at its disposal no base where it can capitalize on its advantages, prepare its expansions, and secure independence with respect to circumstances." (1984, p. xix)

The difference between the strategic and the tactical model, between production and consumption, is therefore that the former possesses a spatial or institutional base from which it can manoeuvre, whereas the latter has no such base. One can move on from that and infer that the moment a tactic has succeeded in creating such a base - for instance, when an organisation has been formed, or a building or a piece of land has been acquired - it assumes strategic features. This, I would say, is what has happened with the establishment of the community history museums. For, in addition to exhibiting the past, they are material and social manifestations. As a result, the existing perceptions of the past in the area may be developed and made public in ways that would not otherwise have been possible, had people not succeeded in obtaining or creating such a base.

Discussing a museum as resistance means conceiving of it in relation to something external which is implicitly perceived as more powerful, as dominant. Having said that the establishment of a museum implies the creation of a spatial and institutional base, does that not turn it into a dominant force? May not the particular way of conceiving of the past that a community history museum represents itself become dominant to the point of overshadowing or silencing other versions of the past? Indeed, a chief concern of Foucault is exactly the intimate relationship between discourse and power, and the Museum clearly is a discursive phenomenon. However, Foucault submits that

"[d]iscourses are not once and for all subservient to power or raised up against it, any more than silences are. We must make allowance for the complex and unstable process whereby discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy. Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but it also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it." (1990, p. 100f)

Even if a community history museum started out as resistance against certain perceptions of the past and the course of development they were associated with, this does not prevent it from altering its stance and becoming subservient to the power it once resisted. And even if it remains resistant to one particular perception, there is nothing that hinders it from itself becoming domineering in relation to something else. In fact, as soon as a point of resistance becomes established in one way or another this is unavoidable. In the case of a museum, there will always be other possible versions of the past, versions not represented in the museum.

Externally, then, the Museum may constitute resistance against versions of the past that see the history and culture of Northmavine as backward, through documenting such things as creativity and ability to cope in times of hardship. Also, through its concern with authenticity and the openness of displays the Museum may resist the kinds of approach to the past that privilege certain historical periods and block out other parts of the past.

With reference to the area in which it is situated - in the case of the Tangwick Haa, to Northmavine - it can, however, be talked of as itself representing power. There have not been any serious disagreements concerning the exhibitions in the Museum. People may be enthusiastic about different things, but the perspectives represented in the Museum have not been contested either by people in the History Group or others. And yet, a story may always be told in another way or substituted with a different story. While the Museum represents a base from which one can manoeuvre, everyone who just visits have no such base. Their resistance lies in the variety of perceptions that they form while walking around or contemplating the exhibitions. These perceptions are not necessarily in conjunction with the perceptions that those who make the exhibitions want to advocate. In de Certeau's terms one could say that, as 'consumers' of the exhibitions, they 'produce' their own perceptions. Exhibitions may be contextualised in quite different ways (e.g. in a more personal way), being modified and integrated into other ways of conceiving of the past. Ways of walking around the exhibitions, ways of commenting or, indeed, of not commenting on the displays, ways of accommodating what is perceived with other perceptions - these are all things that represent resistance. That local residents and tourists, for instance, may make very different things of the exhibitions is fairly obvious. In the case of the former the exhibitions are approached on a background of previous knowledge and perhaps also memories. Visitors, on the other hand, do typically not have such intimate knowledge of the place and its past, and contextualise the displays quite differently. Also differences will exist among people of different age or gender. My intention is not to address this issue in any further depth, interesting though it is. It may well be kept in mind, however, as I proceed to discuss the politics of the Museum, now with explicit reference to the social and material aspects.

The Museum as social and material manifestation

In Chapter 2 I discussed contrasting forms of memory, saying that when people talked with regret about old things getting lost, it was very often about such things as practical skills and stories, things that depend on being practiced to be remembered. As distinct from these forms of memory, a museum relies on physical memory: either the material manifestations of the past, such as tools or furniture, or recorded evidence such as taped stories or written descriptions of crofting ways, social events, the joys and griefs of the old folk. Preserving or recording evidence of the past makes memory of old times more durable. Even if people lead quite a different life today than what they used to before, they will have access to some remaining fragments of those earlier days.

The establishment of a museum is, of course, not the only way of recording or preserving such evidence. What is peculiar about museums, however, is that they are obliged to make their materials available to a general public and, as distinct from books, museum exhibitions cannot be taken home, but must be 'consumed' in the museum. Museums are therefore more social than books. With the establishment of the Tangwick Haa Museum, Northmavine got a new locus of activity, a place where local residents may take their visitors, for local people to work and meet other local people, as well as folk from all over the world. The materiality of museums thus channels social activity in particular ways: On the one hand, there is the History Group and the work that they do, and on the other hand, there are the visitors to the Museum. A spatial modification - the restoration of an old haa - has made particular kinds of social relationships possible: Tourists can talk to local residents about past and present times in the area; locals meet up to talk of the old times, and to work together. The very form of the Museum channels the kinds of activity, the kinds of social relations that develop. People work together who would perhaps otherwise not have done so, and the Museum becomes a context for conversations between the local people who work there and visitors from near and far. In short, the material (and thus spatial) alteration that the Museum represents, serves to mould social life, sociality being thus spatially constituted.

As the geographer Doreen Massey has pointed out, it is clear that the opposite also holds true: While social life is spatially constituted, the spatial is at the same time socially constituted (Massey 1993, p. 145f). There is no way the Museum, for all its material characteristics, can fully determine the kinds of activity that takes place in and around the Museum, the kinds of social relations that develop. Some glimpses into the social activity that takes place in connection with the Museum may clarify this point.

Last time I was in Shetland I attended the first Committee meeting in the autumn. In summer, when the Museum is open to the public, there is usually little activity on the part of the Northmavine History Group. Both their public meetings and exhibition work take place in the winter time. Most of the exhibition work is done during the weeks just prior to the opening in May, but the Group also meets up in autumn, to dismantle old displays and decide what should be done for the following season. On this particular late October night, I arrived with one of the members of the History Group: The Museum's location is such that you need a car to get there. Several people arrived at the same time, and after the headlights of all the cars were turned out, torches were produced to light the path to the entrance. After a short time everyone gathered upstairs in 'The Laird's Room', where we seated ourselves on the old furniture on display, or on folding chairs brought out for the occasion. The thirteen people present made the room feel fairly crowded. As the Group had not assembled for many months, many formal and technical matters were on the agenda. Among the more substantial issues decided upon was the question of what exhibition to stage the following year, and the long-term strategy for the Museum was also discussed. A good way into the meeting, someone produced a tray with mugs of tea and biscuits for everyone, and conversation began to move more freely around one of the themes suggested for the exhibitions. In particular, many of the older people present related information or stories of relevance that they remembered from their early years.

A lot of time goes into dealing with the practical and formal sides of running the Museum. Particularly after it was decided that the Museum should register with the Museums and Galleries Commission (see pp. 3 and 19), the number of formal matters that needed attention increased. Technicalities, such as filling in forms and meticulous labelling of individual items in the collection, are obviously not what generates enthusiasm for the Museum. Rather, it is such things as the opportunity of delving into the past, listening to other people's stories, seeing displays come together, and learning from visiting historians, that make up the enjoyable part. Some of the older members talked about their participation in the Museum as implying "a night out". This social side of the Museum was commented on many times, such as when one woman, while talking about how for many years Northmavine saw people moving out of the parish, and with them schools and other services, said it is important to have something "that keeps the place alive". This statement recognises the simple fact that the kind of activity that goes on, is important for what kind of place it is.

In addition to the Committee meetings, exhibition work (research, mounting and dismantling of displays, etc.), and the public meetings organised by the History Group, during the summer months the Museum is a continuous locus of activity. It is "a place to stop by", as someone said, and indeed many do: Tourists from all over Britain and many other countries come by; local people visit the Museum, often when they have visitors from elsewhere; societies and schools organise trips. The caretakers of the Museum, each working twelve hours a week in summer, all said they enjoyed the job, as it meant that they got to meet a lot of different people.

The kinds of occasions thus produced, although having much in common with things that go on in other similar museums, will always be specific for the place, depending on who exactly participates, and what they put into it. Thus, the kind of spatial base that the Museum makes up, the kind of development of Northmavine that it constitutes, is determined, also, by the social activity that actually takes place there. The Museum would make less of a difference if exhibitions were not altered every season, or if no-one ever came to visit. As it is, people do visit, in increasing numbers, and work is done every year to produce exhibitions, thus engaging many different people around the place, particularly among the older folk.

The particular characteristics of the Museum, as a material and social phenomenon, have implications for the kind of place that Northmavine is, for people who live there, and for people who visit. Moreover, these features are also of significance for the discourse about the past that the Museum presents, for the perception of the past that is communicated. The physical facilities available regulate what can be done in terms of exhibitions, and how these are perceived: The Haa used to be the home of a landowner, and thus provides a particular kind of context for displays. While exhibitions focus mainly on the lives of the less prosperous majority of people, this serves as a reminder that life in Northmavine was not the same for all. The relatively remote site of the Museum restricts access for those without a car, while simultaneously attracting people to one of the hamlets that have experienced severe depopulation, in a very scenic part of Shetland. These features also provide a context for displays. On the social side, the kinds of people involved with the Museum are crucial for the way the exhibitions come out: They reflect the concerns of local residents, while being subjected to the limitations that stem from having to be produced in people's spare time.

I said above, with reference to de Certeau, that the Museum comprises a spatial and institutional base. Bearing in mind what I have said about the material and social sides of the Museum, I can now add that the specificity of that base is instrumental as a premise for the perceptions of past and present that are formed there, and for the way they are communicated. The Museum creates three things that are mutually interwoven: something cultural (perceptions of the past), something material (a building where material evidence of past times is exhibited), and something social (certain kinds of activity leading to the establishment of social relations). The sociality of the Museum is such as to produce relations between people within Northmavine, and between local residents and visitors. The social activity is structured by the materiality of the Museum, however, and is centred around a particular cultural theme: the culture and history of the parish. Due to this social dimension, a museum is thus 'an artefact of society' (Ames 1992, p. 44), that is, it says something about the people who produced it. This is, among other things, why one of the members of the History Group could state: "This has been one of our little successes." The Museum shows both that Northmavine has a past and a tradition, and that there are able people living in the area today. Just as the social dimension of the Museum has a particular character, due to its material and cultural specificity, so is the materiality of the Museum different from the materiality of any other building: It refers explicitly to the place and its past, and makes certain kinds of social relations possible. Together, these two dimensions make the Museum a material and social base where people can develop the cultural theme that constitutes the Museum's subject matter: perceptions of the place and its past. The power of the Museum is thus not just symbolic; it also resides in its sociality and materiality. This is, for instance, why people I spoke to who have hardly been to the Museum could stress that the Museum was a good thing to have in the community, and why such things as the good craftsmanship of the stairs in the Museum are referred to with as much enthusiasm as the actual displays. The Museum thus influences the kind of place that Northmavine is, symbolically (the Museum as a discursive phenomenon), socially, and materially. It is in such compounded effects that the politics of the Museum consists.

The question of what politics is involved still remains to be addressed, however; as I put it at the beginning of this chapter, what does the Museum do with the present? In Chapter 1 I described Shetland as characterised by a complex mingling of old and new. Below I argue that the Museum, with its focus on the old, is not simply an attempt at stifling this development.


Nearly two thirds of the population of Northmavine are currently involved in agriculture either on a full-time or part-time basis. Most typically, agriculture here means crofting small - scale farming, usually on rented land - the main produce being livestock, particularly lambs. Although crofting has a long history in Shetland, its nature has been radically altered, particularly during the last century or so. Modern crofting emerged with the passing of the Crofters Act of 1886, which granted the tenants the right of occupancy and the right to bequeath tenancy. Since then, there have been further reforms, and crofting techniques have been modernised - the arrival of the Ferguson tractors being one landmark, enabling the ploughing of land too rough for ponies to cope with. The latest technological addition to the crofting scene is silage bales. A special piece of machinery wraps the grass into large plastic-covered bales that can be left outside until used. As with other alterations to crofting before them, the shiny bales make a notable visual impact on the landscape, whether they are left to dot the fields or stacked near the farm buildings.

When I was last in Northmavine there was talk of establishing a so-called START centre. It has now been opened, and currently employs one person on a full-time basis at its location in Ollaberry. The acronym START conceals the Shetland Telecentres and Rural Training Organisation. The organisation was launched with joint funding from the European Union, Shetland Enterprise and the Shetland Islands Council. From 1985 to 1995 about 120 so-called telecottages were set up around Britain, the intention being to develop work opportunities in rural areas using Information Technology. The Northmavine START centre currently offers small-business training, as well as the use of computer facilities through which computer resources throughout the world can be accessed - these two services being those most typically provided by the telecottages around the country.

The adoption of new technology, the modification of the materiality of place and people, the introduction or development of new ideas - these are all very much the order of the day in Northmavine. Where do the Northmavine History Group and Tangwick Haa Museum belong in this picture? What makes it different from the quest for stability in the face of radical change that Ambrose assumed to be a major motivation behind community museums?

As argued in the previous section, the establishment of the History Group, and later the Museum, represents an innovation in both social and material terms. Activity is centred around these institutions: For many they offer welcome opportunities to meet others and pursue an interest; a few part-time jobs in the summertime are not insignificant in an area where there is a need for more job opportunities locally; the Museum helps attract visitors to the area. In this sense, the Museum is as pragmatic as any other new initiative, whether they be innovations in crofting technology or the utilisation of information technology.

Still, the way the Museum relates to such things as tools, furniture or crockery is quite different from the way people in general relate to them: Suddenly, these things are transformed into 'evidence' of past (or present) culture, and acquire a value quite different from what they have ever had prior to being exhibited in a museum. This is, of course, not a pragmatic way of relating to those objects. However, when people talked about loss, it was very often about the loss of such things as oral or practical knowledge: how to thatch a roof, how to spin, the old stories, dialect words. These are competences whose memory is sustained through practice. The current 'interest in history' and the community history museums are ways of retaining continuity with the forms of memory that dominated in the past: oral and practical knowledge. Story-telling and practical skills are, up to a point, replaced or complemented by a different form of memory, one embodied in material relics, photographs, or written or taped information. Considering that things have actually changed, it would not be very pragmatic to insist on sticking to the old ways. However, through working to retain material evidence or record the old tales, people can at least avoid losing all the memory, even if what is remembered now plays quite a different role in their lives from what it did before. As Pierre Nora has written,

"There are lieux de mémoire, sites of memory, because there are no longer milieux de mémoire, real environments of memory." (Quoted in Blok 1992, p. 121)

Retaining evidence of past times in a museum, or practicing the old skills as a hobby pursued in your leisure-time, is rather more pragmatic than trying to revitalise the traditions as they were practiced before. Also, a museum is a kind of institution that has a broader relevance today than the kinds of practices that previously supported memories of the past. Considering that modernisation has resulted in an ever closer integration of Northmavine in the world beyond, the development of forms of memory that transcend local contexts seems an expedient adjustment.

There is a further point which may be made in support of this conclusion. Henrik Sinding-Larsen has developed an approach that in many ways can be seen as an elaboration of Ricoeur, at least for the purposes of the current analysis, as he takes the material nature of the text into account. Sinding-Larsen's field of research is that of the 'externalisation' of knowledge. He delineates three main periods of externalisation, the first being characterised by the spoken language, the second by writing and the third by computer programming (1988, p. 77). In a later article, Sinding-Larsen defines 'externalisation' as "relating to something external in order to organise one's thoughts and actions" (1992, p. 67).(21) He defines the term 'externalisation' thus:

"In using the concept of 'externalisation' I want to denote a historical process whereby knowledge previously stored in human beings (i.e. intracognitively), is transferred to a storage medium outside the human mind (i.e. becomes extracognitively stored)." (1988, p. 83)

Sinding-Larsen's main argument is that any form of externalisation does something with the knowledge it represents. Thus, the externalisation of language (the development of writing, the development of computer technology) bears an intimate relation to the development of culture:

"Language has always been more than a tool for conversation or inter-human messages. ... Language has never been a purely inner activity, neither of an individual nor of several individuals communicating. Language is linked to our material projections onto the world. It is a way of living in the world. We try to make our world intelligible through making it readable. In fact we transform our environment more and more according to our linguistic vision of the world, so most of our living becomes a reading of our own texts." (1988, p. 88f)

Sinding-Larsen says that language is linked to our material projections onto the world, and that the use of language 'is a way of living in the world'. The materiality of our modes of communication is consequently deeply implicated in our being in the world. If museums are seen as a specific way of externalising knowledge, then the particular practice implied in this way of relating to objects can be argued as containing a form of pragmatism, as being a way of 'living in the world'. Like any other way of living in the world, it takes shape from the particular mode of externalisation in question. Such features of museums, with their collections and exhibitions, as their durability and their availability to the public are thus crucial in the analysis of the way of 'being in the world' that they are part of. Furthermore, in constituting ways of living in the world, museums partake in its transformation. That transformation is achieved in a number of different ways - material, social and cultural.

I have discussed the social and material transformation that the establishment of the Museum implies. When it comes to the cultural impact that the Museum makes through its communication of perceptions of Northmavine in the past and the present, it should be remembered that, due to the modest interpretation available and the relatively open character of displays, the perceptions of the past communicated are quite open too. That means that it is easier for a visitor to form his or her own perceptions, although it may make objects appear meaningless to those who do not possess prior knowledge. To the extent that a firmer perception is created, it is one of Northmavine as a place in its own right. Through increasing consciousness of Northmavine's history, the Museum may thus contribute to a perspective on new developments. This is not to say that people come to favour the old ways, however, and the Museum is in principle perfectly compatible with a high rate of change in the area, as well as other moves to create activity locally, whether that be the establishment of new businesses, leisure activities or children's play groups. A museum, and the way of relating to old things that it represents, perceived as part of a way of living in this world, may contain a pragmatism of its own that need not be opposed to other kinds of pragmatism.

What the Museum resists, then, is the trend toward centralisation (of people and activity), partly because it provides a material locus around which social activity is centred, and partly because it contributes to a consciousness of the place that helps reinforce a perception of Northmavine's vitality. This consciousness results both from the fact that the Museum puts Northmavine's history and culture on the agenda, encouraging, in effect, people to think and talk about it, and from actually actively promoting an awareness of local knowledge, skill and ingenuity. Whether or not the Museum is perceived in political terms by the individual member or visitor, the effect of its existence is to counter a perception of a marginal, stagnant society. Although optimism and a sense of security have largely come to supplant the pessimism of the 1950s, it should be remembered that many of the new developments that have created this situation have come from outside: technology, experts, oil. The interest in community history can be understood as a way of countering the image of the modern world as always smarter than what is seen as its opposition: certain aspects of the locality. In this manner, the Museum addresses the insecurities discussed in Chapter 1. However, what the Museum does to ameliorate the ills of modernity is not to advocate a return to the old ways: Although certain expressions of nostalgia can be encountered, the Museum is clearly compatible with modernisation, and is itself a contribution to the development of Northmavine as a modern place. Thus, the Museum is concurrently opposed to the un-reflexive self-confidence of the modern world, against the idea that everything modern is so smart and everything old so useless, and to the passivity that characterises nostalgia.

Chapter 5 Facts

"You need to think what went before to understand things now. ... You don't want to live in the past, but it is important to know how your grandparents lived." This comment was made by one of the younger members of the History Group, one quiet morning, after everyone else had left the house, and there was time to sit down by the kitchen table with a cup of tea. 'To think what went before' and 'to know how your grandparents lived' - I am quite convinced that such expressions reflect a genuine interest in what actually happened before, what life in fact was like in the past. And yet, it has become commonplace to talk of understandings of the past as merely, or mostly, expressing the concerns of the present. Indeed, Jean Baudrillard, when talking of collecting, has appropriated the following quotation:(22)

"[F]or the collector, the object is a sort of docile dog which receives caresses and returns them in its own way; or rather, reflects them like a mirror constructed in such a way as to throw back images not of the real but of the desirable." (1994, p. 10)

Objects of high age, old stories, faded photos - whatever fragments of past times still exist, are they quite unable to convey anything at all of what things were like once upon a time? Are we forever trapped in our own constructions, unable to see anything but what we want to see? I don't believe that to be the case. The past is of course gone, as Anders Johansen correctly points out:(23)

"If an object exists at all, it is an object of the present. It may be old, but its past is no longer to be found." (1989, p. 228)

Johansen stresses this rather obvious point to expose the trap that resides in objects, which is that they seem to give us the opportunity to experience the past (p. 228). That this is not in fact possible, does not mean that the images of the past that we piece together are arbitrary or so immersed in the present that they bear no relation to what once was, however. The past is indeed gone, and is not as such available in a museum, even if it is filled to the brim with old things. That is not to say that the images of the past found in museums do not have a relation to what actually happened in the past. In the absence of the past itself, a museum may thus do a fair job in representing it. Such, anyway, is the argument of the current chapter.


When Keesing questions the ways in which Pacific Islanders represent their past (see Introduction), he shows how their perceptions reflect the position they find themselves in as members of the modern world and the political struggle they are currently fighting when trying to influence that position. As a result, their perceptions say more about the modern world, including the colonisers of the Pacific, than they do about their actual past. The desirable ('wise ecologists') rather than the real (indigenous inequality) is what appears. Asking questions about the authenticity of representations of the past, or of practices that are claimed to be of some age, is legitimate and sometimes pertinent, as Keesing also argues. Keesing's approach is a constructivist one. I argued in the Introduction that applications of constructivism are misguided if they, by default, so to speak, discredit representations of the past. Foucault's discursive approach can also be regarded as constructivism. He discusses the formation of objects of knowledge (madness, sexuality, the self), and shows how the constructed objects become real, much in the way that Berger and Luckmann proposed in their classic formulation of constructivism (1971). However, as Foucault said, to document the ways in which objects of knowledge come into being, does not imply a denial of the empirical reference of discourse, that is, the reality to which discourse refers; rather, it illuminates the ways in which that reality takes shape also through discourse.

The issue of the relation between the social and the material, the subjective and the objective, fiction and fact, the cultural and the natural, has repeatedly resurfaced in social science. Currently the problem presenting itself seems to be how one can uphold the existence of both simultaneously. This is not a new problem. A classic formulation is that offered by Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach:

"The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that the thing [Gegenstand], reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object [Objekt] or of contemplation [Anschauung], but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively." (1969, p. 283)

This concern - the concern that the subjective and objective dimensions of reality should both be grasped - is not present in an extreme version of constructivism. The cultural or social is then bracketed off, as if it belonged to a quite separate realm from natural phenomena, the latter assumed to be universal, and thus opposed to the cultural, which is marked by diversity, relativity.

Increasingly, however, the concern with conceptualising the world in such a way that both its subjective and objective characteristics are grasped simultaneously has resurfaced, as it does in the work of Bruno Latour. In We Have Never Been Modern (1993), he criticises the propensity for people in the modern world to conceive of phenomena always as either cultural or natural, either objective or subjective. Addressing cultural relativism specifically, he states:

"The relativists have never been convincing on the subject of the equality of cultures, since they limit their consideration precisely to cultures. And nature? According to them, it is the same for all, since universal science defines it." (p. 106) "[T]he very notion of culture is an artefact created by bracketing Nature off. Cultures - different or universal - do not exist, any more than Nature does. There are only natures-cultures, and these offer the only possible basis for comparison." (p. 104) "It is as impossible to universalize nature as it is to reduce it to the narrow framework of cultural relativism alone." (p. 106) (original emphases removed)

Latour's book traces the origins of the divide between the social and the natural, the subject and the object, in the work of Hobbes and Boyle in the seventeenth century. The subject appeared in the form of Hobbes' notion of the citizen, the object in the form of Boyle's facts produced in a laboratory. It would be going too far to retrace all of Latour's steps. It should be possible to accept his thesis that the insistence on the separability of the cultural and the natural is characteristic of the moderns, manifest as it is in such things as the organisation of knowledge, even on the most basic level, into social and natural sciences. In contrast to this, the pre-moderns devote themselves to conceiving of natures-cultures, hybrids that do not know the limits of the ontological zones created by the moderns (p. 41).

However, the separability of the natural and the social is, according to Latour, an illusion, a creation on the part of the moderns. In reality the two are mixed: The production of facts in the laboratory is intimately linked with the social; similarly, the social is connected with the natural. The pre-moderns recognise the hybrid nature of the world, and because they constantly keep an eye on the hybrids, they are able to control them. The moderns for their part uphold their illusion, as expressed in the divide between the natural and the social, and the processes of hybridisation are thus allowed to evolve unhampered. As a result, the moderns can present products that far bypass those of the pre-moderns in their complexity. Thus, two sets of practices have come to characterise the modern condition:

"The first set of practices, by 'translation', creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture. The second, by 'purification', creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on the one hand; that of nonhumans on the other." (p. 10f)

The more intensely the work of purification is pursued, the more fervently we insist on the separability of the natural and the cultural, the more unhampered the translation will be. Only when the existence of hybrids is denied, and the work of translation becomes invisible, can the hybrids evolve freely (p. 12).

While the separation of the natural and the social has been the strength of the modern world, allowing for the creation of the most spectacular products, it is also its curse, as total blindness toward the work of mediation means there is no available mechanism of control. Among the hybrids the most terrifying monsters are, accordingly, allowed to multiply. Atomic bombs and the hegemony of the rich countries of the world are only two examples. The former could be developed because of an insistence on the purity of science, the latter are allowed to reign because of ignorance of the material basis of their power.

The ideology implied in the work of purification has thus a vital bearing on people's lives. For human beings are of this world, and have no choice but to relate to a disorderly world of mediation, including its monsters. The reality that people find themselves in is a reality that consists through and through of mixtures, mediations, hybrids. This is the point behind the title of Latour's book: We Have Never Been Modern. For the representation propagated by the true modernists - that everything is ordered into distinct categories: natural or social, fact or value - does not hold true. The only sense in which we have indeed been modern, Latour asserts, is to the extent that we have believed in the illusion of the separability of those categories.

While it remains true that any perception of the past will be marked by the position from which it is conceived, that it will be subjective, it may at the same time be factual, objective.(24) This will be the case with any version of history, true or false, to the extent that it is widely accepted: Constructions become facts, as Berger and Luckmann argued (1971). While this represents the heritage from Durkheim, Latour's argument is also in line with the other aspect of Berger and Luckmann's thesis, that derived from Weber: It is not merely a matter of cultural constructions becoming facts in the world; the cultural constructions themselves rely on something factual. Or, as Marx wrote in the Eighteenth Brumaire: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please" (quoted in Blok 1992, p. 121). Marx did not talk of constructions of the past, of course, but of the making of the present. What is conveyed in this quote is the notion that there are many kinds of circumstances over which one has no influence, and of which one may not even be aware. The 'making' of history, or the 'construction' of social reality, is thus a tenacious affair: One is not free to mould reality as one pleases. One can try to do so, but may meet with a great deal of resistance.

When it comes to perceptions of the past, the past is no longer able to offer the same amount of resistance. Still, to the extent that old stories, old tools, old buildings are preserved, and these are actively related to, they do offer a certain amount of resistance. No doubt, we could come up with numerous examples of how the same pieces of evidence have been used to argue completely opposite cases. Sometimes, one or the other will even have been proved to be untrue. However, sometimes, such opposed versions may result from the fact that also in the past there were different histories (cf. Hastrup 1992), people constructed their lives in different ways. This possibility should be considered when it comes to community history museums. If the perceptions of the past found, for instance in Northmavine, are different from those found in the scholarly literature, perhaps this reflects the existence of multiple histories in the past. Perhaps it is true that people were dependent; that is not to say that they were not also inventive. Perhaps it is true that people were poor, but they may still have been resourceful in terms of creativity or community.

An alternative way of formulating this point is along the lines of Sinding-Larsen's approach. He employs the expression 'externalisation of knowledge' to denote something which in other contexts is often labelled 'artificial', namely, computer technology. In a parallel manner to speech, writing or computers, museums constitute ways of externalising knowledge. In principle, the resulting knowledge, although obviously mediated by the form of its externalisation (in our case, museum exhibitions), is in principle as authentic as any other form of knowledge. Such processes of externalisation, rather, make up part of our being in the world. That the social, cultural or even personal bindings of that knowledge can be traced, does not imply that it is not valid, even if the question of validity is a legitimate one. However, as the processes of externalisation are internal to our being in the world, they must not be regarded intrinsically as distortive of the true state of reality. To construct the world, past or present, is something we have no choice but to do; our natures-cultures commit us to so doing.(25)

Tangwick Haa Museum: facts and constructions

When discussing the interest in local history from the perspective of power, the subjective or constructed character of the past is made explicit. Attention is drawn to the ways in which the past is constituted and how the present influences what the past comes to look like. In the Tangwick Haa Museum this is seen in the way the present concern with change is reflected in the perception of the past. The processes of modernisation are reflected in the exhibitions in at least two different ways. Firstly, by occasionally stressing change as a feature of the present, a sense of relative stability in former times is created. Secondly, in a more subtle, but also more overall way, impressions of modernisation are mirrored in such impressions of the past as those that stress activity, skill and ingenuity. Thus, modernisation not only serves as a counter to the past, but also as a mirror for it.

While it is true that the exhibitions delineate the past in a specific way, imbue it with specific qualities, this does not imply that the represented past bears no likeness to the actual past. Rather, such things as the open attitude with which evidence of past times is approached, coupled with the concern with accuracy, certainly suggest that the Museum should be capable of avoiding the trap of merely constantly confirming preconceived notions of local history. Also, the past, through its remains, they be material or immaterial, offers up resistance. The extent to which it offers resistance varies,(26) depending on the attitude to evidence of past times and the willingness to adjust preconceived views. Increasingly, it has been suggested that social scientists, in the effort to find ways of conceptualising change and variation, have perhaps overlooked the sources of tenacity and inflexibility in human life. Perhaps, also, this goes for the effort to understand the shifting perceptions of the past. Although it is of vital importance to recognise the ways in which perceptions of the past are grounded in the present, and thus necessarily subjective and fluid, it should be recognised that the existence of historical evidence provides at least a possibility for transcending present concerns, to link up with the actual events and concerns of the past.

Thus, that the present is reflected in how the past is approached, does not mean that the perceptions of the past communicated in the museum exhibitions and people's ways of talking about the old times are distorted. It just means that they reflect specific perspectives, specific positions. And the fact that the past is mediated (see p. 41), does not mean it is devoid of facts; it only means that it is a product of fact and sociality alike. Moreover, any version of the past will be thus positioned, informed by the place from which it is conceived. Thus, the construction of science as something which is devoid of power, is itself a move in a power game. For, the versions of the past that portray people as poor and backward are as deeply positioned as those that portray people as skillful and creative. Putting perceptions of the past on an equal footing, regardless of whether they are backed by formal scholarship or not, raises the question of legitimacy. That is to say that any version of the past, however it is positioned, must be subjected to the same criteria of evaluation to determine whether the objects and stories preserved, and the perceptions produced, adequately represent the past.(27)

The institutional framework

To conclude this chapter I will discuss some implications of the preceding analysis of relevance for the institutions outside Northmavine who in one way or another are involved with the community history museums.

The community history museums in Shetland receive their funding from the Shetland Amenity Trust. The Amenity Trust work according to the Interpretive Plan for Shetland, a plan mainly concerned with interpretation for visitors. In addition to the funding of running costs, they support community history through financing restoration of the buildings that house the museums or heritage centres. Their policy regarding the choice of buildings is that they should be of 'heritage quality', which sometimes means embarking on projects without the co-operation of a history group, while some groups may have difficulties securing funding for their projects. While this is vital in those instances where the Amenity Trust and a history group disagree on the choice of venue, it works to the advantage of many groups, such as the one in Northmavine, as the Tangwick Haa is a listed building. The Amenity Trust is also concerned with co-ordinating 'interpretive facilities' in Shetland generally. This may guide their choice of restoration projects, and it may involve making suggestions to history groups. With regard to the history groups, however, and certainly the one in Northmavine, there is no direct involvement with the work they carry out, beyond funding. The Trust does not employ anyone with special competence on museums, and thus leaves recommendations to the other bodies responsible for museums in Shetland. This means, on the one hand, the Shetland Islands Council (S.I.C.) and their Section Leader for Museums, Arts, Archives and Tourism, and on the other hand, the Shetland Museum. The Shetland Museum has the responsibility for organising the Museums Forum, an organisation that is meant to facilitate communication between different museums in Shetland. When I was last in Shetland the Forum was dormant, however. As for the Section Leader for Museums at the S.I.C., his involvement with the community history museums was mostly limited to advice and assistance in the process of registering with the Museums and Galleries Commission, which launched a Registration Scheme for museums in the U.K. in 1988. In reality, then, when it comes to the running of the community history museums, the history groups or trusts formed to manage the museums are largely independent. Certainly this was the case in Northmavine. Beyond the fact that the Shetland Amenity Trust has actually provided Tangwick Haa Museum with funding for restoration of the building and running costs for the Museum, involvement with outside bodies consists mainly in the implementation of the Registration Scheme.

During the life-span of the Northmavine History Group a development has taken place from a situation where the main activity of the Group was related to the discovery and recording of the history of Northmavine, to a situation where artefacts occupy an increasingly central position. One of the members, while telling me about the early period of the Group's existence, interrupted her descriptive account, with the observation: "It is a fact that once the Museum got going properly the recording stopped. Now we gain in artefacts but lose the history." And much is in fact lost, as old people die, their memories disappearing with them. A curator at the Shetland Museum in Lerwick remarked that the community history museums have "destroyed the social history", through being too concerned with the objects, while the stories that go with them are neglected.

I have mentioned that the origins of the history groups in Shetland can be traced back to the Community History Project and the oral history movement in Britain. Oral history is about documenting those facets of history that do not leave material manifestations, that are not embodied in objects. The oral history movement was founded on the assumption that the history of parts of the population (the working class, women) does not leave as many material traces as other parts. A parallel concern was found among members of the Northmavine History Group, as many pointed out that not enough recording was being done. Although the Museum is about facts, it should be remembered that it does make a difference what kind of facts it is about: those embodied in material manifestations, or those that can only be established through revisiting immaterial sources.

The establishment of Tangwick Haa Museum was decisive in creating a stronger orientation toward objects. This development is in effect encouraged by the S.I.C., as their Section Leader for Museums mainly focuses his work with regard to the community history museums on having them registered. Hewison comments on the Registration Scheme in his book The Heritage Industry, and asserts that,

"the Commission will be in a position to decide what a museum is. By defining its standards, it will be defining its meaning." (1987, p. 88)

The Registration Scheme amounts to an attempt to streamline the museum world, to make 'good collectors' out of amateur museum people. The Scheme's requirements include the adoption of a Collection Management Policy, the appointment of a curator, and labelling and cataloguing of objects. The implicit intentions include such concerns as clear-cut ownership and responsibility for materials held by museums, and furthermore, the securing of the authenticity of the materials. In this a notion of what constitutes a fact, or how facts may be produced, is reflected. The Scheme is supported by the major museum funding agencies in the U.K., and there is an explicit threat to withdraw public funding if the requirements are not met within a specified period of time.

The Registration Scheme is meant to implement what the Museum and Galleries Commission sees as good collection practices. A good collector is someone who relates to objects in a specific way, as James Clifford has pointed out:

"If the passion is for Egyptian figurines, the collector will be expected to label them, to know their dynasty (it is not enough that they simply exude power or mystery), to tell 'interesting' things about them, to distinguish copies from originals. The good collector (opposed to the obsessive, the miser) is tasteful and systematic. Accumulation unfolds in a pedagogical, edifying manner. The collection itself, its taxonomic, aesthetic structure, is valued." (1985, p. 238f)

The Registration Scheme, by introducing its set of 'minimum standards', enforces a particular way of relating to objects with economic sanctions. Although the requirements of the Scheme are modest in comparison with what is conventional in larger museums, the Scheme actually relates to the variety of small museums that have mushroomed all over the country in such a way that they are forced or enticed into developing the same kind of relationship to objects as the larger, professional institutions. In addition to the fact that the increased workload and amount of bureaucracy involved in implementation of the Registration Scheme takes a toll on the enthusiasm of the many volunteers, the Scheme treats the small museums as if they were basically of the same kind as the larger institutions. Also, as I have argued in previous chapters, there is in fact a concern with authenticity in the Museum, although their standards are not the same as those of the Museum and Galleries Commission. Considering that this is a concern that all involved parties seem to share, the question in the current context is rather whether other sources of factuality but those in effect privileged by the Registration Scheme could be considered equally, or more, vital.


The community history museums in Shetland have been developed in an atmosphere of disparate attitudes regarding modernisation. A widespread optimism and confidence concerning the future of the isles prevails, following the favourable economic development of recent decades. However, while modernisation implies renewal and innovation, it also causes disruption and destruction. The establishment of the museums is inspired by a felt need to retain some evidence of the old ways.

Although modernisation may disrupt all sorts of memory - physical, social, cognitive - it is the loss of those forms whose continuity is secured through use that people expressed most concern about, notably old stories and practical skills. A critical distinction between different modes of memory is that of their durability. While the durability of such things as physical objects or written documents is largely dependent on their physical characteristics, memories that are sustained through human practice (stories, skills) depend on cultural and social context for their continuity. In recognition of the fact that things have indeed changed, the establishment of the Tangwick Haa Museum represents a pragmatic way of retaining some evidence of past times.

The collection and exhibitions of the Museum focus largely on the parish of Northmavine, and displays are typically organised around forms of activity: the trades and industries that have been practiced in the past, domestic and community life, creativity. This promotes images of the past that counter those of backwardness and decline. At the same time, I have argued that the exhibitions remain open to diverse interpretations due to the discreet interpretation and unassertive context provided for displays. Also, there is a genuine concern with authenticity. These factors together represent a counterpoint to the one-sided perceptions of the past that emphasise the Scandinavian influence on Shetland, in allowing for more nuanced and multifaceted perceptions.

The effects that the Museum has on the present are derived from these features of the exhibitions - features which foster a perception of a place that, in past and present times, possesses a vitality that is evidenced alongside economic and demographic decline. Also, the Museum's effects stem from its being a locus of activity, allowing people to come together to talk or learn about the old days, and providing them with a place where some of the outcomes of the process of delving into the past may be communicated more widely. Both through increasing the consciousness of Northmavine as a viable community and by itself being a centre of activity, Tangwick Haa Museum resists the trend toward centralisation. In this respect the Museum is comparable to other innovations in the area. Rather than resisting change, the Museum thus influences the course of change.

Lastly, the fact that the images of the past found in the Museum are deeply immersed in the present, does not imply that they do not reflect past realities. People relate to the past in diverse and multifaceted ways and although the passing of the old ways for some may be cause for regret, there is also an openness toward the past and a concern that it be fairly represented. Such things as the knowledge that the people involved in the Museum possess and their close association with the place that the exhibitions are intended to represent provide possible sources of factuality or objectivity that must not be disregarded.

Amidst an atmosphere of change, Tangwick Haa Museum stands out as a modern response to modern transitions. Although nostalgia may be felt for certain lost aspects of past times, the Museum does not simply dwell on the old ways, it provides the local community with a centre of activity and an opportunity to reminisce and learn about the old times. There exists extensive documentation of how the past in the most diverse parts of the world is called upon in support of various political projects. This is a matter that should inspire considerable concern. But perhaps the gravity of the situation is reason to consider more closely the many ways of relating to the past that after all exist. People who are simply interested in the ways of their forebears, or who are otherwise trying to learn about earlier times, recent or ancient, may then provide interesting perspectives.

Perhaps the most promising vision of the importance of history can be derived from what a woman in Unst once said with reference to her involvement in the local history group: "I think there is just always something so surprising about it. It's never predictable."


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1. See for instance Stocking (1985), Karp and Lavine (1991) and Macdonald and Fyfe (1996).

2. A recent example is Thomas Hylland Eriksen's book Kampen om fortiden: Et essay om myter identitet og politikk (1996). Later in the Introduction, I discuss a book of more direct relevance for the British context, The Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline, by Robert Hewison (1987).

3. The Museums and Galleries Commission was first set up in 1931 as an advisory body. It has since grown in authority and influence and, backed by administrative and financial powers, its remit now extends far beyond advising the government on museum issues (Hewison 1987, p. 87f).

4. The reputation of the ethnographic present has later been partially restored, as there has been a recognition of its advantages as a style of writing (see e.g. Nielsen 1996, p. 80 and Eriksen 1993, p. 34f).

5. This is not in itself problematic. Jacques Derrida has denied that even deconstruction proper offers a questioning as its end product:

"I would say that deconstruction is affirmation rather than questioning, in a sense which is not positive: I would distinguish between the positive, or positions, and affirmations. I think that deconstruction is affirmative rather than questioning; this affirmation goes through some radical questioning, but is not questioning in the final analysis." (Quoted in Salusinszky 1987, p. 9)

6. The reference given for this quote is Emile Durkheim, The Rules of the Sociological Method, Chicago: Free Press, 1950; London: Collier-Macmillan, p. 14.

7. The reference given is Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, New York: O.U.P., 1947, p. 101.

8. The Trust consists of five members of the History Group, and one representative each of the Northmavine Community Council and the Shetland Museum.

9. The Amenity Trust secured funding for restoration of the Old Haa of Tangwick and several other older buildings through the Manpower Services Commission, a scheme launched by the Government in the mid-eighties to employ young people out of work.

10. From 1931 to 1951 the population of Shetland fell by 1,779 people, from 21,131 to 19,352, whereas in the decade from 1951 to 1961 the drop was 1,540, bringing the total down to 17,812 people. The population continued decreasing in the 60s, although at a slower pace - by 1971 the total had come down by 485 to 17,327. Northmavine experienced a very steep reduction in the same period - a total population of 1,343 in 1931 had come down to 1,054 in 1951, to 816 in 1961 and to 696 in 1971, only slightly over half the number of people who had lived in the area 40 years previously (S.I.C. 1995).

11. The total population of Shetland rose by 5,439 in a decade, from 17,327 in 1971 to 22,766 in 1981, and has later stabilised at a somewhat lower level. In Northmavine there was a rise from 696 in 1971 to 898 people in 1981 (S.I.C. 1995).

12. The term 'way of life' is much used in Shetland. Andrew Ratter has pointed out its origins in the late nineteenth century. In association with the formation of an urban bourgeoisie in Lerwick at the time, "a mythology of a Shetland way of life" was born (1985, p. 135). The processes that led to the formation of this myth is the subject of a thesis by Bronwen Cohen (1983), which I discuss in Chapter 4.

13. One indicator of the relatively healthy state of the Shetland economy is the level of unemployment: In 1994 the figure for Shetland was 3.2%, while the average unemployment in Scotland was 9.7%, in 1993 the comparable figures were 4.1 and 9.5% respectively, and in 1992 Shetland had 3.6% unemployed as compared to Scotland's 9.1% (S.I.C. 1995).

14. Approximately one third of Shetland's population now lives in the island capital of Lerwick, where much business and industry is based. The total population of Shetland numbered 22,522 in 1991, while the population of Lerwick at the same time was 7,336. The permanent workforce at the Sullom Voe terminal was 1,110 in 1991, but had dropped to 862 by 1994 (S.I.C. 1995).

15. Finnie describes the development of the croft houses in Shetland thus:

"By the early 19th century, the longhouse was being replaced by cottages with low stone walls, and turf and straw-covered roofs. These cottages housed an increasing population on subdivided parcels of land provided by landlords, whose prime concern was labour to man their fishing boats and curing beaches. The 19th-century arrangement consisted, typically, of house, barn and byre in two oblong buildings, parallel and attached to each other with the entrance through the byre. Fires were in the beaten earth floor, smoke escaping through holes in the roof. From the mid-1800s, wall heads were often heightened to accommodate attic rooms (with rooflights rather than dormers), gable chimneys added, windows replaced holes in the roof and the interiors were given timber floors and lined walls. Wood and tarred felt began to replace thatch, slate being reserved for the wealthy and the church. Shetland was left with a range of buildings which were not to undergo major changes until new-found prosperity in the 1970s." (1990, p. 3)

16. The title refers to the geographical area otherwise known as Northmavine.

17. A Hanseatic booth has been restored in Whalsay and serves as a museum, but rather than serving as a community history museum it has a permanent display on the Shetland-Hanseatic trade. Cohen notes that "its proposed conversion into a museum for the display of local artefacts, did not excite any noticeable enthusiasm" (1987, p. 135).

18. Nort Aboot, No. 35, Sept. 1983.

19. "[B]etween 1780 and 1850, practically one year in four was a famine year, with particularly bad series of seasons in 1782-84, 1802-04, 1835-38 and 1846-49." (Smith 1984, p. 137)

20. Thus, both speech and writing belong to what Ferdinand de Saussure called 'parole', as opposed to 'langue' - the latter being the atemporal linguistic systems or codes, upon which any linguistic event or usage is based (Ricoeur 1971, p. 530).

21. Originally: "det å forholde seg til noe ytre (eksternt) for å organisere sine tanker og handlinger."

22. Baudrillard is quoting Maurice Rheims' La Vie étrange des objets (Paris, 1956, p. 50).

23. Originally: "Dersom ein ting i det heile eksisterer, er han ein notidig ting. Han kan vere gammal, men fortida hans finst ikkje meir."

24. In "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective" (1991), Donna J. Haraway presents an analysis that is interesting in this context. In her argument, she discredits those claims to knowledge that do not position themselves - they are unlocatable, i.e. irresponsible, unable to be called to account. It is thus in critical positioning that the only possibility of objectivity lies.

25. Again, this is not to say that the constructions we come up with are 'true', 'reasonable', 'just', 'good'. As Roy Rappaport reminds us, lying is a specific human capability, made possible by the evolution of symbolic communication among primates:

"While there may be some use of symbols by nonhuman animals, the reliance of humans upon symbols surpasses by magnitudes any rudimentary use of symbols by other species, and therefore lying is essentially a human problem." (Rappaport 1979, p. 226)

26. If the past does not offer resistance at all, we enter the realm of fiction, where the issue of factuality takes on a different dimension. It does not disappear, however. Speculatively, one could say that although the kinds of 'mythical' accounts of the past that Keesing discusses may not be very valuable in documenting actual, historical times, they may still be capable of communicating other truths. There is a problem, of course, when they claim to be historical truths, as Keesing recognises. Thomas Hylland Eriksen has argued that such mixing of mythical and mechanical time amounts to an epistemological mistake, a confusion of different levels (1986, p. 47).

27. This argument concerning legitimacy runs parallel to that set forth recently by Trude Borch with regard to differing perspectives on environmental problems on Svalbard, whether based on scientific discourse or grassroots perspectives (1997, pp. 134-8).