The Object of History and The History of Objects
by Carol Dougherty, 1994
“(My history) is to be a possession for all time rather than an attempt to please popular taste.” Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.22
“The British say they have saved the Marbles. Well, thank you very much. Now give them back.” Melina Mercouri, Greek Minister of Culture, asking the British government to return the Elgin Marbles to Athens, The London Times, May 22, 1983
When Thucydides wrote his famous history of the Peloponnesian Wars, he not only produced a masterful account of the monumental conflict between Athens and Sparta at the end of the fifth century B.C.E., he also shaped the way we have come to define history—as factual, impartial, and objective. Furthermore, disdaining immediate public approval, Thucydides wanted to create “a possession for all time,” and it is precisely this choice of metaphor that has produced our now pervasive view of “history” as an object of value, something that can be owned and appropriated like the famous Elgin marbles that once stood upon the Parthenon. Today’s academic journals and editorial
pages, for example, are full of battles over “the stolen legacy” of the ancient Mediterranean—were the Egyptians black? Have northern Europeans suppressed valuable and influential contributions to intellectual and cultural life made by ancient Egyptians? Did the Greeks borrow from the Egyptians or vice versa? These debates stem in large part from Thucydides’s success in packaging the past as a metaphorical commodity. He has given us the very language to describe history as “mine” or “yours,” as an artifact in danger of being stolen, in need of being defended, demanding to be regained.
Lorraine O’Grady also uses valuable—and thus contested — artifacts to explore the relationship between ancient Egypt and contemporary America in her work Miscegenated Family Album. In a series of sixteen diptychs, she matches photographs of twentieth-century African-American women (members of her own family) with published photographs of ancient Egyptian sculpture. Although not an historian, O’Grady reminds us of a very different way of casting the relationship between objects and history. ( … )