What Is Meant By The Politics Of Representation English Literature Essay

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This definition highlights the power struggle as the fundamental nature of politics; how it is exercised and allocated. Politics is relational, it is concerned with the interaction between individuals and groups and the power relations that exist between them (Wenden 2005: 2). In Foucault's 'Discourse Theory' it is highlighted that power circulates and is negotiated through discourse, in other words, it is produced by language. However, discourse can also be the focus of struggle; the struggle for the power to influence a story or idea. (Hall, 1997: 43)

If, as Foucault suggests, language is central to the process by which meaning is produced and culture is infused in these processes, it must influence how stories are told in museums (Hall 1997: 2). Thompson (1997: 4) emphasised how 'meanings regulate and organise our conduct and practices.' Therefore, for those individuals and groups who want to govern conduct, or in this particular case, represent stories or ideas, they must create meaning (Hall 1997:2). Of course modes of representation will vary depending on the perspective from which they are constructed. Different ideologies and beliefs will also influence the manner in which groups represent matters of particular importance or relevance and can cause competition among groups when it comes to being considered as the correct, appropriate or preferred representation (Wenden 2005:2).

It is this competition over meaning amongst differing groups, referred to as the 'politics of representation' that can be practiced through the use of language. We can draw on Marshall McLuhan's discourse 'the medium is the message' by using museum as the medium, as exhibitions can also be thought of as 'a language' as it uses objects on display to produce or influence certain meanings about the subject matter (McLuhan, 1967: 8) in this case, the original Anne Frank story.

The concept of a museum as an educational institution has been changing in the latter half of the 20th century. The museum is in the process of shifting from a place that produces knowledge rather than promotes knowledge (van Aalst, 2002:1). Hooper-Greenville mentions how the museum buildings has become designed for the objects they 'imprison' rather than for the public that visits them (Lumley, 1988:9) This awareness by the public that has brought the 'politics of representation' into question.

Anne Frank Museum

During our visit to the AFM in Amsterdam we were to observe and analyse the process of and politics of representation, as they are manifested in the museum. I would like to focus on different groups and their power to influence the telling the Anne Frank story, hence how the politics of representation influences what we see in this museum.

As the title of the museum guide booklet suggests, the Anne Frank Museum is 'A Museum with a Story': the story of a young Jewish girl during the Second World War in Amsterdam. The story is told through a diary that Anne Frank kept during the time in hiding and was found in the house where the Frank family had lived whilst in isolation from the German Nazi's in the 1940's (Frank 1997). The story is being told as a unique example of the mass suffering that millions endured during the Second World War. It is something that wants to be avoided in the future.

The Building

Standing outside the Museum I noticed how Anne Frank's house blended into the surrounding buildings, it was very difficult to differentiate the house from others on the street. I realised how easy it would be to walk past this building without noticing anything different. This was effective as it transported me back to the time when Anne Frank lived there, when the Germans would've walked past without any suspicion, as I did now. It was almost as if I were recreating history.

A significant way in which the power of influence over the Anne Frank story is noted is through the original building. As Hooperfield-Greenhill (1994: 84) mentioned, a museums buildings and grounds affect the museum experience. Prinsengracht 263 is a very old building and has a special historical significance as it tells the visitor about the Anne Frank story. Otto was part of a team that created the Anne Frank Foundation in order to restore the building as it was in terrible condition and under threat of being demolished by the Berghaus Textile Factory (Enzer & Solotaroff-Enzer 2000:224). Otto fought to keep the original location, as any other reconstruction would not have been authentic or helped to tell the story as effectively. The traditional building does not take away from the story being told, in fact it adds greatly to the story as it was what kept Anne Frank alive for so long thus Otto wanted the building to remain in order to keep her memory alive for longer. Besides the diary, the house was the only possession left that physically tied Otto to his past. However, had Otto chosen to build a new Museum, for example, a modern building like the recent Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Rampley 2005:103) it would have dramatically affected the visitors experience; as critic Walter Benjamin (Williams 2005: 103) asserted, it is more likely that we would've question it in a 'state of distraction' whereas we 'consumed the traditional building with due attention'. This illustrates neatly the power struggles between the Anne Frank Foundation, the Berghaus Textile Factory and Otto who eventually decided the location of this Museum as it is one of the few ways by which the Jewish suffering in Holland is represented materially, hence it is of great social significance. (Williams 2005:104)

The Diary

At the end of the exhibition the diary was displayed in the centre of the room in a glass case. The room also had displays of some of Anne's notes and different editions of her books all published in different languages. Many re-drafted notes were shown, as Anne Frank had wanted her diary to be turned into a book after the war. This display was authentic as the diary was located where the whole story had unravelled.

Considering the Anne Frank Museum is founded on the diary it is a crucial way to influence what story is being told. There have been various editions of the Anne Frank Diary: many of which have been altered by publishers and by her Father, Otto Frank. Publishers suggested to Otto to cut out certain writings about Anne Frank, which some audiences may not have approved of (Enzer & Solotaroff-Enzer 2000:2). The re-edited diary highlights the fact that it had been re (presented) from a different angle, possibly one that would conform to the mass majority view of what a fifteen year old girl should be like, therefore framed for audience consumption. The power to represent the diary in this way has caused much critique as it has been changed throughout its life. For example, before the release of its sixth edition in 1950 Otto cut out many passages he deemed too personal and had assigned pseudonyms to protect some identities let alone his own (Enzer & Solotaroff-Enzer 2000:2).The publishers and Otto have had the power to recreate history; the information made available to the viewer has been selective. Otto may have altered the diary to represent the family in a certain way. However, by omitting the parts from the original he may have taken away from the overall experience of the read. Not only this, but Anne Frank herself re-drafted diary entries after she found out that the Dutch Government were hoping to collect eye witness accounts of the suffering of the Dutch under the Germans. It is possible that she altered the diary or wrote differently which would result in a different representation of the diary. The power to influence the diary alone directly alters the individual's reception of the Anne Frank story in the museum.

The Use of Space

The route taken through the AFM as constructed so as to lead the visitor through the rooms of the Frank Family home- in what happened to be a chronological experience. It was as if you were going, like Anne, into hiding yourself, you started at the warehouse and then into the Annex. This made me imagine how cramped it must have been. It then became clear to me that the only thing that separated me from Anne's experience at this point was time, not space. Throughout the route there were quotes on the wall, which gave the illusion that Anne was your tour guide, leading the way and telling her story, almost as if she had constructed it herself. Exiting the dark, quiet Annex I walked through a crossing from the Annex to the building next door and was met with a metal, sterile floor and fluorescent lights. I felt as though I was moving from a private, confined space to a very public, open space. I felt slightly unsure and exposed as I walked through the room which showed videos of the outcome of the Frank family in the Annex, and also of the other people who experienced the same fate as Anne. The bright room took me from a personal sadness to something much bigger, as I realised the scale of this pain was more than I could have imagined.

An important way in which influence over the Anne Frank story was sought was through the use of space. The fact that the route was already constructed for the visitor leads you to question why the visitor does not have unlimited access to all areas of the museum. Following a rigid route only allows the visitor to interpret this part of history in a certain way, a way in which somebody else thought most effective for them to experience (Karp 1990:12) The representation of the story through the use of space has been influenced by the cultural assumptions and resources of the curators who constructed it (Karp 1990: 13). The fact that the route was structured, allowed the visitor to engage more with Anne's story and perhaps override their own cultural distance (Hooper-Greenhill 1994). However, the way in which the story was told may not have been how Anne would have told it, had she survived. The curators therefore had to interpret how they think Anne would've wanted it which would alter the story being told before they have even represented it to the public.

The quotes on the wall throughout the route reinforce the idea that Anne Frank is present and is telling her own personal story. However, it is the curators telling the story. This is similar to the JFK Museum in Boston, where his own words are used to tell his story also. The curators have the power to influence the story by manipulating the use of space and the ability to recreate Anne's presence in the museum, when it is not physically there.

The Objects

There were few objects in the museum and the objects that were on display were selective, from postcards to pencil markings. Each was placed in a clear, well lit glass box at chest height on the walls. I found myself wanting to study all of the objects on display, and running my hands along the walls as I walked through, I had a longing to be connected to that time and this was the only sense that had not been met. The lack of furniture at first took me by surprise, however, there were plaques on the wall describing the room and showing pictures of what it looked like, I felt that the Annex became my own personal experience as I had to imagine what it would be like, I had to recreate the use of the space internally and this impersonalised my experience.

The selected items displayed in the Anne Frank Museum were one further element in the range of ways of telling the original Anne Frank story. The objects were chosen by the curators to influence our perception of the area. We would like to think that museums are entirely objective representing a 'definitive' record of historical events but this is not the case. The museum curators have the power to influence exactly what the visitor can and cannot see, therefore helping to construct ideas about the object or exhibit. By only displaying a few, the museum had encouraged the visitor to look at the object in a certain way, thus made it in to an object of visual interest (Karp and Lavine, 1990: 25). Museum curators have the ability to directly affect our experience as they can impose their own unique meaning on the world, their own beliefs. For example, the labels that accompanied the display boxes did not describe the object, instead it described the curators thinking about the object, or that part of their thinking that he/she felt it to be their purpose to communicate to the viewer (Hooper-Greenhill, 1994: 115). As Rampley (2005:7) highlights, the ideology of power, both political and academic, engaged in both the collecting of objects and the taxonomic method of ordering them results in exhibition curators being in a position to have the power to influence our ideas not only on objects, but also the culture in which the object is derived from.


Having visited the AFM and examined the politics of representation I have identified the range of ways the power of influence of individuals and groups has altered the Anne Frank story. It is clear throughout that there are many bodies that influenced the museum experience; from museum curators to Otto Frank, to the external agencies who all wanted the power to influence. Despite the competition between groups and individuals in representing the story being told, the museum successfully shows Anne's haunting experience as I came away sympathising with her unfortunate circumstances. However, I believe that there is also a universal story of human suffering being told in this museum and that Anne Frank's story is used as an example to represent this. Once the visitor has engaged with Anne's story, then it is possible for the museum to convey a bigger picture and work towards preventing this happening in the future, which is the ultimate purpose of the Anne Frank story.