Painting Pasts and Futures: Transitional Justice, Museums, and Aesthetic Interruptions

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MacLellan, Tiffany




Stories about political transformation often suggest that a political community must acknowledge and grapple with its difficult past in order to move on to a sunnier future. This thesis explores the problems and possibilities of this narrative as projected in both transitional justice theory and the museum.

Several theorists in the field of transitional justice, like Ruti Teitel, Mark Osiel, and Kathryn Sikkink, organize moments of mass atrocity, transition, and the future into finite, bounded moments. By neatly confining "violence" to the past and "peace" to the future, these narratives conceptualize political communities on a clean trajectory of evolution towards democracy. As such, these theorists position criminal prosecutions, a central transitional justice mechanism, as a means through which a political community can return to, grapple with, and over-come a violent past. Here, post-war trials are figured as devices that deliver political community to a democratic order.

Political and cultural theorist, Walter Benjamin, describes discursive projections premised on notions of progress as a system that restrains, disciplines, and guides political transformation. Benjamin and Jacques Derrida claim that the violence of law's imposition and conservation is obscured by these very notions of sequential temporality which establish law as the means to projected and affective ends. I take inspiration from these thinkers and argue that transitional justice theory's "ends-oriented" rhetoric permits political communities and correlative state institutions to narrate themselves away from legacies of violence, and responsibility. Further, they attempt to foreclose the notion that political transformation is infinitely on-going.

Aesthetics sites, like the museum, may reaffirm the worlds crafted through transitional justice theory's organization of bounded time. As such, I examine three museum exhibitions in order to show how museums similarly organize time in a manner that confines periods of violence, transition, and democracy into bounded temporalities: "Memorium Nuremberg Trials" (Nuremberg, Germany); "The Nuremberg Trials: What is Justice?" The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington DC, US), and; "On Trial: Auschwitz/Majdanek," Jewish Museum (Berlin, Germany). Yet the time of transitional justice projected in these exhibitions is not totalizing, and is infinitely vulnerable to spatial, material, and aesthetic disruption.






Carleton University

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Doctor of Philosophy: 

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Legal Studies

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Theses and Dissertations

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