Obscured Heritage: remembering the histories that History forgot

By Lindsay Menachemi

A skeleton in the closet. An elephant in the room. Why do we have so many idioms for hiding the truth?  Sometimes, seeing the truth of things can hurt, or make us feel uncomfortable, and our natural tendency is to shy away from that which reveals some darkness about ourselves. But just because something is unpleasant, doesn’t mean it should remain unexamined. The discipline of Library and Information Science traditionally holds that transparency – representing unfettered history – has inherent value to society. Schwartz and Cook (2002) posited that those who control archives control the historical narrative (p. 17).  Therefore, it’s essential that LIS professionals promote transparency with an eye to the power inherent in their position, and wield it to society’s greater advantage.

As we look at instances where LIS professionals can contribute value, ‘difficult heritage’ is an integral concept. Sharon Macdonald (2016) explains it as “rather than emphasizing times of the nation’s glorious achievement…times of evil wrong-doing that did no evident credit to a positive national identity.” (p. 6) Examples of difficult heritage come painfully but freely — the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the slave trade in the U.S. But what about obscured heritage – histories that were intentionally created to serve a rosier self-image? Do LIS professionals have a responsibility to put on their detective hats and actively uncover and curate these hidden narratives? Furthermore, if they don’t take an active role, are they not furthering the agenda of those who buried the truth, by becoming unconscious participants in its secrecy?

Certainly, uncovering alternative history is not an easy task. Hidden heritage is by definition difficult to find, and the history of Hawaii is no exception.  In 1898, the U.S. attempted to annex the sovereign nation of Hawai’i through a Joint Resolution of Congress.  It is not only a common belief that the joint resolution successfully achieved this annexation, but is the “official view of the U.S. with respect to the status of Hawaii.” (Chang, 2015, p. 71) However, under domestic U.S. law, it was (and still is) illegal to annex a sovereign nation using a joint resolution: “Only a Treaty could annex Hawaii.  The Treaty of 1897 was never ratified by the United States.  Annexation by resolution was unconstitutional.” (Chang, 2015, p. 74) This massive deception is one that many American citizens and native Hawaiians are still fooled by. In February 2015, Supreme Court Justice Scalia, “implied that Hawaii was just another colony of Spain, taken in the Spanish-American War, like the Philippines and Puerto Rico.” (Chang, 2015, p. 77) It therefore may not surprise the reader that no museum in Hawaii has dedicated an exhibit to this difficult heritage, much of which was fueled by financial gain, and geopolitical and military strategy.  Even today the U.S. government has not apologized or admitted its shameful past to the Native Hawaiian people. Williamson Chang, a Harvard Law professor and native Hawaiian, has done much of the legwork in uncovering this century-old lie. He was armed with an education and a hunger for the truth about his nation’s past. Why can’t museums or archives represent this very legal (albeit contentious) truth? Is fear of controversy worth restricting knowledge of this injustice?

Thoughtful, considered representation of a difficult and previously obscured past is possible. At Te Papa museum in New Zealand, a permanent exhibit showcases two versions of The Treaty of Waitangi. Written in English and translated into Māori (the language and people of native New Zealand), the treaty was signed in 1840 by a consortium of Māori chieftains and representatives of the British Empire. The treaty is widely considered to be the founding of the country of New Zealand, and essentially gave the Queen of England sovereignty over New Zealand in exchange for the chieftains’ “exclusive and undistributed possession of their Lands, Estates, Forests…and properties.” (Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2017) However, many believe that the Māori did not fully understand the language of the treaty they were signing, and that the word choices used by the British were not translated accurately. For example, unlike the British, “traditional Māori society did not have a concept of absolute ownership of land.” (McAloon, 2008) There isn’t enough room in this post to discuss the specifics of these troublesome and misleading word choices. However, the Te Papa museum put together a brilliant exhibit to showcase the dichotomy. The main exhibit displays large, dramatic versions of the treaty in both the Māori and English languages for visitors to explore with a critical eye. It also presents both treaties with the concerns that modern Māori people have expressed, and the context of events leading up to the treaty signing. It leaves it to the visitor to analyze both narratives and walk away from Te Papa with their own opinion. By taking a page from Heidi L.M. Jacobs, the museum curators are “teaching the conflicts” (Jacobs, 2010, p. 186), asking themselves, their colleagues and their patrons to examine the exhibits for “evidence of struggle over the right to tell the truth.” (Drabinski, 2013, p. 108)

Treaty of Waitangi


Another great example is from the Idaho Museum of Natural History. Dalbello (2009) shares details about its digital exhibit of Idaho Indians, and explains that through the digitizing (and resulting accessibility) of these records, “families of origin were discovered…individual names were recovered from written records.” (p. 6).  These names and stories would never have come to light without the power of a museum to drive the effort. Through use of crowd-tagging and open access to the public eye, obscured heritage can become visible.

LIS professionals have a responsibility to present the truth of humanity’s collective heritage. History is complex, although very often the groups in power would like to have the public believe that only two sides exist: right and wrong. By curating hidden heritage in a thoughtful and informed way, LIS professionals are uniquely qualified to enlighten the public. Some histories are difficult to stomach but easily seen, as Macdonald explores. Others are still obscured from our view. It is essential that LIS professionals take hold of the proverbial shovel, and unearth the buried shadows that haunt us.


Chang, Williamson. (2015). Darkness over Hawaii: The Annexation Myth is the Greatest Obstacle to Progress. Asian-Pacific Law & Policy Journal, 16.2, 70-115.

Dalbello, Marija. (2009). Digital Cultural Heritage: Concepts, Projects, and EmergingConstructions of Heritage. Proceedings of the Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA) conference, 25-30 May, 2009.

Drabinski, Emily. (2013, April). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83.2, 94-111.

Jacobs, Heidi L.M. (2010). Posing the Wikipedia ‘Problem:’ Information Literacy and the Praxis of Problem-Posing in Library Instruction. Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, edited by Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski,and Alana Kumbier. Duluth, MN: Library Juice.

Macdonald, Sharon. (2015). Is ‘Difficult Heritage’ Still Difficult? Why Public Acknowledgment of Past Perpetration May No Longer Be So Unsettling to Collective Identities. Museum International, 67, 6-22.

McAloon, Jim. (2008, November 24). ‘Land Ownership – Maori and land ownership.’ Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/land-ownership/page-1

Ministry for Culture and Heritage. (2017, February 1). ‘Read the Treaty.’ Retrieved from https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/treaty/read-the-treaty/english-text.

Schwartz, Joan M., Cook, Terry. (2002). Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. Archival Science, 2, 1-19.

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