Using culture to tackle social and political challenges
The extent to which national museums take into account competing social and political tensions could have an impact on social cohesion, say EU-funded researchers. These findings reinforce the importance of culture in achieving social harmony and helping countries move on from difficult times in their past.
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National museums play a crucial role in reflecting and influencing notions of identity and culture. The EU-funded EUNAMUS project looked at how cultural institutions across 37 European countries take into account the political, social and historical context of displays and exhibitions, and gave advice on how this might be improved. Guidance notes, best practice examples and recommendations are available on the project website.
“Museums contain historical fact but also reflect public sentiment and political considerations,” explains EUNAMUS project coordinator Peter Aronsson from Linnaeus University in Sweden. “They are a mixture of these three logics. We wanted to analyse how the negotiation between academic truth, politics and public sensibility make museums what they are, and what lessons we can learn from this. For example, can museums be used to promote more trusting and creative societies, or even to promote and legitimise war?”
Importance of culture
The project focused on Europe’s national museums as pre-eminent expressions of identity. “These museums are more than just repositories of artefacts; they reflect notions of nationhood, are housed in prestigious buildings, and continually run new programmes and exhibitions,” says Aronsson. “Their audiences leave with either changed or reinforced ideas.”
The project found that taking social and political considerations into account really matters. When this happens, national museums provide society with a means to negotiate differences in the cultural sphere. Without this opportunity, social differences tend be fought out in the political sphere, where resolution is much harder to achieve.
“We suggest that the recent economic and social crises in Greece and Italy were made worse by the fact that museums have not engaged the public enough in negotiating the traumatic heritage of fascism, military coups and civil war,” says Aronsson.
“These events are then pushed back into the subconscious. Similarly, Eastern European countries still need to deal with their Communist past, an era that tends to be treated as a foreign plague that invaded them. An opposite example would be Germany, which has successfully negotiated its past in the cultural sphere and is economically successful and more socially cohesive.”
Negotiating the past
Aronsson points out that the European Union itself can be seen as a means of negotiating the mistakes of Europe in the 20th century. “Cultural negotiation is more flexible than political negotiation,” he says. “Unlike in politics or the courts, everyone can win. The House of European History in Brussels, which was created in parallel with our project, is a good example of our shared past being negotiated in the cultural sphere.”
The findings of the EUNAMUS project hold relevance not only for Europe but for the world as a whole. Countries in rapid transition, such as South Africa and Rwanda, have a strong need to bring competing stakeholders together in the field of culture, in order to address painful atrocities of the past. “If these issues are not addressed culturally, then protagonists can find themselves locked in the political arena,” says Aronsson.
While Aronsson does not expect museum administrators or decision-makers to change their practices overnight, he hopes that the project’s findings will give momentum to the notion that in times of austerity and uncertainty, national museums are more important than ever. “In Sweden alone, which has a population of 10 million, we record 28 million museum visits a year,” he says. “Museums player a large role in public life than we might think.”