Where does Europe begin and end these days?

With this burning question I left the seminar room after four exciting sessions on Current trends and issues in European museum research. Researchers from Sweden, Turkey, Germany, the UK, Portugal, Canada, Italy and several more countries had met up to present ongoing projects. With people migrating, working and touristing across the globe, territorial borders take on new meanings. As Brett Neilson from University of Western Sydney, pointed out at the opening plenary panel of the conference that hosted the museum sessions, we used to say that globalism and cosmopolitanism blurred borders, it might be more fruitful to discuss how such broader societal predicaments leads to border-work, sometimes transgressing, at other times, reinforcing borders.

Florian Gresshake’s paper explored how museums and exhibitions in the border region
between Denmark and Germany, Sønderjylland/Schleswig, have been exploited for political uses as “cultural boundary stones”. Most papers in the museum sessions showed examples of strivings to transgress, and connect across territorial or institutional borders. In her paper Lizette Gradén discussed the ways gifts produce relations between the US and the Nordic countries. Juan Azcárate Venegas presented SAMP, a Swedish NGO that strives to develop networked processes in and between several institutions in Azerbaijan, the Philippines, and Tanzania. In his presentation, Stuart Burch showed how Moderna Museet in Stockholm increases its cultural capital by collaborating with a prestigious
institution in London. Work across institutional, rather than territorial orders, was the subject of Alice Semedo’s presentation.

Many of the session’s participants regularly cross borders. Several are active in both the museum sphere and in the academy. Others had been studying or are working across the globe, or regularly cross borders to alternate between teaching and research, like Robin
Ostow who teach in Canada and does her research in Europe. She pointed out, in comparison with Canada, the US and Australia, Europe seems to do very little to include migration in representations of national histories in museums. She presented four European initiatives to reveal some of the barriers, as well as the potential of immigration museums in Europe today. The issue of migration in Europe’s museums and libraries will be further developed in the Mela-program, at this conference presented by Francesca Lantz.

A row of papers discussed displays and exhibition techniques. The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico was the subject for Alexandra Sauvage’s talk. She convincingly demonstrated that Mexico is a highly relevant case to critically understand how a national process and colonial discourse are interwoven, materialized and represented in museum
architecture and techniques of display. Her paper was followed by Johan Hegardt’s on the difficulties in transgressing national chronological narratives when producing exhibitions. Susanne Phillipps, in her turn showed a series of thrilling examples in which museums
try to overthrow stereotypes, to present the unexpected, or to present surprising re-combinations in installations. This kind of conceptual Verfremdungs-effekts stands out in sharp contrast to the exhibition technique presented by Harriet Purkis. The exhibition she has been working with, Destination Donegal, instead links people by inviting visitors to understand and enter into immigrant’s feelings by displaying personal clothing and belongings. Two quite different, but equally relevant modes of affecting visitors were

While the above four mentioned papers directed the attention to representations inside museums, the research program, The Sociomaterial dynamics of museum collections, instead stresses that museum’s actions produce social relations involving countries, institutions, people and objects. The program was presented by its three participants: Lotten Gustafsson-Reinius, Eva Silvén and Fredrik Svanberg. It implicates research on the collections at the Ethnographical Museum in Stockholm, Swedish Sami collections and the
Uppsala Anatomical Collection.

The last paper on the four sessions dedicated to museum research was Peter Aronsson’s on Eunamus – European National Museums: National Identities, the Uses of the Past, and the European Citizen. He presented the outline of the project and some preliminary
results from its research on relations between state making and the building of national museums all over Europe. He was asked if a project like Eunamus was in the danger of reinforcing political territories such as Europe and its states. Peter Aronsson’s answer was yes absolutely, a project like Eunamus is a great challenge in that respect. However, there is a great value in comparisons and challenges could be used positively to push boundaries for research.

The sessions on Current Trends and Issues in Museum research took place in Norrköping 15-17 June. It was co-organised by Bodil Axelsson, Lotten Gustafsson-Reinius, Eva Silvén, Fredrik Svanberg and Peter Aronsson, . The overall conference Current Issues in European Cultural Studies was organised by ACSIS, Advanced Cultural Studies Institute of Sweden.

Bodil Axelsson

Read more on Fredrik Svanberg’s blog Museum nu.

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