Great historical narratives in European museums and political uses of history and memory

The setting of the conference evoked the spirit of Walter Benjamin

Museums have been casted as sites for the formulation of value. They act as political and moralizing institutions and struggle, and have struggled, with political influence and interference,  for a long period. At the same time, they are trusted societal institutions that communicate analytically and pedagogically as well as emotionally and aesthetically. They appeal to senses and feelings as well as to the intellect.

The above mentioned institutional traits were, in different ways, suggested in keynote speeches and paper presentations at an international workshop held at Université Paris 1 last week. The event was organized by Eunamus’ partner Dominique Poulot who in his opening speech recalled Walter Benjamin’ writings on collections, collectors and storytellers, reminding all participants that museums display visual encyclopedic ambitions as well as they allure to the historical imagination by telling stories.

Both Stephen Bann and Daniel J. Sherman touched upon the aesthetization of museum spaces in their keynotes. The former by showing the influence of private period rooms in museum displays, with special reference to Musée National du Moyen Age-Thermes de Cluny, founded in 1843 with the collections of the art collector and antiquarian Alexandre du Sommerard.

Colonial heritage as art at Musée du Quai Branly

In his talk, Daniel J. Sherman addressed two contemporary initiatives in Paris: La
Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration
(opened in 2007) and the Musée du Quai Branly (opened in 2006). Both museums were politically charged from the beginning and have sparked public controversies as well as critical discussions among museum scholars. Sherman argued that these museums celebrate contemporary cultural diversity by reinventing French universalism. They are spectacles, drawing more on discourses of modern and contemporary art than of analytic pedagogic knowledge and critical reasoning. The result is that France’s colonial past is silenced, at least in the exhibitions. The two museums’ dialogic and democratic ambitions are present in their public programs and not in their displays.

Daniel J. Sherman raised the question if the concept of cultural diversity is at all suited to provide a remedy for contemporary nation states’ difficulties to handle migration and troublesome colonial pasts. This question was addressed in Joachim Baur’s keynote too. Baur talked about the museualization of migration at three museums in the US, Canada and Australia. He showed how experiences of migration were used to build an inclusive national narrative and how visual displays performed unity in difference. He concluded that transnational stories re-vitalize the nation with the risk of masking social inequality.

One of the starting points in narrative theory is that the same series of events might
be plotted, that is recounted, differently depending of the context of the narrator. Highlighting some aspects of the past, often implies silencing others. For example, in her talk, Felicity Bodenstein suggested that Napoleon most often is presented as a man of great battles and reform. This version of the story silences the horrors of war experienced by foot soldiers and civilians. Sheila Watson made Historiska Museet in Stockholm into a convincing case of her thesis that museum spaces display national origins in complex and sometimes contradictory ways, and Johan Hegardt provided an overview of this museum’s exhibitions the last two decades.

Several papers addressed the ways in which shifting political contexts affect museums, the
things they put on display, and the stories they tell. Thomas Cauvain discussed the way increased EU contacts and funding, as well as increased tourism, affect how the Irish past is memorialized. He presented a case in which a museum curator deliberately seemed to have made use of the theoretical concept memory to promote a particular take on the past and a more critical approach towards history that he (the curator) argued had taken on mythic proportions.

In her paper, Ilaria Porciani provided an exposé of how the National Museum of the Italian Risorgimento in Turin had highlighted different aspects of Italian history over the years, from nationalism, to fascisms over to celebrating anti-Fascist resistance groups after
the end of WW2. When the museum re-opened in 2011 they aimed at reflexivity, to display the museums journey through different political paradigms.

Kristin Kuutma’s narration of the Stalinistic take-over of national museums in Estonia provided  a very significant case of political (mis)use of collections. Even though the deeds of a totalitarian regime offer extreme cases of repression of intellectuals and of
political uses of history, the Estonian example directed the attention to how museums are vulnerable to political interventions.

Papers and keynotes from the workshop will be published later this year at

Bodil Axelsson

Below. Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration uses a mix of personal objects, photos, contemporary art installations,, maps, and interactives to display experiences of migration.  The building and its frescos, built for the purpose of the World Colonial Fair 1931, implicitely acknowledges migration related to France’s colonial heritage.

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1 Response to Great historical narratives in European museums and political uses of history and memory

  1. Pingback: More on great historical narratives in Europe’s national museums | Unfolding Eunamus

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