More on great historical narratives in Europe’s national museums

José María Lanzarote Guiral reports from the second international conference on “Great historical narratives in Europe’s national museums”, held in the Louvre and Institut national d’histoire de l’art in Paris from the 25th to the 26 of November.

As at the previous conference in June , a selection of speakers coming from all over Europe and beyond gathered in Paris to debate on key issues for the development of Eunamus research strand “Uses of the Past, narrating the nation and negotiating conflict”.

One major question, “To what extent can national museums be considered as authors of great historical narratives?” had enticed more than 25 researchers and museum professionals to respond the call.  Papers in both English and French spanned from the Prado to the British Museum and from the Sami National Museum in Norway to the new Acropolis Museum in Greece.  Some of the most relevant European museums were analysed from different perspectives; several papers discussed the ways in which museums  historically have formed collections or reinterpreted existing ones in order to construct national master narratives. Other papers highlighted how museums strive to respond to the questions posed by increasingly transnational European societies.

The discussions were started by presentations given by keynote speakers. María Bolaños opened the first session with an overview of the creation of national museums in Spain. A long-term historical perspective was also chosen by Ellinoor Bergvelt to analyse the history of Dutch national museums. Finally, the extra-European dimension was considered in the opening of the third session by Alexandra Loumpet-Galitzine, who discussed the creation of national museums in several French-speaking African countries.

Narratives supporting the 19th century nationmaking                                                                                                                                         The visualisation of the national narrative in museums promoted by the 19th century nation-state in formation was analysed by Eugenia Afinoguenova on the Prado Museum, Miklós Székely on the Hungarian National Museum, and Aleksandar Ignatović on the National Museum of Belgrade in this case in the Interwar Period.

Diachronic studies of museums                                                                                                 Diachronic studies were provided by Frank Matthias Kammel on the evolution of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, Amy Clarke on the transformation of the Royal Museum of Scotland to National Museum, or by Gabor Ébli, who analysed, from a comparative perspective, the making of national galleries in Central and Eastern Europe. Adding new elements to the debate, Costanze Breuer reflected on the intersecting of the national and the great men narrative while considering Goethe’s House in Weimar.

Controlled museum spaces                                                                                                        Some other presentations discussed the relationship between museum creation and display in regimes marked by strong ideological control, such as Melania Savino on the archaeological Museums in the Turkish Republic or Gabriella Petkova-Campbell on the impact of communism in Bulgarian national museums.

The nation’s accomplishments                                                                                                 The role of the museum in visualising the accomplishments of the nation was the topic of Annie Malama, on the Greek Museum of Modern art, or Cristina Ntaflou’s on the newly opened Museum of the Acropolis.

Challenges of postmodernity and contested authority                                             How museums deal with the challenges of the postmodernity was the subject of the presentations by Tiffany Jenkins on “inverting the nation” at the British museum, Martin Sundberg on Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, and Pascale Meyer on the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. Contested authority related to anthropological artefacts was a key issue in several presentations, such as the one by Hilde Nielssen and Sigrid Lien on the Sami National Museum in Norway or the one by Leila Koivunen on the National Museum of Finland. In a different key, Maria Anna Bertolino considered local museums of ethnography in Northern Italy.

Considering also temporary exhibitions                                                                            Not only national museums but also the visualisation of master narratives in national and international exhibitions were discussed by some speakers, such as for instance Giovanni Arena, who reflected on the 1941 colonial exhibition organised by the Fascist regime in Naples, and Michela Passini’s on the Jeu de Paume exhibitions in Paris during the Interwar Period. In turn, Nathalie Cerezales reflected on the subtle interplay of the religious and the aesthetic message in the exhibitions of sacred art in the 1990s in Spain.

Finally, some other topics related to the means of displaying and protecting collections in the national museums were considered, for instance, by Sylvain Cordier, who spoke on the role of furniture in the Museum of French History created by King Louis Phillipe in Versailles, or Arnaud Bertinet on the safekeeping of French works of art during French-Prussian War in 1873. In the last presentation, Caroline Caillet dealt with the negotiations for restitution of artworks between Alger and France after the decolonisation, opening the debate on heritage restitution that will be pursued further in the next conference, in Brussels in January 26-27th.

Eunamus’ partner University Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne, led by Prof. Dominique Poulot, organised the conference.

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