Museum Policies in Europe 1990 – 2010: Negotiating Professional and Political Utopia

Lill Eilertsen & Arne Bugge Amundsen (eds)

This blog post recycles elements from the report’s section Key findings. We are curious of your reactions, and comments are welcome.

This EuNaMus report studies how nations develop policy in order to deploy national museums in national redefinition. It focuses on museum utopias that have been negotiated by politicians and museum professionals. The report establishes some major perspectives on the development of museum political discourses during the last 20 years by comparing museum political material from five different countries: France, representing former colonial empires; Norway, demonstrating the Nordic countries’ variety of minorities and migrants; Estonia and Hungary, exemplifying the challenges of former European Soviet states; and Greece, allowing us to investigate the uses of classical antiquity. We also present the EU as an actor in the museum field. The report material discuss two main issues:

  • How policy makers in different regions of Europe identify national museums as instruments for negotiating identity, diversity and change.
  • How national museums in different regions of Europe formulate their position as political and cultural institutions.

The political functions of national museums are obviously of a rhetorical character, stating how politicians and leading specialists and professionals intend to reshape the national museums and accordingly to distribute new symbolic and material value to these institutions: Museum policies have been formulated, museum acts have been passed, re-organisation and re-building have taken place.

The period 1990-2010 in fact seems historically important with regard to active political action towards renegotiating the political meaning and function of national museums. The reason is quite obvious: The dramatic political changes in Eastern Europe concurring with major demographic changes in Western Europe have created a new agenda for using culture and cultural institutions politically to smooth or counteract the effects of the changes.

Museum policy development and change are accomplished through what in the report from France is described as “a normative kind of moral discourse in the form of elaborate operations of communication” (quote Jean-Yves Boursier). The reports contributing to this study demonstrate five important policymaking techniques used to engage in that moral discourse:

  • Re-formulation. By challenging museological taboos, museums are encouraged to re-formulate their aims and scope in the direction of new norms such as post-colonial positions, cultural diversity, or minority rights. Using re-formulation, changes in museum policy in most cases are given their rationale by reference to historical injustice, past national one-sidedness, or ethnic and cultural negligence. Changes, accordingly, are presented as (morally) necessary, as in accordance with public opinion or as concurring with recent political development.
  • Re-narration. Closely connected to re-formulation, re-narration aims at using national museums as instruments for change or correction of collective memory. On the museum policy and rhetorical level, this has led to a relative negligence of traditional national narratives in a number of European countries, with Norway as a rather extreme example. In France this negligence has been considerably more contested in public debates. In post-Communist countries, the re-narration of the national museums has included a depreciation of the old regimes and a revaluation of the  national and ethnic continuities. In Greece, the re-narration seems to be      responses to European integration followed by an economic crisis.
  • Re-mediation. This technique uses new media and new ways of inviting museum users into existing or new museum institutions. Many national museums have, for instance, digitised parts of their collections, thus making their use and      interpretation independent of time and place. Another aspect of this is, of course, that the museum collections in this way are “liberated” from old and traditional perspectives and made the possible object of new interpretations and cultural dialogues.
  • Re-organisation. This seems to be among the favourite museum policy techniques. France is possibly a rather extreme example of this, constantly changing the names, locations and scopes of many of its central museum institutions. But even a small nation like Norway has been through massive government-initiated      organisational changes during the last two decades. These changes have in many cases strengthened political control with the museum field, but they have also aroused substantial critiques and negative reactions among museum professionals.
  • Re-professionalization. It seems clear that many of the changes in recent European museum policy have been closely linked not to traditional academically educated museum personnel but to new groups who have deeply influenced the museum field both theoretically and practically. These actors include consultants, artists, economists and architects. Normally, these groups of professionals are not keepers of the traditional knowledge and skills needed to collect, interpret and display museum objects. Rather, they represent the “outside” of museum work – the financial results, the  administrative efficiency, the experimental display or the material      surroundings of the collections. Critically evaluated, this re-professionalization  can be said to have developed a new elitism in the museum field, an elitism requiring perspectives representing the new symbolic and rhetorical values installed in national museum institutions.

National museums as utopias

National and transnational narratives coexist uneasily in national museums due in large part to the varying utopian ideologies articulated by Europe’s various policymakers. This study has more or less a priori regarded the changes articulated in the last 20 years of museum policy development in Europe as utopian, but which utopia depends on which policymaker is consulted.

  • EUtopia. As the report on the EU as an  actor in the museum field shows, the cultural dimensions of the European integration project have been strengthened during the last years’ political development. The EUtopian perspective is linked to a European citizenship based on common European values and identity, and the museums’ role in this is to contribute to transnational cohesion and integration. There are many political actors and strategies sustaining this perspective, but it remains open whether there are any convincing successes. The reports from Hungary, Estonia and Greece suggest that the EU has contributed to changes in national museum policy and practice through economic funding of specific museum projects, but that this effect also bears witness to the weakness of such processes: They change sectoral and temporal practice, but leave the rest of the field unchanged.
  • Multicultural Utopia. The museum policy changes advocating strengthened emphasis on cultural diversity and multicultural ideology also have obvious utopian dimensions, at least with regard to leading national museums. However, the museum collections and the museums’ institutional history are likely so strongly linked to the national narratives that turning them into dialogue institutions or arenas for      intercultural encounters is a very complicated mission. Presenting a temporary exhibition or writing new visitors’ guides does not change the impressive weight of institutional history and collection history reflecting on national perspectives. The successes of temporary exhibitions or provocative public debates are still left to convince on a general level. The most successful examples might be found in the      transformations of the museums representing the French colonial past, the      international Louvre collections, and the Sámi case. The success of the two former can be explained by the international and even Universalist approaches of their institutional past. The success of the latter is probably and a bit ironically due to the fact that the political rights of the only indigenous people in Norway have resulted in the Sámi launching their own national museum construction.
  • National Historical Utopia. At first glance this seems to have lost legitimacy during the last 20 years of European museum policy development. When looking more closely into the  matter, however, it becomes obvious that there is not “one” European      national museum; the institutional and professional histories of the European national museums are different. Examples from the reports suggest that the national museum agency still is productive and negotiable in several countries. These cases thematize the possibility of expressing both national and European perspectives  when national museum collections are put on display. With ideological  implications taken into consideration, cultural diversity or multicultural ideology are not necessarily the only obvious responses of the European national museums to the old aggressive nationalism.

The report is available at Linköping University Electronic Press: http://liu.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2:557284

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