On the Links between National Museums and Nation-building

Peter Aronsson and Gabriella Elgenius, editors of National Museums and Nation-building in Europe 1750-2010: Mobilization and legitimacy, continuity and change, explore the role of museums in research, education and the on-going nation making processes of Europe.

European nations have been repeatedly and profoundly challenged on the grounds of their interpretations of history and claimed cultural assets. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic conquests, periods of transformations associated with modernity, industrialization and urbanization shook Europe to the core and created a need for the recreation of communities. This process is ongoing as contemporary European societies have had to rethink their civic obligations in a world where political institutions are found seemingly inadequate to respond to the many and varied global challenges that face contemporary societies.

The national museums of Europe have since their creation been at the centre of research, education and on-going nation-making processes. Our book National Museums and Nation-building in Europe 1750-2010: Mobilization and Legitimacy, Continuity and Change assesses such processes and explores national museums as manifestations of cultural and political desires, rather than straightforward representation of historical facts. Such nation-building processes highlights attempts to negotiate conflicts and contradictions sufficiently to obtain the support of scientists and art connoisseurs, citizens and taxpayers, policy makers, domestic and foreign visitors alike.

National Museums and Nation-building in Europe is based on findings from the European National Museums Research Programme (Eunamus) in which over forty researchers produced analyses on main national museums in thirty-seven countries. We investigated the museums’ role in nation-building; their capacity to imagine nations and communities, their ability to document and negotiate notions of ‘community’ and we highlight changes with regards to such notions in space and time. We found that the national museums of Europe have been decisive in communicating a common world-view within their nations and in Europe. This includes the legitimisation of change and transformation of the nations in Western Europe to democracies; whilst creating a crucial debate about the cultural raison d’etre in many Eastern European countries.

Clearly, some nations have been more successful than others in managing change, especially with regards to diversity and difference. For example, the difficulties for national museums to visualise, negotiate and handle diversity and difference in the Balkans needs to be taken into account when assessing the detrimental consequence of civil wars and genocides in this region. Similarly, the national museums in Southern Europe have been less open to the negotiation of contested and conflictual parts of recent history, compared to for example Germany. The lack of diversity visualisation, management and negotiation of the recent past in a legitimate national public institution contributes to distrust in the political system with consequences for the current economic crises. National museums have contributed to negotiate national tensions within Great Britain – recently between England, Scotland and Wales. The same is true within Scandinavia - between Norway and Sweden and the Sami nation - where a well developed Nordic narrative and repatriation of cultural heritage has been instrumental in making violent conflict resolutions unthinkable.

National Museums and Nation-building in Europe highlights that national museums are crucial in presenting a balanced view between the idea of the homogenous identity and nation whilst articulating the diversity and difference within and of such entities in productive manners. It is nation-building processes such as these that turns national museums into operating as de facto cultural constitutions, interacting with political constitutions during the making and re-making of historic and contemporary Europe. In our book we examine the degree to which national museums have created models and representations of nations, their past, present and future. We reveal how different types of nations and states - former empires, monarchies, republics, pre-modern, modern or post-imperial entities - deploy and prioritise different types of museums (based on art, archaeology, culture and ethnography) in their making. Our book constitutes a first comprehensive and comparative perspective on national museums in Europe and their intricate relationship to the making of nations and states. We hope you enjoy reading it. 

  • National Museums and Nation-building in Europe 1750-2010

    Mobilization and legitimacy, continuity and change, 1st Edition

    Edited by Peter Aronsson, Gabriella Elgenius

    Europe’s national museums have since their creation been at the centre of on-going nation making processes. National museums negotiate conflicts and contradictions and entrain the community sufficiently to obtain the support of scientists and art connoisseurs, citizens and taxpayers, policy makers,…

    Hardback – 2014-12-05