1 National museums and the national imagination

Simon Knell

Yet it is the idea of the nation as an imagined political community and hence as a cultural artifact, at once sovereign, finite, and horizontally cross-class and moving along linear ‘empty homogenous time,’ that has so tangibly caught the postmodernist scholarly fancy…In fact, we often find this idea detached from its Andersonian moorings. It has become a topos of the literary imagination, a metaphor for the constructed quality of all communities. 

(Anthony Smith 2000: 58)

Of all the foundations upon which a discussion of national museums might be built, none has appealed more completely to the postmodern museological mind than Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983; 2006). As Anthony Smith observes, disciples have been only too ready to adopt a concept which seems defined and explicated in the book’s title, rarely probing the historical basis for Anderson’s ‘imagining’. It is perhaps assumed that Anderson was looking at the nation through a postmodern lens, but he was not: ‘It is Imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion’ (Anderson 2006: 6). More than a quarter century after the publication of this book, few would presume absolute knowledge of anything; subjectivity, imagination and construction are everywhere but owe everything to Foucault, Bourdieu, Derrida and others and nothing to Anderson. Indeed, those who read a little further will be taken with Anderson’s erudition and historical and cultural specificity. As Sharon Macdonald (2003: 2) helpfully reminds us: 

It involved projecting sentiments of belonging and brotherhood way beyond those of direct experience, but only up to a specified ‘edge’ – the boundary of the national community. As individual identification with the nation-state and the numerous unknown ‘brothers’ could not rest on experienced social relations it had instead to be cultural – a matter of shared knowledge and practice, of representation, ritual and symbolism.’ 

(Macdonald 2003: 2)

In recent years, a considerable amount of work has been done on the museum’s ritualised and symbolic practices, its representations of ‘knowledge’ and its political subjectivity. Situated within that fluid coupling of thought and language which stands between people and things, the museum has revealed itself to be a rich subject for the deconstruction of cultural authority (Preziosi 1998; this volume). But while external commentators have been quick to recognise the performative qualities of the museum – its poetic contributions to knowledge and reality as configurations of belief (Knell 2007c) – museum practitioners have remained true to the moral necessities of didacticism and the possibility of a neutral, or acceptable, authoritative truth. They continue to work within museum definitions which unreasonably constrain institutional conceptualisation and contradict the subjective realities of museum provision. Based on a moral positioning manufactured through acts of professionalization, public and professionals alike continue to imagine the museum as neutral, authoritative and trustworthy; an accurate rendition of the world as it ought to be understood. 

But if museums are poetic and political spaces, rather than purveyors of objectively-conceived Enlightenment truths, then all they can perform are acts of cultural symbolism. With this admittedly cynical lens in view, we might imagine national museums as providing the scenography and stage for the performance of myths of nationhood. As in the theatre we might imagine and believe, but in the museum our imagining can be so much more believable because we are led to think that all around us has arrived objectively and all is as it seems to be; these things are not merely props. This chapter considers how the nation is performed within the national museum, the roles played by sets, scripts and actors, and some of the connections, boundaries and determinants of our national imagining. In doing so, it will reflect upon a diverse range of practices around the world including aspects of the papers presented by authors contributing to this volume. My aim is to set these contributions in a more holistic theoretical context but without suggesting that generalisation is particularly helpful to understanding the agency of national museums. Implicitly the contributions to this book argue that each nation’s national museums are the product of national history and local circumstance and perform in quite particular ways.

The performance of reality

For the museum to be effective we must ‘buy into’ its offerings:  art history, national narratives, the unassailable logic and authority of science, and so on. In doing so, we believe that museums contribute to our sense of a knowable and reproducible reality through which we can grow our own personal knowledge. But this museum reality does not come without performance. The two can never be disassociated. All who enter the museum are, however, deceived by the illusion that the museum’s authority rests on its objective representation of the world. It does not.  The museum exists in the civilised world because of its claim to moral authority derived from its fostering of education, knowledge, cultivation, professionalisation and so on. It manifests and materialises the central ideologies of civilisation. But, as Bourdieu recognised, these ideologies are situated and particular; they are not a consensual representation of the thinking of the everyman but of the educated (middle) classes. This revelation that museums propagated cultural bias and contributed to the perpetuation of social division contributed to a revolution in museum provision which is still ongoing. It resulted in political acts of social inclusion within the museum but these have done little to overturn the social divisions of which Bourdieu complained: they rest upon the same constructed moral basis that shapes the museum form and authority, and are delivered by that same class that once gave citizens ‘the arts’. My intention with these arguments is not to argue against these practices but rather to suggest that our awareness of them is quite fundamental if we are to do more than imagine how the museum contributes to the production of the nation.

It may be a surprise to some that museums were not always the cold and factual spaces which have in recent years been remade as a result of our new inclusive awareness. Mattias Bäckström’s Hazelius and Jennifer Carter’s Lenoir (this volume), for example, one and two centuries ago, respectively, were fully aware of the ‘art’ in museum making. This was in an era when the museum’s legitimacy seemed to rest upon objective ‘science’ or scholarliness. However, these two men believed truth and meaning lay beyond scientific formulation and by means of drama and effect, and the careful deployment of real things, they felt it was possible for the visitor to experience greater – spiritual – truths.

Lenoir’s and Hazelius’s contemporaries, respectively at the Louvre and the Danish Folk Museum, followed a rather different path. Their museums conformed to what we now think of as the Enlightenment museum which in the staging of exhibitions sought to insert aesthetic and intellectual distance between people and things; they wished to make the relationship ‘disinterested’ (i.e. free from bias or self-interest) – a place where one could engage in detached thought. Of course, such objective rationalism was never entirely possible in museums where careers and material monuments were built, where claustrophobic power games became a cultural norm, where passions could be developed, where professionalization and institutionalisation produced blinkered norms and traditions, where a blind eye was turned to the politics of the market place, and where resources were always inadequate. These pervasive peculiarities of the museum occurred, however, outside of public view, like the truths of a secret society. In order to claim authority the illusion of absolute professionalism was all. And being long-lived but with short-memories, and self-legitimising, museums ensured themselves and their publics of their uncontested rationalism. 

It was by these means that the museum acquired its perceived modern form and maintains its old illusions (for which, see Handler 1988; Macdonald 2003: 5). But it emerged from a variety of cultural practices and institutions (see Altick 1978; Sandberg 2003). Indeed, the modern museum did not arrive as the culmination of a progressive evolutionary journey (MacGregor 2007); its apparent uniformity of structure and form has always concealed the cultural diversity which has altered and adapted the museum to local needs. In each setting, the museum was always an idea and a set of social spaces, never simply a collection or building. For these reasons the emergence of the national museum in different national settings cannot be read as nations doing the same thing. The case studies in this book argue against such homogenizing views. The national museum as it is locally produced reflects local conditions of nationalism and wealth, international connections, identity and competition, individual and corporate interests, political and economic relationships, the ideological possibilities of culture, networks of appropriation and emulation, diplomatic efforts and so on. No museum is an exact copy of another. Even Sharjah’s Natural History and Botanical Museum, which went to extraordinary lengths to imitate precisely exhibits at the National Museum of Wales, cannot be considered a mere copy. Indeed, its act of copying in itself makes it different. But how could a national museum in the United Arab Emirates be anything like that in Cardiff? Museums are never what they seem to be; never merely buildings and collections. They are places where professional and public performances are scripted and staged. 

Hazelius’s social engineering in Stockholm a hundred years after Lenoir’s scenography and art installation in Paris simply produced kinds of the national museum; their admission of fictional elements does not mean they were not operating outside any norm of museum definition. Their willingness to admit to fictions and illusions suggests that they understood the performative possibilities of the museum. In this museum performance they saw no great disconnection between the museum and landscape gardening or pageantry. What Lenoir and Hazelius produced was neither fact nor fiction, nor indeed that dubious middle line taken by modern populist non-fiction. They believed they were creating more than fact; a more holistic truth available to those who could combine art and science without feeling a sense of contradition. They understood that what they were creating was a space for imagining and believing at a time when other museum workers, blind to the performance that was taking place in their galleries, were under the illusion that rationalism was attainable and was all. 

The implications of this union of fact and performance could be/was seen more recently in Alan Yentob and Andrew Hutton’s television docudrama, Van Gogh: Painted with Words. Here, viewers were assured that every word spoken was sourced from van Gogh’s correspondence. We were led to believe – like we might believe in the museum – that in actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance we had the personification of the great painter. But, of course, the performance was everything and took control of the facts; Cumberbatch gave a brilliant and sympathetic rendition of the tortured genius and Vincent’s work leapt from the screen. Yentob and Hutton had made us imagine and believe, just as Hazelius and Lenoir had their publics, and just as every museum does. But, of course, had they selected different (but equally authentic) words, increased Cumberbatch’s instability and inserted more violent expression, we might have imagined and believed something different. We might have seen less romance and less beauty. Using fact as an artistic medium, they, like all museums, were simply producing a fabrique while attempting to convince us it was real (Carter, this volume; see also Bruner 1994; Gable and Handler 1996).

A problem with the script

Of course in many modern narrative-based museums the material fact – the interpretable object – has disappeared or moved to a supporting role to be replaced by mere assertion. In Emily Stoke-Rees’ Hong Kong Museum of History set building and essentialised narrative shape the experience. Script and scenography have been carefully constructed to permit a singular public performance, a singular manifestation of the nation rather than the nation found through democratic negotiation. In this respect, the museum as theatre is quite the reverse of that developed by Lenoir who encouraged his visitors to dream. 

The museum in Hong Kong exposes this difference between the theatre and the museum as theatre. One is merely a work of fiction which we can like, love or hate as we please; the other purports to be a work of fact and while we can also love or hate it, we also have the option to believe it (or not). It purports to be a representation of reality and truth, but the privileging of narrative and scenography over the interpretation of objects seems to shift the museum away from those technologies which permit the museum to claim moral authority. Non-fictional narrative has its basis in historical writing, not in museum building. It entered the museum, rather late in the day, in the possession of historians, whose field of study has a disdain for objects as historical evidence (Knell 2007c: 7-8), and designers, possessing storyboards and interested in the logic of visitor flow.[1]

One of the problems of ‘fact-based’ narrative-driven exhibitions is that there simply is no division between propaganda and the supposedly objective narrative. All narrative attempts to propagate views, values and beliefs; objects, on the other hand, are, of themselves, vague and ambiguous. In Radostina Sharenkova’s Bulgaria, the communist powers used narrative to corral this ambiguity into new meanings, forcing the local population to imagine their genetic ancestors as unsophisticated Others. The museum could then evidence Soviet Man and demonstrate the social improvements that had arrived with communism. Later, these same materials were deployed by the same political regime to create a sense of national integrity and homogeneity.

Such ideological shaping of things through narrative is also seen in Sally Hughes’ analysis of the British Museum Press. Here the museum used the moral elevation of Enlightenment universalism to depoliticise and denationalise world culture, and legitimise the museum’s continued possession of contested pieces. It presented the British as a noble people, above the petty bickering and possessiveness of nations. Only world powers and old nations position themselves in this way. Universalism also produced a bond of common interest with other nations – indeed with all other nations other than those which had been the source of the material culture in the first place. As Peter Aronsson explains, the Greeks and Italians then formed a resistant huddle in response. 

In Simina Bădică’s Romania, the dictatorial narrative of communist museology was countered by the ‘antidote museum’. Feeling revulsion against single master narratives of any kind, in the post-communist museum the audience was to be empowered rather than taught. In a move that run counter to the obsession with didacticism in the West, objects were to do their own speaking; to resonate rather than be the subject of narrative or interpretation. As words in ever increasing numbers seemed to be guiding and giving purpose in museums in the West, in Romania they were fundamentally distrusted. In other parts of these museums, communist objects themselves were displayed but in the manner of an art installation intentionally encouraging satire and ridicule.

Eugenia Afinoguénova’s visitors to the Prado also entered into an unscripted interaction with art objects. Unfamiliar with the consumption of nudity in art, the performances of the visitors became the subject of much humorous social commentary. These performances revealed how the gallery space itself had to be understood and negotiated, and how gender, geographical and class relationships were deconstructed by those who looked on. Madrid’s educated middle classes delighted in the phenomenon and the opportunities to engage in innuendo, and in doing so also said a good deal about themselves.  But even they did not know how a narrative could be written that would justify the display of such art. Rather it was the art itself that spontaneously created narrative subjects in the visiting publics. Here too, but in a rather different way, the nation was being made.

The union of scriptwriters 

For all its museological difficulties, in the national museum no subject is more central to the construction of the nation than history or, to put it more neutrally, the handling of the past. The past can provide a powerful anchor for nationhood: 

The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavours, sacrifice and devotion. Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate, for the ancestors have made us what we are. A heroic past, great men, glory (by which I understand genuine glory), this is the social capital upon which one bases a national idea. To have common glories in the past and to have a common will in the present; to have performed great deeds together, to wish to perform still more – these are the essential conditions for being a people…Where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort. 

(Renan 1996 [1882]: 52-3)

The past as it manifests itself in the museum need not, however, conform to the requirements of rigorous historiography. Drawing upon Pierre Nora’s work on memory, Stefan Berger and Chris Lorenz (2008: 13), for example, remark on ‘the replacement of “history” by “memory” and “heritage”’. 

Memory and history, far from being synonymous, appear now to be in fundamental opposition…Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past…Memory is blind to all but the group it binds – which is to say…that there are as many memories as there are groups, that memory is by nature multiple and yet specific: collective, plural, and yet individual. History, on the other hand, belongs to everyone and to no one, whence it claims universal authority… at the heart of history is a critical discourse that is antithetical to spontaneous memory. History is perpetually suspicious of memory, and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it.

(Nora 1989: 8-9 quoted by Berger and Lorenz 2008: 14)

Berger and Lorenz note that memory is in the possession of individuals and communities, while history is in the hands of professionals. A political divide separates these two engagements which is reminiscent of that between Bourdieu’s (1984: 28-44) distanced and popular aestheticism. Bourdieu argued that the distinction rested upon the legitimising actions of a cultural aristocracy: the self-empowered professional middle classes. It is this same ‘class’ that argues for the moral and ethnical legitimacy of dispassionate and evidence-based history. But when history is distilled and laid out in the museum, in a space where there is a freedom of performance and where the performance itself writes the history, and where so much has poetic resonance, then surely history is replaced by memory and imagination. Evidence becomes art. History becomes personal heritage. 

The professional’s disdain for memory as a legitimate alternative to history reflects the wider issue of control in museums and the professional’s fear of full public participation (but see Watson 2007 for a counter example).  Pille Runnel, Taavi Tatsi and Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt’s exploration of the birth of the new Estonian National Museum reveals distinct and conflicting professional and public communities. For the professional desiring a landmark architectural statement, the new museum is a high spot on a career trajectory, a stepping stone to better things. This outlook encourages the professional to see the performance set on an international stage there to emulate other professionals. In contrast, the public view the new museum ‘honestly’. They see and feel it as it appears to be and as it exists within the everyday; not as rationalised by abstract historiography but as it is remembered, imagined and believed. For them, the museum pulls towards the centre, towards core beliefs, towards home. Each group is in these ways using the museum to construct their own identities; both see public benefits for the outcomes they promote. But both have in mind quite different museums and quite different national imaginings.

There is, then, a quite fundamental divide between those who make museums and those for whom they are made. The efforts required to counter the effects of this deeply embedded structure need to be quite extraordinary. Afinoguénova shows that the Prado which had so entered the popular culture of Madrid was required to bend to public tastes in art and the art that was acquired had all those immediate populist qualities the controlling class despise.

Stuart Burch takes the issue of public participation further in his study of national galleries in Oslo, Stockholm and London. Here protests in Oslo put a conservative brake on directorial autonomy and creativity, forcing the museum to adhere to an embedded narrative. Elsewhere, the division between professional and public is reified in roped off spaces and objects. Burch locates a model for participation in Pontus Hultén’s freeform play area at Moderna Museet; the audience quite literally became performers and artists. But, Burch notes, this was a rare moment of permission. It could, of course, be argued that art of itself permits participation; that it cannot exist without it. Events at the Prado seem to suggest this. But, like the Estonian authors, Burch wants more – not just a palette of colours to admire but the brushes, the canvas and direct participation. 

In the Netherlands, it appeared that professional control of the script was about to be lost as politicians began to echo public disquiet about the effects of multiculturalism. Gwenny van Hasselt explains that the suggested solution was the introduction of a Dutch national canon and a Dutch National Historical Museum. This made the Dutch intelligentsia fearful of the ideological deployment of history. However, this turn to the right failed to manifest itself in the museum, where the directors used arcane museological knowledge to advocate less contentious outcomes based on learning and education. The union of script writers – the profession – had again achieved its ends and in doing so perhaps felt they could claim a victory against the doubtful morality of imposed national narratives.

A further implication of the professionalization of museums has been the establishment of firm internalised systems of belief. These permit tasks to be done properly but also place blinkers on conceptualisation and walls around creative possibilities. Institutionalism can swamp creativity. This is an interesting aspect of Rhiannon Mason’s discussion of the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans. Established more than half a century after Skansen it arose in a period when British intellectuals were rebelling against aggressive industrialisation and the transformation of the rural landscape (Hawkes 1951; Hoskins 1955). However, the founding curator at St Fagans seems to have possessed none of that philosophical drive which fuelled the first wave of building folk museums. Instead he deploys a made object: a museum form that had already been distilled into a professionalised thing apparently unaware of the philosophical or nationalistic energy that had fuelled that thing’s invention. Mason reveals a museum operating professionally as a visitor attraction and educational facility, considering visitor numbers and other operational matters, and assured of its implicit rational purpose. In this professional world the imagined antithesis is amateurism which is certainly a feature of museum prehistory and many independent ventures. This sense of a non-professional Other – the amateur – shapes views of public involvement. The oppositional pair both keeps professionals operationally minded, and prevents the imagining of other professional configurations. It keeps the script tightly in the writer’s hands.

Anchoring the nation

The material, rather than the historiographic, possibilities of historical objects have been fundamental to anchoring of nations in national museums. As Nora asserts, this is an act of memory rather than history. In Karoline Kaluza’s Poland, for example, historical paintings took on the aura of religious relics in those years when the nation was denied free and independent existence. They became objectifications of national memory; reliquaries which permitted the devoted to keep the faith. These paintings embodied the past within their content and permitted that past to be mythologized, romanticised and idealised. Within the image, they believed, lay the sleeping nation ready to be awakened and rebuilt. When that day came, the new state possessed in these works a memory that transcended the awkward realities of history; these objects ensured that the new Polish nation was immediately old. This historicism not only gave the nation weight, it also introduced a sense of the nation possessing qualities and experiences out of reach of the modern man, woman or politician. It made the nation resilient to rational acts of denial. But in so many ways, in the performances and poetics of the museum, any rational sensibility could be overtaken by emotion. In Kaluza’s Warsaw Uprising Museum, visitors come across a monument, cenotaph and a flag at which to lay real and metaphorical wreaths. In other museums, one simply needed to look and think, and perhaps imagine and believe, and another kind of wreath would be laid, another monument erected.

A good deal of the historical anchoring of national identity that has taken place in national museums has buried somewhere within a primordial sense of origin in folk culture. Even if there is no appeal to shared or distinctive ethnicity, there is a sense of connection through the land, to physical and social structures, and ‘traditional’ ways of life. This is felt, even today, on visits to Skansen in Stockholm, Norsk Folkmuseum in Oslo and Eesti Vabaõhumuuseum (the Estonian Open Air Museum) at Rocca al Mare, Tallinn. In these places one senses a connection not simply to a place but to a people; not simply to history but to an ideal (figure 1.1). In Alan Kirwan’s Ireland, re-imagined with the end of British rule, a reawakened Celtic identity has come to define the nation in similar ways. Materialised in the National Museum of Ireland, it is perhaps better understood as a living culture celebrated in music and dance. It is in these lived forms no less aculture materialised: in instruments, costume, music and choreography. It is, in this respect, reminiscence of the mobile museum which took national culture into the heart of communities.

Figure 1.1 Primordial nationalism at Eesti Vabaõhumuuseum, Rocca-al-Mare, Estonia. In the warm Estonian sun, so perfect, peaceful and exotic was this manifestation of a folk past that one wanted to believe in it both as a place of origin and as a utopian ideal. Photo: Simon Knell

This historical anchoring is seen everywhere in national museums, but in each setting it seems to be nuanced to locate and develop the distinctive qualities of national identity: for the Poles it reawakened dynastic, heroic and religious legacies; in Germany, there remained an ethnic essentialism (Peck 1992); in Estonia, a primordial folk legacy; in Sweden, a social morality; in Bulgaria, a homogenizing myth. Within each nation, the national museum provided a space for these essentialised notions to be performed and given moral legitimacy. 

In Korea, there is no shortage of historical anchors but the nation remains physically and politically divided, scarred by outside impositions and unimaginable horrors, and confronted by rapid modernization. Simultaneously modern, old and developing, a collision of East meets West, a free nation but never completely unoccupied or sure that it is really known, South Koreans see museums as central to their yearning for a secure identity. For them history is alive. The provenance of an archaeological find, the chronology on a museum display panel – all can have political significance. Objects, their styles and forms, permit Korea to be mapped onto the historical geography of South East Asia as a continuous and influential historical entity (Kim 2005; see also papers by Sunghee Choi, Jung Joon Lee and Ruth Sheidhauer in this volume) (figure 1.2).

Figure 1.2 Schoolchildren outside the National Museum of Korea. A huge monolith of a building, this museum speaks to Korean citizens, to Japanese and Chinese neighbours, and to the West. In each of these conversations it is saying something different: ‘this is us’, ‘we are not you’, ‘respect us and recognise us’. Photo: Simon Knell

Karen Shelby’s Flemish nation might well empathise with South Koreans. Here Flemish identity is kept alive in the Belgium state in the IJzertoren. Amongst this museum’s possessions is the Golden Painting, one of the most politically charged and contested objects in any European museum. It hangs silently as if it was simply an innocuous artefact but Belgians know it as a freedom fighting flag. Built in imitation of the tombstones to the Flemish dead, the IJzertoren is itself a potent national symbol. The museum and monument ensure the continuing connection between Flemish identity and repressed autonomy. For the Flemish people it forms a historical anchor – a memory anchor; it denies Belgium single nation status. 

The problem of diversity

In many settings, a sense of national definition through an inherited and time-served connection to the land became challenged with the rise of multiculturalism. The Norsk Folkmuseum in Oslo, for example, added a Pakistani home in 2002. 

In Cristina Lleras’s Colombia ethnic diversity is even more central to the makeup of the nation and cultural equality is a central tenet of the national constitution. Multiculturalism has replaced an earlier ideology which saw miscegenation as the means to homogenize society and eradicate the problems and tensions that often accompany diversity. In Sharenkova’s Bulgaria diversity had been written into the national myth. It suggested that the nation’s diverse peoples were all Bulgarians; that there were no other cultures. This changed with difficulty following the collapse of communism. In both Colombia and Bulgaria, the politics of inclusion were applied unevenly – some minorities were ‘more equal’ and some were burdened with a history of association which made inclusion difficult. In both countries, but for different reasons, the national museums felt unable to act decisively because the political ideology of multiculturalism had not been realised or implemented in cultural policy. It was not that the national museums wished to be politically instrumentalised but without appropriate frameworks for operation, they found themselves perpetuating old national ideals or following the superficial lead of visitor numbers. 

In Colombia, the desire to remain true to diversity resulted in conversations about the allocation of space: some thought ethnic difference should be given its own artificial political geography in the museum. Sharenkova thought differently, reflecting that multiculturalism provided a means to rethink the geography of the Balkans; to reflect ethnicity in a complex, overlapping and interacting geography rather than in entrenched nationalism. She sees the potential for national museums to become bridging institutions, rather than the material basis for segregation, but also recognises the gulf that separates the ideal from an attainable reality. 

Elsewhere in the world, museological techniques are used to neutralise the politics of display and iron over the creases of diversity.  Most popular has been the aestheticisation of objects. Sunghee Choi’s engagement with the collections in the National Museum of Korea, for example, shows how national identity can be performed through the motifs of art objects, distinguishing one nation from another and claiming that nation’s right to recognition. Choi finds herself positioned as an advocate for her culture; but then understands that this national positioning is a reflection of attitudes imposed on Korea by the Japanese. She recommends a more participative approach empowering personal narratives and a capacity to look beyond national polarities and understand the self as complex and polychrome. Marzia Varutti, studying national museums in China, also considers the aesthetic turn in gallery display, suggesting that for China it permits a willing cultural and historical amnesia – a forgetting of complex, difficult and ideologically-charged histories and an ethnically diverse present. The homogenizing effect is to affirm the uncomplicated and reverential mythology of a single great civilisation. Like the experience in the Estonian folk museum, which might also be accused of the aestheticising the past, one senses in this approach an attempt to connect past and future. 

The nation on the world stage

The development of a Western canon of art history was manufactured in European national museums from the late eighteen century. The museums Chris Whitehead explores, positioned at the heart of the most powerful empire of the period, had no difficulty acquiring ‘expensive, foreign paintings’ and participating in this moment of editorship. The desire was for ready-made art esteemed by British and Continental connoisseurs; in Britain, the national gallery was to be built using foreign materials appropriated with the self-satisfaction of an old and powerful old empire. But this did not mean that Britain acquired all its art through the exercising of military might. An old nation, it also possessed international ties and family connections (figure 1.3). The British, it seems, did not worry too much about the relative lack of esteem for home-grown works as power and meaning were in possession and not in the geography of manufacture. 

Figure 1.3 The Cast Court at the V&A, London (during renovation). This is not the example of imperial appropriation it might seem to be, but the result of commerce and cultural exchange which sought to introduce great world art to national populations of scholars and students across Europe. In 1867, fifteen European princes signed The Convention fro Promoting Universal Reproductions of Works of Art in order to promote this practice. Photo: Simon Knell

By their collecting efforts and approaches to display, the national museums and galleries of the older, wealthier and larger nations defined the canon of European art as an archipelago of interconnected islands (Dutch, French, Flemish, Italian and so on), set in an ocean of artistic silences. Not all nations had been empowered to contribute to this act of artistic cartography. Susanna Pettersson’s Finnish Art Society, for example, recognised that Finland had no possibility of swimming in the mainstream. However, all nations engaged in acts of copying as a means to emulate and extend the canon of great art, but Finland recognised that it could not supplement this with the purchase of great works. In time, Finnish artists travelled to acquire their training, but ultimately what they produced – because the society demanded it – was something that could be called Finnish art. Inevitably, this involved the development of favoured themes, subjects, styles and artists. Finland’s engagement produced both distance and implicit connection. While it contained the echoes of the Western canon, this art also, inevitably and gently, pushed the boundaries of that canon slightly towards Finland. 

These artist ripples of influence have encircled the globe as a result of travel, travelling exhibitions and study abroad. It is not difficult to see, for example, in the 1980s paintings of the distinguished Taiwanese artist Ku Ping-Hsing, on display at the Taiwan Museum of Art, echoes of Cezanne, Leger and the Futurists (Taiwan Museum of Art 1991). Yet Ku’s work also reflects that island’s modern art tradition, its timing, its relationship to the West, and more deep-rooted Chinese philosophies which shape technique, style and subject – as well as the relationship between master and student – rather differently. A European seeing this art for the first time cannot help but think he or she has entered an alternative configuration of reality; not a world of copies but of other imaginings. 

There are, then, within national museums – and particularly national art museums – many ways in which the collections have acquired an actual or implicit international dimension. Despite its difficult-to-shake-off geographical hegemonies, the modern art market aspires to globalism and in doing so follows a counter-course to the discipline of history’s growing appreciation of the indigenous and local. Art aspires to exist in an undifferentiated homogenous world where freedom of expression is unconstrained. This internationalism turns small and provincial art museums into vehicles of nationhood. In contrast many provincial historical museums have long fought again global homogenization though with the rise of new media and the possibilities to celebrate local difference on a global stage, even these are coming understand that globalisation need not produce homogenization. They too might consider themselves as having national purpose just as English provincial museums did two hundred years ago. 

Hughes’ British Museum must also be delighted with the turn towards globalisation because it offers political salvation but such international museums do not possess the world’s art and antiquities simply as a result of past colonialism. Other nations, who find themselves overshadowed by powerful neighbours, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have actively promoted themselves in the West. South Korea, for example, has sponsored a number of permanent galleries in the great national museums of Europe and America (Kim 2005); now Korean celadon sits proudly in the exhibitionary equivalent of the embassy. There it stands for the antiquity and creative genius of a civilisation no less great than that of the Chinese and Japanese. Korean identity is by this means being built internationally and in doing so – by spreading the word – that nation is gaining cultural solidity and resilience: ‘this is what we are, these are the things from which we are made, and we are different from them.’

Over the last decade, governments have come to recognise that contemporary art offers a powerful medium through which to gain this kind of international foothold. South Korea, for example, has adopted the artistic calendar of biennales and other events (Lee, this volume). In Turkey, there has been a far longer attempt to connect to Europe through art. Ayşe Köksal’s interest is in Turkish modern art and the role it has played in the development of the modern nation. In the post-revolutionary nation, this art permitted a break with the past and the invention of a new modern cultural tradition which nevertheless connected Turkey to artistic developments in Europe. Successive iterations of national art museums in Istanbul have attempted to mirror the West, to show Turkey’s Europeanness. In Turkey this involved government intervention whereas in Poland the end of communism bought about a spontaneous eruption in contemporary art as a reflection of new found freedoms. It both nations contemporary art is understood as politically empowering. It found has a place in the nation and demanded international dialogue.

Taiwan’s international engagement has been fundamentally different. With the rise the People’s Republic of China, the US saw Taiwan as a pocket-sized remnant of the old nation. As Chi-jung Chu explains, at first benefiting from American dollars, Taiwan soon found itself abandoned and then had to begin its own diplomacy through culture. As the island embraced increasing democracy so it grew a sense of its own identity and national museums became sites for the display of things considered Taiwanese rather than the Chinese. Even the most Chinese of Taiwan’s national museums – the National Palace Museum and the National History Museum – somehow managed to exhibit this new Taiwanese identity (Tseng 2003). 

This process of national self-definition in art is an on-going process – a process of translating the material into the nation. In 2007, this was still happening to Edward Hopper. At a major temporary exhibition of his work in the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Hopper’s paintings, which might be thought to capture something of the American landscape, were encouraged to speak of ‘America’. Perhaps inadvertently, the exhibition, its setting and everything about it seemed to be making political statements which continued to manoeuvre Hopper into the nation’s heart, making his iconography the iconography of the nation. The accompanying brochure described him as ‘The iconic American artist’, a status that had been acquired through much post-mortem hagiography by galleries and just these kinds of statement. The video presentation of his life, described him in reverential tones, and in the same words stripped him of all mortal flesh, re-inventing him as a disembodied American hero. Through this act of museumisation, Hopper was being neutralised and remade; himself an object there to sit alongside Lincoln; a naturalised citizen of the National Mall (figure 1.4). And if Hopper’s work travelled he became an American envoy, the latest in a two-century attempt to convince Europe that America possessed a culturally sophisticated civilisation. 

Figure 1.4 Pilgrims pay homage to Lincoln, the American colossus. The National Mall is the archetypal made musealised landscape. The Lincoln Memorial is the most iconic piece in a landscape where memorials and museums are themselves objects in the materialisation of the nation. Photo: Simon Knell

Hopper had first come to notice in exhibitions like Paintings by Nineteen Living Americans at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in December 1929. In that exhibition ‘American’ was more than a category. It too served to position the artist within the nation; it privileged national belonging over other categories which also might have given the exhibition logical cohesion. It was part of an ongoing art gallery process which first legitimises and later mythologizes the artist. And if the artist is to remain forever in the national firmament then it is work that must be repeatedly undertaken, converting each new generation to the established canon, and ensuring collections and museum of their continued value to society.

As one of the most perfected traditional galleries in the world, the National Gallery of Art in Washington paints the nation with a wash of conservative values best felt in marble and in paintings by artists that require no introduction. Writ large in stone outside the National Gallery are the words ‘United States of America’ and one senses not only is the nation promoting nationalised conceptions of art, it is also proud of the American wealth that has permitted it to appropriate so many of Europe’s most iconic works. The gallery is not alone in this act of carving the nation into the fabric of the building; others do so in the names of esteemed or martyred citizens (figure 1.5). 

Figure 1.5 The Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, Lithuania. Here the names of martyrs are written into the fabric of the building, just as they are in the IJzertorn. Like the words, ‘United States of America’, carved into the National Gallery in Washington, they ensure that visitors understand that a nationalistic message is being performed within the building. Photo: Simon Knell

The National Gallery of Art not only presents the American nation but also presents Europe’s artistic nations to America. Following the European convention of providing separate galleries of Dutch, French and Italian art, it is nevertheless possible to drift through the galleries oblivious of these national distinctions. The gallery, however, is not afraid to imagine national stereotypes when it publicises this art to the nation (figure 1.6). 

Figure 1.6 Essentialised representations of nations at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. These hoardings deal in stereotypes which are easily overturned if we remember the rural qualities of France or think of Amsterdam. Photo: Simon Knell

With its pride in the flag, the USA covets the patriotic ideal and in this respect produces national museums and galleries which are subtly different from those in much of Europe. One senses that if Hopper is being repeatedly reaffirmed in the national museum, so too is America. Indeed, ‘America’ and ‘American’ are used with surprising frequency in these museums though we have grown so accustomed to it that it goes unnoticed. The Art of the American Snapshot 1888 – 1978 on display at the National Gallery in 2007 is a case in point (figure 1.7). We could, of course, merely attribute geographical categorisation to the use of the word ‘American’ here. But these snapshots were on display in the National Gallery. They did not possess any aesthetic or artistic merit; there was nothing about them that made them distinctly American – like all snapshots they were, except for those who possess them, simply banal. Here, however, ‘American’ is a binding force. Isolated from the world of photographic snapping, American visitors might well believe through the shared social experience of the exhibition, that there is something truly American here which units image and people. The term, ‘American’, is used to give significance to something which would struggle to achieve it by any other means. This act of aggrandisement is also seen in the new iconic buildings within which art is placed. These give the contents gravitas and permit nations to say ‘we belong’, ‘we are like you’. One of the performance national museums give, universally, is that of grandness and weight even if to do so implies a certain superficiality of outlook. 

Figure 1.7 The American snapshot at the National Gallery in Washington. Is the term ‘American’ used here to create the illusion that in these images one might locate a national – as distant from a universal – practice? Photo: Simon Knell

The material boundaries and the national imagination

Much of what I have discussed in this chapter concerns the manner in which national museums contribute to imagining and defining the nation both for citizens and wider international communities. It is possible, I suggest, to see the national museum’s performance configured within a definable multidimensional space (figure 1.8); to suggest that the museum seeks to shape a particular imagining of the nation through its deployment of space and objects according to embedded values and perceptions.  Figure 1.8 also suggests that these deployments reveal an unresolved tension between the public and professional.

Figure 1.8 Performing the nation in the national museum. Arrows represent six dimensions discussed within this chapter, within which the national museum constructs the nation (represented by the irregular star-shape in the centre). The dimensions do not form discrete categories, nor are they comprehensive. The diagram also suggests that publics and professionals (including academics) are divided in their approach to and desires for the national museum. The terms used remain ambiguous but can be given more specific meaning when associated with these two groups. Certain museum professionals may place themselves in the area of memory, morality, performance and human subjects. They might in these roles be considered ‘audience advocates’ as distinct from the public. The term ‘science’ is here used in the sense it is applied outside the English-speaking world, to mean academically rigorous.

One might argue, by extending and abusing some of Susan Pearce’s (1995: 203) arguments, that museums are implicitly sites of object fetishism. Their outlook is oddly discriminating. This oddness is visible if one compares the exhibition gallery’s view of the world with that of any popular snapshot. The difference, of course, is that the photograph is centred on the person. Ironically, the museum may believe that its subject is also people but, for professional and aesthetic reasons it resists the temptation to make people into objects of the disinterested gaze. The metaphor of the camera is helpful in understanding the peculiar manner in which the museum views the world. If we simply open the camera lens for long enough and the crisp image of the human subject begins to blur, then streak, ultimately to disappear to be replaced by the more durable and immobile traces of the material world. Like this open lens, the museum compresses time and represents its human subjects through the material culture with which they have engaged. The reality of passing through a series of distinct and often unrelated ‘nows’, as J. B. Priestley (1964) put it, becomes altered into a single unrealistic – but somehow comprehensible – ‘then’ and ‘there’. Thought and flesh – the ghosts of people – become implicitly and objectively embodied in object and architecture and material things can now be made to speak for them. Identities and nation-states are by these means concretised and sentimentalized (Handler 1988; Macdonald 2003: 5). Thus when the Congo arrived in Stockholm in the early twentieth century, as discussed by Lotten Gustafsson Reinius, a small and recently disempowered nation found reassurance in the superior state of its civilisation. A distant people had arrived in the form of primitive things which appealed greatly to a Swedish sense of improving and homogenizing patronage. The human subjects of the exhibition, however, remained a blur – not to be known only to be imagined. The objects themselves were exotic – clearly they were not ‘us, the Swedes’ or indeed not even ‘us, the Europeans’. Amy Barnes shows a similar relationship between the British and Chinese. The British frequently felt a sense of superiority but had to do rather more work to both admire Chinese achievement and yet deny that nation’s modernity. 

By these means we locate or imagine national disconnections through discontinuities in material things. We also, in the manner in which communities are both cohesive and Othering, locate layers of connections through these material things: local, regional, national, European. Across the national museums of Europe, there is in an implicit and connective language of material things – objects and architecture – dominated by the motifs of Classical culture. Repeatedly valued and imported by nations across Europe, the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome perform as a transeuropean language in defining as different those who live beyond its borders. We perform this sense of connection in the museum and in the surrounding landscape. Take a stroll through the Classical worlds of Greece and Rome at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, for example, and it is easy to lose track of which of those worlds one is now in. But enter the market gate of Miletus and you exit through Ishtar Gate and into Babylonia, out of Europe, so one feels, and into another world (figure 1.9).[2] A Europe that has always possessed mobile populations and multiple ethnicities, and almost constant political upheaval and reconfiguration, has been defined by the repeated appropriation of the Classical world. If there is an implicit language of things that unites or creates this European sensibility, then are national museums merely representative of that sensibility or do they give it to us (figure 1.10)?[3] It is a sensibility that had to be made and made to persist.  Chris Wingfield notes how entrenched respect for the Classical had become in the British Museum and reveals that it was only overcome when Darwinian ethnographic study legitimised the search for the origins of civilisation. The primitive British could be then encompassed within the evolution of civilisation – they too could be placed on the map and timeline. Nevertheless, the idea of a primordial civilisation played out in folk museums across Europe does not contribute to a sense of Europeanness; they conceptualise the indigenous and local.

Figure 1.9 The Pergamon Museum, Berlin. Here a European can feel the connective tissue of Classicism but also experience the sense of leaving it and entering intro the world of an Other. Photo: Simon Knell
Figure 1.10 Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris, one of the most influential museums in the world. Classicism did not enter the European psyche merely via collections of antiquities. Disciplinary knowledge also has it foundations in the Classical world and has been shaped and performed in national museums. This too defines and connects Europe. Photo: Simon Knell

One of the contributions of national museums to national imagining is to define and transcend geographical boundaries in complex and subtle ways. I am not thinking here of more obvious acts of cartography through collecting (Duclos 2004). In the construction and positioning of the nation, there is both a tangible and imagined connection between the material thing within the museum and that without; between movable material culture and the immovable landscape. Again, I am not here thinking simply that these things are all heritage but rather that the manner in which they materially make the nation is the same; it is museological.  

William Wordsworth wrote, with pre-nation-state sensibility, in his Guide of the English Lakes in 1835, ‘Neither high-born nobleman, knight or esquire, was here; but many…humble sons of the hills had a consciousness that the land, which they had walked over and tilled, had for more than five hundred years been possessed by men of their name and blood’ (quoted in Thompson 2010: 49). The barns and field systems (and for Wordsworth the deeply weathered farmhouses), now preserved across the upland landscapes of North Yorkshire and Cumbria bear material witness to this human connection; like objects in the museum, they have endured. Indeed, the musealized landscape needs to be understood as an eversion of the museum in which we can see the interior processes of the museum (taxonomy, representation, narrative construction, professional possession and so on) spilled out and into our conceptualisation of place (figure 1.11). In our performed imagining of the nation, a material, cultural and psychological connection links J. M. R. Turner’s Malham Cove (1810) and James Ward’s massive Gordale Scar (1815), both in the collections of Tate Britain, to the landscape which they represent. Tate’s interpretation of Ward’s painting is suitably nationalistic – ‘Working in the last years of the Napoleonic wars, Ward aimed to depict a national landscape, primordial and unchanging, defended by “John Bull” in animal form’[4] –  but this is only one element at play here. 

Figure 1.11 Material continuities: materialising the national imagination in museums and musealised landscapes. Reading the interpreted landscape as an eversion of the Musuem, it is possible to locate a continuity of constructive processes that transgress the conventions of cultural institutionalisation. Place-myth and object-myth are in constant connection, imaginings of the one affecting the other.

The key to understanding the relationship between things within the museum and those without, between the museum object and landscape lies in a denial of what Sue Pearce referred to as the movement of objects in and out of circulation in society. Pearce argues that entry into the museum moves objects out of the circulatory system. However, the object as performed and imagined is always in circulation unless completely concealed (whether in a museum or as private property).  An object (or landscape) redolent of nationhood – whether an imagine, imagined, held or observed – circulates freely within our national imagining regardless of the medium through which it reaches us. The object worked upon by artistic and scientific processes may gain a special place in this national making but it may also retain geographical connections beyond the museum. To use John Urry’s (1995: 194-8) notion, the place-myth which produces value in the landscape has in the museum its counterpart in the object-myth. Thus Malham Cove finds its nation-imagining qualities in its association with Turner, the English watercolour movement and Turner’s romantic rendition of Englishness but also in the significance that landscape already possessed and which drew Turner to travel there to represent it. The allegorical significance which seems to exist in the artwork may actually have preceded its manufacture, existing in subject and psyche beforehand. The artwork adds and adjusts through the performances in the museum but all the while its exterior subject may also be being worked on in other ways. Malham Cove – which has nothing to do with the sea – is possessed by the National Trust and is situated in a National Park. This work of possessing, managing, protecting and promoting the landscape is also shaping Turner’s painting; the acts of viewing and interpreting this painting, of valuing an art movement and artist are shaping – and contributing to the musealization of – the landscape. My point here is not, however, about images of things in the exterior world but rather that when we consider museums as providing material settings for the performance of the nation we need to understand that this performance, and the material settings which permit it, have a direct relationship to the world outside. Indeed, that processes of musealization are involved in the performances in both settings are essentially the same but also connected. And we do not need to walk through the ruins of an ancient city to feel this connection; it is everywhere.

Figure 1.12 Figures dance at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. In Tokyo ‘All the world’s a stage’ and thus is simply one performance. Materialised, observed and labelled, social performances in the modern city are intimately connected to those displayed in the museum. Photo: Simon Knell

This sense of continuity between the internalised museum and the musealized world  beyond the walls of the museum is also felt in Tokyo. The modern and monumental Edo-Tokyo Museum musealizes a populated world; its subject is the Edo-Tokyo people who have performed their lives in the city. The museum consists of actors (the public and representations of former publics) and sets. Japanese prints have here been used as historical documents for reconstruction of the city in vast dioramas: hundreds of tiny figures dance through old Edo (figure 1.12). In the shop, the tourist finds books on Salary Men, Kanji, Cosplay, Sushi, Anime and other aspects of modern Japanese life which act as labels to the exterior world. When one exits the museum, then, one does not cross a firm boundary but enter a modern set – the musealized landscape of popular culture which seems to be simultaneously normal and extraordinary (both to tourists and the local Japanese). Like other national museums, the visitor might sense that the nation of the past is connected to the future, that the nation that is imagined and performed within the museum’s walls is also performed outside, and indeed that both performances affect each other – both are connected.


Altick, A. D. (1978) The Shows of London, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Anderson, B. (1983; 2006) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso.

Berger, S. And Lorenz, C. (2008) ‘Introduction: national history writing in Europe in a global age’, in S. Berger and C. Lorenz (eds) The Contested Nation: Ethnicity, Class, Religion and Gender in National Histories, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, E. M. (1994) ‘Abraham Lincoln as authentic reproduction: a critique of postmodernism’, American Anthropologist, 96: 397-415.

Duclos, R. (2004) ‘The cartographies of collecting’, in S. J. Knell (ed.) Museums and the Future of Collecting, Second Edition, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.

Gable, E. and Handler, R. (1996) ‘After autheniticity at an American heritage site’, American Anthropologist, 98: 568-78.

Handler, R. (1988) Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Hawkes, J. (1951) A Land, London: Cresset Press.

Hoskins, W. G. (1955) The Making of the English Landscape, London: Penguin.

Kim, K. C. (2005) Korea as seen through its material culture and museums, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Leicester.

Knell, S. J. (2007a) ‘Introduction’, in S. J. Knell, S. MacLeod and S. Watson (eds) Op. cit., xix-xxvi.

Knell, S. J. (2007b) ‘Museums, fossils and the cultural revolution of science: mapping change in the politics of knowledge in early nineteenth-century Britain’, in S. J. Knell, S. MacLeod and S. Watson (eds) Op. cit., 28-47.

Knell, S. J. (ed.) (2007c) ‘Museums, reality and the material world’, in S. J. Knell (ed.) Museums in the Material World, London: Routledge, 1-28.

Knell, S. J.. MacLeod, S., and Watson, S. (eds) (2007) Museum Revolutions: How Museums Change and are Changed, London: Routledge.

Macdonald, S. (2003) ‘Museums, national, postnational and transcultural identities’, Museum & Society, 1: 1-16.

MacGregor, A. (2007) Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Pearce, S. M. (1995) On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition, London: Routledge.

Peck, J. M. (1992) ‘Rac(e)ing the nation: is there a German “home”?’, New Formations, 17: 75-84.

Priestley, J. B. (1964) Man and Time, London: Aldus Books.

Nora, P. (1989) ‘Between memory and history: les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, 26: 7-25.

Preziosi, D. (1998) The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Renan, E. (1996 [1882]) ‘What is a nation?’, in G. Eley, and R. G. Suny (eds) (1996) Becoming National: A Reader, New York: Oxford University Press, 42-55.

Sandberg, M. B. (2003) Living Pictures, Missing Persons: Mannequins, Museums and Modernity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Smith, A. D. (2000) The Nation in History: Historiographical Debates about Ethnicity and Nationalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Taiwan Museum of Art (1991) Modern Painting Exhibition by Ku Ping-Hsing, Taipei: Taiwan Museum of Art.

Tseng, S. (2003) The Art Market, Collectors and Art Museums in Taiwan since 1949, Taipei: Sanyi Cultural Enterprise.

Thompson, I. (2010) The English Lakes: A History, London: Bloomsbury.

Watson, S. E. R. (2007) ‘History museums, community identities and a sense of place: rewriting histories’, in S. J. Knell, S. MacLeod and S. Watson (eds) Op. cit., 160-72.

Urry, J. (1995) Consuming Places, London: Routledge.


[1] My concerns here are about written narrative rather than the more poetic notion of spatial narrative.

[2] This thought occurred simultaneously to myself and my colleague Sheila Watson as we walked through the arch.

[3] This is the subject of research being carried out as part of the EU FP7 project Eunamus 2010-2013.

[4]  J. M. R. Turner (1775-1851).  James Ward (1769-1859), Gordale Scar (A View of Gordale, in the Manor of East Malham in Craven, Yorkshire, the Property of Lord Ribblesdale), c.1812-1814, Tate Collection, Tate Online, http://www.tate.org.uk/collection/ (accessed 12 April 2010). John Bull was a contemporary personification of Great Britain, and particularly England, regularly featuring in cartoons and caricatures.