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European Museums and Interculture: responding to challenges in a globalized world

by Chris Torch

Chris Torch

Chris Torch is Senior Associate at Intercult, a production and resource unit focused on culture, ideas and the arts. Founded in 1996, it is a publically-financed institution, based in Stockholm, Sweden and a designated Europe Direct office, managed within the institution’s European Resource Center for Culture since 2009.

He is currently on the Board of Trustees for The European Museum Forum and an active member of the Steering Group for the Platform for Intercultural Europe.

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I. Introduction

First: I am not a museologist. I do have extensive experience in the intercultural sector, as producer, performer, curator and observer. But I am in no way an expert on museums. It is quite possible that many of my reflections about the museum sector are naïve and I surely can’t substantiate them academically. I may well use imprecise terminology.

My observations - and in some cases my hopes and imaginations - are those of a museum lover. I firmly believe that museums have an important role to play in re-thinking European relations both with the rest of the world and indeed with our own diverse population. I know that many professional museum workers have been attempting important changes throughout Europe. I have the privilege of being in close contact with some of them, thanks to my recent engagement as Trustee for the European Museum Forum.

This paper is about how I dream museums to become. I have visited many institutions through the years. I see clear and hopeful tendencies.

But I must apologize for my “amateur” (in the true meaning of the word) approach. Please read this with a certain tolerance.

In may 2008, the Council of Europe Ministers of Foreign Affairs launched a significant White Paper called “Living Together As Equals in Dignity”. The purpose was to frame a platform for collective action. The subject was intercultural dialogue. The focus was on shared space.

In order for us to share a space, we must first frame it, clarify it, map it. We must overview and at the same time explore the details. We must both observe and interact. Intercultural dialogue is mutual transformation. We are confronted by the Other and we are changed in the meeting. If we remain in locked positions, at best tolerant, then no development is possible.

The Senegalese actor and director Mandiaye N’Diaye calls this ”re-creating the circle”. He refers to the community act, in villages and small towns, of gathering in a circle at cultural festivities, in order to establish one’s own position in relation to others, to see the faces and bodies of our neighbors with whom we share a space. We both observe and participate.

Shared space is essential for the development of dialogue. Although our personal histories are different, our playing field is common. To better understand ourselves we must learn to know the Other.

There are a number of essential spaces shared throughout the world: the school, the workplace, the sports arena, media networks, the town square and other urban gathering places. And among the most important and widely used: museums and heritage sites.

This paper emerges from sounding out colleagues and members of the European Museum Forum (EMF) about their experiences and obeservations, with a special glance towards the European Museum of the Year Award winners and nominees during recent years.

It is also based on my own observations, specifically in the Nordic region and in countries around the Black Sea, where I have been active in recent years, and other parts of Eastern Europe. Although there are some intercultural museum practices developing in the Eastern and Balkan regions, approaches formed by globalization and migration are still lacking. The tendency is similar to other European museums but moving slowly, primarily due to economic conditions and other immediate concerns. Museums there are unfortunately still focused on the creation of national/local identities and on heritage preservation aimed at increased tourism. They work in an ambience of a certain institutional fatigue.

I choose to not refer to specific examples in the main text. Rather I studied many projects and approaches, looking for tendencies distilled from the field. There are numerous examples, more than I could have imagined. At the end of the text is a short list of projects, museums, websites, reports and short studies, etc. Most of them proposed by associates within the EMF network.

II. Transformation Time Line for museums and interculture

Museums have progressed during the last two centuries on a constantly shifting timeline.

They began as platforms for ethnocentric collection and display, in order to glorify the building of a nation and to define a people. They served to cement our self-image. They presented trophies, often stolen, taken by adventurous men on dangerous journeys.

They moved through exoticism, exploring the world and bringing back traces of the Other into our own backyards, enclosing them, boxing them in, entertaining us with the diversity of the world but at the same time affirming our own superiority.

They moved slowly into a post-colonial ”bad conscience syndrome”, grounded in self-criticism and even self-disgust. This was not a fruitful development, neither for our own image or for those who stories we were trying to revise. It led to a dead end. The museum became a place of horror and exploitation, often painful to visit.

And – during the past couple of decades – a deeper understanding of the role that museums can have in mutual understanding came into play. Intercultural exchange has replaced multi-cultural archiving. The European museum has become a laboratory and a playground for shared experience.

What is the future?

Sincere cross-cultural production. Synthesizing, inspiring, challenging. Imagining and animating an intercultural future based on global concerns and complex knowledge systems.

III. Challenges

The role of museums in facing challenges rooted in migration and globalization has changed rapidly in the last two decades. From insulated and academically based institutions, museums are transforming into accessible centers of collective cultural memory. By focusing on communication rather than archiving, museums have opened to an active dialogue not only with the society at large but also with defined target groups (immigrants, global nomads, students) and with the individual visitor.

distill, translate and re-communicate

If museums are not only entertainment institutions, but also educational ones, is there anything we can learn from and not only about other cultures? There are more than linear conceptions of time. Time itself is a cultural creation. Can we have a concept of contemporary without a historical concept?

The museum is challenged to take on a greater responsibility than simply collecting and exhibiting artefacts and art. It must in fact distill a great deal of information and translate this information for a presumptive visitor. It requires reflection and not just observation, criticism and not just illustration.

new technology and platforms

European museums, as centers of collective cultural memory, are going through rapid changes. New technology offers opportunities for sharing experiences and perspectives. We are no longer limited to remaining within the walls of a building or the fences of a public park or heritage site. We can transfer these images to visitors all over the world. The raw material of mutual understanding is accessible in ways never before imagined.

But this capacity for increased distribution is not enough to generate true intercultural dialogue. It is the cross-fertilization between virtual access and face to face encounter which makes museums relevant and useful.

incorporating new narratives

The term ethnographic museum, with its 19th century origins and connotations, is no longer preferred in practice. ”Ethnographic” now sounds strange and outdated, just as later concepts such as ‘Third World’ and ‘non-Western culture’ have become obsolete. So what kinds of museums do we need? What is the social role and position of the anthropological museum at this point in time?

As global mobility increases, both by forced migration and self-chosen nomadism, there is a need to incorporate hybrid narratives into the museum sector. Both the context and the visitor carry multiple identities which reflect on one another, constantly shifting perspectives. The capacity of the European museum sector to respond to new narratives growing from this rich mix of experience and background will define the future.

working directly with target communities

Who speaks for whom?

For far too long, museums have spoken TO the citizens, defining for them a perspective often based in existing power structures, often uncritically. The story of the Other has been told by the dominant culture, not in dialogue but in an unquestionable monologue.

In contemporary Europe, with an increasingly diverse population, there is an essential need to collaborate directly with target communities (youth, immigrant groups, women’s associations, religious gatherings, etc) in order to arrive at consensus about the narrative that is presented. It is also a challenge to find fluid means of presentation, allowing a changing perspective even within the lifetime of an exhibition. How does an interactive approach work? Can an exhibition transform itself in collaboration with the visitors, a kind of WikiMuseum, which allows for new voices to engage with the authors/curators?

cross referencing of knowledge bases

Bringing together different areas of research and creating a wholistic understanding of our world. This is a major challenge because no concept or fact can be simply moved from one arena to another. Translation is required.

Museums – like many other cultural sectors – have been sub-divided and insulated. Natural Sciences, Ethnograpic, Modern Art, History, Architecture. As if the world could be more easily defined by separating knowledges bases from one another.

Our globalized understanding of our societies requires a re-weaving of knowledge, so that we can compare and share. Natural science museums cannot any longer simply present bio-diversity without referring to cultural diversity. Anthropological museums cannot simply report on observations from other continents without taking into account colonialism and the long term political effects on the observed societies.

Responding to this challenge requires an interdisciplinary approach and will naturally also change the mandate of the museum, encouraging cross-referencing and co-production with other museums based in apparently quite different knowledge platforms.

intercultural and international partnerships

Transnationalism is clearly the name of the game, for practical/economic reasons, but also because the ”nationalist” perspective on which many museums were originally founded too easily plays into the hands of populist ideology and ongoing cultural domination. Museums must become ”shared spaces” even in the meaning of comparitive and transformative dialogue. The explicitly local/national perspective is no longer relevant, as both researchers and visitors develop a more subtile and complex world view. International partnerships, both short and long term, create new arenas for shared knowledge.

IV. Tendencies and trends

There are several clear tendencies in the European museum sector, rooted in increased awareness about migration, post-colonialism and globalization:

  • The museum is an intercultural meeting place – a mosaic of experiences, including inter-disciplinary and inter-ethnic opportunities. Museums are both educational and recreational. They often combine exhibitions with other activities gathering a broad spectrum of visitors, mixing generations, cultural backgrounds and interests.
  • The museum is part of a cultural ecology, where smaller local initiatives co-relate with larger initiatives by institutions with a global perspective. A diversity of museum initiatives reflects the different target groups and experiences: locally, nationally, trans-nationally. Exciting exhibitions have been created in modules, which can be presented in different arenas, as a totality in a larger museum and at the same time in mobile, distilled versions in smaller museums or other public spaces. This tendency multiplies the functionality of the research and preparation required. It also increases the cost effectiveness of the investment.
  • The museum is focused on increased participation of citizens, extending accessibility for minorities and marginalized groups. Defining clear target groups and establishing active partnerships with immigrant organizations and other sub-cultural groups are essential techniques for audience development. But they also encourage a greater participation in re-defining the narratives in dialogue with the target groups and the subjects of the exhibition.
  • The museum is changing perspective. It empasizes intercultural reflection instead of simple "international" or "ethnological" approaches. Mutual transformation instead of exoticism. Focusing on the history and cultural traditions of a foreign poulation requires a great deal of self-reflection as well. We are changed in our meeting with the Other and we reflect on this change by questioning our own traditions even as we observe apparently foreign realities.
  • The museum steps outside of traditional frameworks (ethnological, scientific, esthetic etc) and extends into and collaborates with other sectors – education, social work, architecture/city planning. The crossing over between knowledge sectors increases the complexity and the relevance of the presentation.
  • The museum uses more interactive methods and maximizes the mobility of exhibitions, as a direct result of working/thinking interculturally. Non-verbal and participatory approaches develop, stemming from a desire to communicate with citizens from varying ethnic groups, language groups, age groups and social classes.

V. Variations of museum initiatives: intercultural ecology

There is a broad spectrum of museums, both in size, scope, target and resources:

  • Personal/Memorial or limited heritage sites in small towns - local museums
  • Larger heritage sites, also in urban areas - regional museums
  • Grandiose collections and buildings - national museums
  • Science and History museums
  • Traveling exhibitions and initiatives - co-production

It is this spectrum of initiatives and inter-relationships that is most effective and re-generative for societies that seriously support museums and heritage.

Local and regional museums

...interpret the globalized world from the personal/community level. They link the world and their own experiences and collections. They revise their role, responding to the new combinations of cultures arising from migration. They deal with individuals, often not large in numbers, and with community groups.

National museums

... are sometimes still stuck in the “bad conscience” phase, especially in countries with colonialist experiences. They turn the narrative 180°, from triumphant national identity to admissions of guilt and shame, in various and sometimes fruitful ways. The buildings themselves can be an obstacle to meeting new audiences and telling new stories. They are heavily branded and can discourage interaction outside of a rather exclusive circle.

Science and History museums

... bring different threads of human creativity together, draw lines between disciplines. They raise important intercultural questions, challenge cross-sectoral thinking. Arts and Science has become a recurring discourse, even in the form of popular Culture/Science nights in many cities throughout Europe. The weakness is sometimes the academic nature of the material such a museum owns or commissions.

Co-productions: traveling/mobile initiatives

... grow from increased contact across national and other borders. Intercultural = Interdisciplinary, intersectoral, transnational. Both the process (encounters between museum professionals, co-creation) and the resulting exhibitions (different audiences, same material, multiple target groups) are valuable.

VI. Recommendations

  • Co-produce. It is economic, sustainable and inspiring for different kinds of museums to work together at several levels and with multiple resources.
  • Develop cultural policy which respects variation and the richness of global societies, brought about by migration, easier travel, economic shifts, information technology and curiosity. This means finding a balance in resources between all levels of museum initiative: local (small), regional and national (medium) and mobile/transnational (coproduction).
  • Continue to transform museums into “meeting places”, where strategic communication with new audiences brings about a healthy mix of visitors, themes, activities and generations. These infrastructural reforms are sustainable, they provide - when managed properly - extra income and they generate a mix that is healthy and future-oriented.
  • Find a proper balance between virtual exhibition and real-time encounter. Archiving and digitalization of collections is important but not at the expense of the physical shared space. Cultural heritage is not only about collecting but also needs continuous revision. This can only be done in collaboration with the visitors. Virtual presentation is a one way street. The museum space is a place for confrontation and reflection.
  • Break down the walls between different knowledge sectors. Focus on inter-disciplinary museums instead of mono-disciplinary research institutes and conservation.  Natural sciences, ethnology, cultural anthropology and artistic expression are no longer separated from one another. They are inter-connected and inform one another. Museum spaces (and branding) need to better reflect this multiplicity approach. Only in this way can we break down the exclusivity of collections and broaden the sensibilities of our visitors. Striving against fragmentization of knowledge.
  • Open the museums, make them transparent. Not only in the final form (the exhibition) but also in the process. Invite visitors to participate in the process of the creation of an exhibition rather than simply presenting final, fixed results by experts and curators. Allow the exhibitions to change even during the project’s lifetime. Increased flexibility and dialogue.
  • Share objects and exhibitions on a larger scale. Museum collections are not owned solely by the institutions that have collected them and taken responsibility for them. They are all part of our shared heritage. The peoples of Europe need access to a wider collection, in order to compare and evaluate our world.

VII. Examples/Best Practice

Nominees and winners of the European Museum of the Year Award:

Chester Beaty Library (winner 2002) - UK

Arnhem Open Air Museum (winner 2005) - NL

Museum of World Culture (nominee 2005) - SE

Slavery Museum Liverpool (nominee 2009) - UK

World Museum Liverpool (nominee 2007) - UK

Mångkulturellt Centrum (nominee 2005) - SE

Museum of British Empire and Commonwealth Countries (nominee 2003) - UK

Tropenmuseum (special commendation 1979) - NL


Museo Preistorico Etnografico di Roma Luigi Pigorini - IT


The current trend in the development of migration museums, named differently worldwide, is an interesting phenomenon, as it contributes to the creation of multiple identities, at an individual and collective level. 

MigrationsMuseums - a network of museums on the theme immigration

Moving Here project

This paper has been commissioned by the Directorate of Culture and Cultural and Natural Heritage of the Council of Europe (www.coe.int/culture). The paper is published on the EMF web site with permission from the Council of Europe. The text cannot be published elsewhere without the permission of the Council of Europe, but excerpts may be used for educational purposes. //