National museums as the cement of society

December 07, 2012

These are some of the fundamental conclusions of the research programme Eunamus (European National Museums), soon to be reported. A final report has been produced and a final conference will be held in Budapest 12-14 December.

For the first time the program has conducted a comparative study of politics and museums in 37 countries. Using more than 5,000 surveys and interviews as a basis, the study makes it possible to see distinct patterns, says Peter Aronsson, Professor of Cultural Heritage and the Uses of History at Linköping University (LiU), and coordinator of Eunamus.

"We can see that museums play an important role when nations are formed, such as in Germany in the 1800s and in Scotland today. A tangible picture of what a nation is, its history, and its cultures and values are formed in its museums."

However for this to work, the image conveyed should not be too insipid and idealized. Conflicts, difficult phases and tension in the nation should also be brought forward. Countries that have succeeded at this have today better cohesiveness than those that avoided it.

"It is, of course, not only to the museums' advantage, but they absolutely do influence the ability to achieve a social contract," explains Aronsson and provides two examples:

"The National Museum in Berlin successfully handles the German trauma of the Hitler era, the Second World War, and its division into East and West. This strengthens the idea of national continuity that remains during difficult phases."

"In Portugal, Greece and Italy, the museums don't play the same role. These countries benefit from their classic heritage of national pride and tourism. However they are not so vocal about the last century's traumas such as fascism, the junta and the civil war. Remaining silent about such issues cripples trust in society, and the social contract."

In Eastern Europe a distinct recoding of history post-1989 is occurring, where black and white are interchanged. There, museums that have survived the political fluctuations are a great resource.

Another conclusion of the program is that national museums need to remain free from political governance in order to succeed with their task. It is critical that politicians and cultural workers retain respect for each other's roles.

One goal of Eunamus was to investigate how stronger cohesiveness can be created in Europe. The recommendation given is to move in the same direction, at the European level, that many nations already have taken, successfully: To render museums with a more central role to devise a relevant treatment of Europe and its opportunities and challenges.

"This is also under way," Aronsson says. For example in 2014 the House of European History will open in Brussel. Europiana is a digital investment depicting Europe's collated material cultural heritage.

The same history that once gave rise to war and conflict can be turned into a foundation for collaboration and community. Just think of the Nordic countries in the 1600s, with Sweden and Denmark in constant bloody conflict, and those same countries today, where we solve our conflicts with methods other than violence.
Eunamus homepage including programme and the concluding conference

Linköping University

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