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Museums and National Identity – A brief overview.


The transformation of the political landscape since the end of the Second World War challenged museum professionals to consider matters of national identity in radically new ways.  Globalisation, the erosion of the nation state, decolonisation, increasing migration and the decline of empire were catalysts for changes in society which were to be increasingly mirrored and represented in museums. At the end of the twentieth century many institutions had begun to create more democratic and inclusive interpretations of national identity than those experienced in the previous one, when curators constructed meta narratives which reinforced a particular national state paradigm.  In the nineteenth century, museums’ responses to identity entered public consciousness, driving social and political thinking, sometimes mythologising the past, often rendering mute diverse voices and any sense of difference.

By the first decade of the twenty-first century, the challenge for museums became one of reconciliation and integration within the diversity and plurality of national identity.  Museums were seen to be an important part of the fabric forming a national consciousness, having the potential to offer a voice to some, whilst silencing others, mirroring and shaping contemporary perceptions within the national narrative. Museums began representing in their exhibitions a multiplicity of viewpoints, demonstrating political agency to highlight society’s increasingly fluid and contingent nature, encouraging an increasing acceptance of diversity.

Today, in an era of multiculturalism, women’s movements, the recognition of LGBT rights, respect for the environment, coupled with large scale movements of populations across the globe for travel, commerce or migration, many states’ identities are being redefined in museums, changing visitors’ perceptions, as previously neglected histories and silenced voices are heard, contextualised and reframed in the process of narrating the nation. 

For some communities, seeing themselves reflected in museum interpretations and national stories for the first time has been a fundamentally liberating, reaffirming and cathartic experience. For others, it has represented an uncomfortable, and in some cases unacceptable rewriting of an established and seemingly immutable narrative of nationhood.  The Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of national and populist movements may compel some to call for the return of a national identity from a nostalgic and mythologised past. Museums must exercise their agency, continuing to contextualise the past, offering platforms to multiple voices, addressing the questions of whose history is being constructed. By looking at the very processes of construction and negotiation and their outcomes, and by recognising the connections, the museum profession will be better able to reconcile these differences.

Stephen Barker

Heritage Advisor