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Museums— A means of ‘soft’ power, trust & conflict

Museums of a country are the gateways to its history and culture. However, conflicts galore in their ability to be truly inclusive.

News Arena Network - New Delhi - UPDATED: May 17, 2024, 12:08 AM - 5 mins read

Glimpse of the Indian Museum, Kolkata.

Museums— A means of ‘soft’ power, trust & conflict

Indian Museum situated in Kolkata, West Bengal. This is the world's oldest & largest museum in India and Asia, by size of collection. Glimpse from its Egyptian (left) and Decorative Art Galleries. (Image credit: indianmuseumkolkata.org).


Innumerable events are lined up across the globe to celebrate International Museum Day, which will be observed on May 18. However, on a deeper level, the day presents an opportunity for a societal health check by examining how museums engage with history, including their own chequered pasts, changing socio-political contexts and increasing demands for recognition by historically-silenced communities.

 

While there is no denying that Museums of a country are the gateway to its history and culture, however, for Museums to be truly inclusive, decolonised and spaces of education and research, there is a need to rethink power relations and learnings from past lessons.

 

The Covid-19 pandemic popularised virtual museum tours across the world. Suddenly, culture and history became more accessible.

 

Digitisation has also changed the relationship of the viewer with the objects on view. But such new forms of access produce their own logic of gatekeeping on the kinds of stories that get told, even as global cultures become more accessible.

 

In politics, the talent to leverage outcomes through appeal and not coercion is denoted as ‘soft’ power. On a larger spectrum, Museums, too, possess this virtue. They serve as a method of soft power through control over the acquisition, curation, display and movement of objects between countries.

 

As social institutions that authorise cultural meaning, museums tell particular stories and leave out others. This also imbues them with political meaning.

 

In the present era, Museums can be perceived as laboratories of ideas with the medium’s ardent approach to resuscitate their traditionally staid image in the public imagination. After all, a crop of new museums are coming up across the world with private funding and investment.

 

 

Glimpse of the collections at the British Museum located at the Bloomsbury area of London. (Left) The Lycurgus Cup, probably made in Rome, AD 300s. This is a special type of glass, known as dichroic, which changes colour when held up to the light. And Brass head of an Ooni (king) of lfe, Nigeria 1300s – early 1400s. (Image Credit: britishmuseum.org).

 

Cut to the British Museum, which has the potential to make headlines for every possible reason. The theft of several museum displays by a former curator has opened up a broader conversation on cultural theft, ownership, reparation and setting right historical wrongs.

 

An ethical rhetoric of how the museum gathered its wealth of artifacts lies at its centre— a sordid history of empire. This question gets revisited whenever formerly colonised countries. ironically, demand the repatriation of cultural artifacts forcibly removed by their colonisers.

 

In the past few decades, museums around the world have hosted several important exhibitions, which extends support to the processes of telling truth and reconciliation. For instance, these include exhibitions in Canada which responds to the ongoing consequences of its Residential School System and the dispossession of Japanese Canadians, and addresses the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families in Australia.

 

In this regard, ‘trust’ lands up as an imperative factor. A 2021 survey by the Council of Australasian Museum Directors revealed that museums remain one of the most trusted types of organisation amongst the public.

 

With this trust comes immense responsibility. Anthropologists, namely, Kathryn Lafrenz Samuels and Jon D. Daehnke point out that cultural heritage can inflict social harms and produce social goods. Decisions about whose stories are told and how to commemorate the past contribute to a sense of who ‘the people’ or ‘the public’ are— who is included and who is excluded.

 

American feminist historian Gerda Lerner, who was jailed in 1938 for her resistance to the Nazi takeover of Austria before escaping from Europe, knew that history is not just a mere book that provides recipes. The horrors she had seen as a Jew in Europe would not be repeated in their particulars. But, she argued, “we can learn by analogy”.

 

British historian John Tosh points out: “The whole point of an analogy is that it notes similarities in things which in other respects are unalike.” If we are open to both similarities and differences, “the effect is to liberate our thinking from the rigidities of current discourse, not by prescribing a course of action but by expanding our sense of the options”.

 

Stories of Australia’s Japanese community, who were interned without legal protection against the might of the state, resonate with an analogy for our times. Their story demands that we examine what we owe each other, as humans, in times of conflict.

 

However, certain stories demand that we examine what we owe each other, as humans, in times of conflict. By saying this, it reminds us of the social and democratic contributions of museums as underpinned by the public trust that they hold.

 

On this International Museum Day, the need is to give a call on Museums as spaces of truth-telling, reflection and inclusion, thereby acting as a guide. 

 

 

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