14 November 2017




Over the last six months or so of me writing the Musings Abroad column, I often think about how the museums I write about work together on an international level. In an increasingly globalized world, what do museums do, both actively and passively, to change, develop, enhance or decrease relationships between different countries, their governments, and their heritage/art institutions?

A Japanese McDonald's sign from 1975 from the National Museum of American History. Source.

What do I mean by international relations between museums? 

Museums are not the neutral and objective spaces many people have liked to believe over the past half a century; museums are political and contribute to social change on a local and wider scale. Museums have the ability to become symbols of cities or nations. Museums contribute to international relations by exhibiting collections from different nations and loaning objects across borders. Museum professionals are working more and more abroad, training in one country and working in another, bringing different policies and methods to different countries. Some museums work directly with different governments to ensure artifacts or remains are repatriated or exhibited, such as museums around the globe working with the Haida in repatriating their ancestral remains with communities and the Canadian/BC government.

Should Museums Care About International Relations?

So far I have made it sound as if international relations are secondary to a museum's purpose as a heritage preservation institution. Rather, I believe international relations are integral to those museums that have international collections. In a world that is becoming more and more globalized, our museums can no longer isolate themselves from their sister institutions across the world. By being proactive in building relationships abroad, museums can be at the forefront of active engagement and participation in issues wider than themselves.


International Entities - ICOM and UNESCO

ICOM, or the International Council of Museums, is a network of over 37,000 members who are a part of the global museum community. They are a leading entity in museum ethics. There is a specific ICOM Canada website for Canadian entities or individuals interested.

UNESCO or United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, is perhaps one of the more well-known global heritage entities, focused on heritage protection on both a tangible and intangible scale and on world heritage sites. Recently they've been working with museums in war-torn areas to attempt to provide protection and planning for collections.

Individual Museums - The Art Gallery of Ontario

Last month I attended the Ontario Museum Association (OMA) conference, where I sat in on the talk "Ontario Museums and Cultural Diplomacy". An interesting case study was the exhibition Small Wonders, on the Boxwood Miniatures exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I had seen the exhibit myself and was completely blown away by some of the work they had done in breaking down the layers of these objects and comparing them to worldwide collections. At the conference, Dr. Alexandra Suda from the AGO talked about how it was truly an international collaboration between different museums, not only in researching different collections for their exhibition but in sending the exhibition to two other museums: The Met Cloisters in the USA and The Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands. This demonstrated all the work that goes on behind-the-scenes of an exhibition.

Sample object from the exhibit Small Wonders at the AGO. Source.

Individual Museums - The British Museum

One example stands out as to how cultural exchange can greatly affect political relationships, both negatively and positively. The exhibit in 2005-2006 Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia, was a global exhibition put on by the British Museum that was planned to travel worldwide as well. Some of the objects in the exhibit were loaned by two Iranian museums, the National Museum in Tehran and the Persepolis Museum. This exhibition occurred during a time of strained political relations with Iran because of its increased nuclear armament. The British Museum had agreed to loan the Cyrus Cylinder in return for their loans; however, with increased political tensions the British Museum released statements declaring they would wait to make sure they were loaning the object into a safe environment. This caused great strife with the Iranian government, which threatened to sever all cultural relations and accusing the Director of wasting time and making excuses.

When the cylinder was finally loaned in 2010, it provided a chance for other discussions to slowly start up again. This entire situation is demonstrative of the fact that museums and other cultural institution do in fact have great political power.

The Cyrus Cylinder. Source.

The Future

I am interested in seeing what the future of international relationships are through museums. We are well aware of presidents and prime ministers traveling the globe on trade missions, discussing topics such as job creation, trade deals, and resources. These talks frequently take place in a cultural context; being shown different dances, cultural practices, important locations, and more. Despite this, the topics of cultural exchange do not seem to make the headlines.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau write messages on traditional Ema wooden plaques at Tokyo's Meiji Jingsu Shrine, one example of many that incorporates a country's cultural values into political visits. Source.

Perhaps this is because the work is being done in the background by different cultural institutions within these nations: partnerships are made, exchanges happen, and citizens from different countries learn about others around the globe by visiting. Is it up to our individual museums and art galleries to create those transnational relationships? Are museums meant to be global or local? Can they be both? These are the questions I want to leave you with as you visit your next museum. Think about the exhibits. Who have they worked in partnership with? Are objects from the local area or from abroad? Where do their staff, visiting interns, and visitors come from? Should museums be doing more or less to contribute to international relations?

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