Brown Bag 20th October 2010
Andy Sawyer, Sheila Watson and Alexandra Bounia
For some time, now, I’ve been hearing about EUNAMUS, and up until recently it has remained a little mysterious. So I was grateful that this week’s Brown Bag seminar gave Andy, Sheila and Alexandra a chance to explain what it was all about. And explain they did.
The project is enormous. Comprised of multiple ‘work packages’ or projects split across various partners, which along with researchers from our own School includes people in seven other centres across Europe, the project seeks to explore the relationships between national museums, national and European identities, and the critical issues which face Europe today. More detail about the projects and packages can be found on the website – what I want to concentrate on in this review are the ways, historically, in which National Museums have presented histories and identities – both of their audiences, and of themselves.
When considering a national museum, of course, it’s very name suggests that it represents the nation in some way. But the representation of a nation is, of course, fundamentally tied up with the way in which that nation sees itself, or would like to be seen – and of course, these attitudes vary from time and place.
Ireland, for example, Andy points out as being of particular interest. That country, and its museums, must, of course, deal with some very complex political and social issues related to identity which are still manifestly important today. The different groups in Northern Ireland have their histories displayed in very different ways and to different degrees. Where the Unionists have trouble strongly articulating their history, Nationalists are assisted in promoting theirs by virtue of the romance which surrounds their past.
But different attitudes are also expressed towards past events are in different places – in Irish museums, for instance, Vikings are very often presented in a much more positive light than in England, which only goes to show that where you are is heavily implicated in what you see.
The way in which Scottish museums generate a sense of nationhood is also a particularly interesting case, as Sheila points out. Even in collections of early prehistoric archaeology, attempts have been made to retroactively construct a ‘Scottish’ identity, as distinct from a pan-European culture. This essentialist production of ethnicity is a tricky issue, of course, and it has to be said that there is a move away from this in Scotland now, but it remains interesting to note how important it is for groups to view themselves in a particular way, using more recent history as a lens through which to frame the distant past.
This particularity of self perception is also clear in the attitudes of museums towards their own histories – and this part of the Brown Bag, and of the EUNAMUS project as a whole, will, in my opinion, be one of the richest veins for museological historians and critics. Sheila will soon be publishing and disseminating work on the differences between the generative narratives of the British Museum and Royal Academy and those which are expressed today. From the studies of the documents which Sheila has already conducted, the stories are very different from that made public now. The story of the British Museum as a foundation originating in the desire to tell the story of English liberties is not one that gets told all that often – but which, it seems, is right there in its own archive. It’s amazing to me that the narratives of museums’ own histories lie so hidden in plain view. But then, I suppose that, like anything, you form images surrounding a particular thing that suit the current time and context – and which furnish your ability to survive and act in the present world.
Of course, material culture will figure heavily in EUNAMUS too – how Europe is made manifest in its artefacts, how nations are distinct and similar is clearly going to be an issue. And it is not just the past which is under consideration here – we have to ask, as the project will, where museums are going, and how they will foster the Europe of the future. Sheila and Andy will be looking at the ‘distributed national museum’ and the ‘new online museum’ respectively, and the ways in which new forms of life and culture are going to, in the future, determine the way in which Europe, and its museums, look.
It’s a MASSIVE project, like I said. I wish all the participants the best of luck – it’s going to be big, but fascinating. I look forward to hearing more about it in due course – either at more Brown Bags, or at the various conferences and workshops which are going to occur. Thanks to all speakers for sharing!
The homepage for the project is here – explore at your will! I got lost in it for quite a while...