Reconciling the National and the Cosmopolitan: Museums Then and Now
Museums have long been “identified as sites for classification and ordering of knowledge, the producing of ideology and the disciplining of the public” (Henning). Historically, museums served first as tools for exclusive nation building, erected as monuments to one nation’s wealth and superiority over another. Since their beginnings they have displayed a tension between the more democratic ideal of ‘art for all’ and the more selective power to distinguish high art from low, worthy from worthless. Yet they have also been valued as houses of multiculturalism, storing diverse histories and memory; each “room” of culture residing within a greater cosmopolitan unity, the “house” that is the museum. In this sense, they have networked peoples at a national scale as well as a multinational one, proving both vital and antithetical to nationhood. Indeed, today museums continue to mediate these national and multinational ideals, standing as testaments to their specific nation’s dedication to multiculturalism while also reinforcing the nation’s particular cultural values. In this sense their universal appeal to culture continues to both unify and disrupt public imaginings of community – a paradox that many museums still battle despite the ever-widening networks of our global economy.
These are my basic beginnings -- the ideas that combine elements from our course (nationlism, nation-builing and multi-national networks, imperialism?, cosmopolitanism). I look to explore their tensions at a historically vital site: the museum.
The sources I use will be as follows:
In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson establishes a precedent for the theory of nationalism by connecting the rise of print-capitalism (ie. the spread of newspapers) to the subsequent imaginings of nations during the 19th century. One can compare these rapidly circulating newspapers with museums: both sources of organized knowledge that produced ideology and both which disciplined as well as expanded the European public. So might we thus understand the trajectory of newspapers and their communities as we do museums? Might we look at museums as another form of media with the cultural strength to engage and disempower people as Anderson reveals, and most importantly, to embolden cosmopolitanism as Bruce Robbins understands it? Certainly with both the newspaper’s and the museum’s western beginnings each is limited and has proven dangerous. However antithetical nationalism may seem to cosmopolitanism, might museums serve as a site of the two ideals’ reconciliation?
This paper will seek to explore museums’ institutional roles as nation builders as well as how this network-forming role has changed with globalization, reaping cultural analysis from both critics.
My further questions / meeting tomorrow will hopefully help me think through this tension more complexly, delving for problems with the texts of Anderson and Robbins.