Museums and international relations
Prince Charles visits the National Museum of Australia in November 2015. Source: NMA.
Sharon Verghis, Museums increasingly use exhibitions to bring people together, The Weekend Australian, 26 August 2016
“Curators as Kissingers: can museums repair diplomatic relations?” asked Cristina Ruiz in a 2014 article in The New Republic examining the increasingly global role played by museums around the world.
In recent years these repositories of public knowledge — so-called memory institutions — have emerged as powerbrokers in international relations.
Under the leadership of former director Neil MacGregor, the British Museum, for example, took on the mantle of international player, helping local curators to stop the looting of antiquities at the National Museum of Iraq in 2003 and easing tensions between Iran and the West through its loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to the National Museum of Iran in 2010.
In similarly activist mould, the Victoria and Albert Museum, also based in London, launched an exhibition of works by Banksy and other British street artists in Tripoli and Benghazi in 2012 as an act of solidarity with the Libyan people, according to director Martin Roth.
These are more overt manifestations of cultural diplomacy in action but work is more likely to happen quietly, behind closed doors, as curators and directors increasingly expand their role beyond that of custodians of objects, scholarship and exhibitions. As Ruiz wrote: “Today, our museums are also politically engaged, globally connected, and incredibly skilled in the arts of international cultural diplomacy, their reach sometimes extending beyond that of governments.”
Mathew Trinca, the director of the National Museum of Australia, has been watching this transformation with interest.
Certainly the NMA, with its national focus, plays in a different league to these encyclopedic international museums. Increasingly, however, even smaller national institutions are getting on board what he describes as a “developing global phenomenon” redefining the role of museums.
“In a broader international context, I think what you are seeing is the internationalising of a whole series of museum brands,” says Trinca. “Clearly those museums which have long lineages, which have very great universal collections, like the British Museum for example, have seized the moment to internationalise their programs, and I think this is bringing people closer to these collections.
“I think it then poses some challenges for us, this force that has emerged in the last 10 to 20 years of international museum brands. I think it demands that all of us think about how to internationalise our programs and what we have to say to the world.”