Can museums make a difference on public attitudes to identity, citizenship and belonging?

by Katerina Strani

I come from an ancient country, where museums are spaces filled with age-old artefacts that assert national (or regional) identity. They are there to inform, to teach, to educate in the broad sense. This is the role of museums, right?

Katherine Lloyd urges us to think beyond that monolithic perception. In her recent talk hosted by the IRC in LINCS, she explored the potential impact of museums on public attitudes to issues of identity, citizenship and belonging in an age of migrations. Katherine’s work, which focuses on Scottish museums, contributes to an emerging body of international research that interrogates the normative assumptions within heritage studies regarding the ability of museums to facilitate attitudinal changes to cultural difference.

The potential for museums to foster inclusive identities and facilitate intercultural understanding has become a pertinent issue for European policy makers in recent years, as evidenced in the aims of the EU-funded research programme MeLa*: European Museums in an Age of Migrations. The case of Scotland—where questions of national identity dominate the public sphere in the context of debates on constitutional change—provides a useful prism through which to consider these issues. Research undertaken with visitors at the National Museum of Scotland as part of the MeLa* research programme, in collaboration with ICCHS colleagues Chris Whitehead, Rhiannon Mason and Susannah Eckersley, has shown that while stories that highlight the historical heterogeneity of place can be found throughout the displays, these are often ignored, forgotten or overlooked by visitors.  A deeper understanding of not only how individuals respond to heterogeneous conceptualisations of place but the reasons why visitors may ignore or indeed ‘resist’ institutional representations of place as constructed and shifting is therefore needed if museums are to contribute to public debates about migration and identity.

Katherine’s talk sought to addresses this through bridging the gap between research on heritage, place and identity at the level of the individual with studies that focus on the institutional construction of identity within the museum. She analysed how young people in schools across Scotland utilised concepts of ‘place’ negotiated issues of migration, diversity, heritage and national identity and draws upon these findings in order to critically reflect upon the responses of visitors to displays at the National Museum of Scotland. The insights gained through this approach were then utilised to identify some of the potential challenges and risks that museums in Europe, and indeed further afield, may face when addressing such issues.

This research raised significant questions on the role of museum texts and museums in general in creating a dialectical space of exploring identity, belonging and cultural citizenship. The potential is vast.