Great Narratives of the Past. Traditions and Revisions in National Museums. This was the subject for a conference I took part in in Paris last November.
The conference explored new narratives in national museums. The papers for it have just been published here by Linköping University Electronic Press, Linköpings universitet.
My paper, a work in progress, examines new and emerging discourses around the role of the British Museum.
Inverting the Nation at the British Museum
In the last four decades the ideas and practices that the British Museum were historically associated with have come under critical scrutiny, which means the institution requires a new basis for legitimacy. As a consequence, over the last ten years in particular, the discourses about the role of the museum have gradually and subtly altered. In this paper, I suggest that there is a repositioning of the institution away from a surveyor of the world, to a facilitator of world cultures. New discourses position the institution as playing an important role in promoting tolerance amongst peoples in the present. One reason this is necessary, it is suggested, is due to a rise in nationalism. The British Museum was never a museum that presented a nationalist discourse. Instead it surveyed the world. However, the shift which identifies nationalism as a problem and the museum as a solution to it, is a significant departure that requires attention.