USF's Museum Blog

Artifacts and Allegiances: How Museums Put the Nation and the World on Display

With one out of every seven people in the world living outside of their birth country, there is no question that nations are becoming hyper-diverse. Thus, new questions emerge. In our transnational world, what is our relationship with local institutions? Where do art museums — as places that shape our relationship to visual imagery — fit on the spectrum of national and global identity? How do museum professionals work toward encouraging desirable global values like tolerance, empathy and critical thinking while infusing the citizens with national pride? These questions have informed Sociologist Peggy Levitt’s study of the relationship between transnationalism and museums.

Levitt is chair and professor of sociology at Wellesley College and a Senior Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. She is also co-directs Harvard’s Transnational Studies Initiative. In her quest to define and understand how we can begin to have a deeper conversation about how museums influence global citizens, she has interviewed 163 museum professionals in locales as diverse as Singapore, Copenhagen and Boston.


Dr. Peggy Levitt speaking at University of San Francisco


In April 2016, Levitt visited University of San Francisco to share her discoveries and promote her recent book Artifacts and Allegiances: How Museums Put the Nation and the World on Display (2015, University of California Press). Casting an eye on museums as culture brokers and political entities, Levitt shared her observations about how museum educators, curators and directors think about their work. “No museum I studied told an entirely national or global story,” she informed us.


In her talk, she first reviewed the foundational principals of the oldest public national museums.  She explained how they sought simultaneously to communicate national identity and create citizens of the world. The goal of the British Museum, for example, is to disseminate knowledge about the world while the Louvre seeks to unify the French people about “the cultural and customs they share.”



The Louvre:  Museum as unifier

Dr. Levitt then described the three studies that inform her book. Her first study looks at “post empire” nations like Sweden and Denmark. How do their museums preserve and promote a national ethos while at the same time opening up to the experiences of migrants? One impressive model is the Museum of World Culture in Gothenberg, Sweden. As Sweden evolves from a homogeneous nation to one that is multicultural and increasingly home to refuges and migrants, this museum presents exhibitions about global problems and issues such as human trafficking, shaky economies and smuggling.




The Museum of World Culture presents exhibitions that explore controversial transnational issues such as illicit trafficking of Peruvian paracas.


Levitt’s second set of studies is set on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in New York and Boston. According to Levitt, American museums began with the goals of “crafting model citizens, winning their consent to the existing world order and to the essential rightness of the government’s growing interest in overseas imperialism.” But today, as the US arguably is no longer a singular world power, American museums have begun to re-tell stories. Dr. Levitt observes that they are largely comfortable showcasing diversity. Their challenge, as Dr. Levitt sees it, is that they still need to meet the expectations of the upper middle class Euro-American visitors who foot the bills. For example, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston showcases the iconic Paul Revere silver bowls from the era of the American Revolution, but is also currently presenting Megacities, the works by artists responding to the political, environmental, and social conditions of their home cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi, Mumbai, and Seoul.


Sons of Liberty Bowl by Paul Revere, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Levitt’s final set of comparisons is museums in emerging nations — in this case Singapore and Qatar, which use large scale museum projects to position themselves as global players. In the case of Qatar, the nation is growing so quickly that “one generation went from travelling by camel to luxury jet.” Some global values are openly discussed in Qatar’s museum sector, for example women’s rights, multilingualism, health. Others are not, including workers’ rights, citizens’ rights and alcohol. In nations where service and hard laborers live in deplorable conditions and have few rights, how can museums be tools for global values human rights?



Migrant construction workers in Qatar.

Each nation understands its historical importance on the global stage differently and has different aspirations for its future. Levitt believes that museums need to be aware of how they display these diverse visions and the role they can play in communicating global values. We thank Dr. Levitt for sharing her important work with us and we invite you to join us at USF on May 23 to continue the discussion of the impact of transnationalism in a daylong symposium on Refugees, Forced Migrants and Human Security. Two panels and networking reception will offer a rich opportunity for building awareness and solidarity through dialogue and exchange.

For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.


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