'The nation's temple' : national museums and national identity, a comparative case study
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One of the institutions fundamental to European nation-states, national museums play host to various socio-political constructs including that of national identity. The public art museum is part of the complex institutional dynamic linking the political state and the nation; and as a public institution accessible - at least in theory - to all areas of society, it can play a homogenising and binding role within the state. This is a quality partly created, and often drawn upon by dominant discourses in an effort to encourage identification with a prescribed set of values inherent in the display of images and objects recognised as 'national heritage'. This term is ambiguous, its meaning and application subject to change and political subversion. Broadly speaking 'national heritage' is a quality bestowed upon cultural artefacts by their display within a public space, encouraging the viewer, specifically the national viewer, to engage in the communal ownership implied by the museum space. In turn this raises many issues concerning the nature of cultural possession and the reality of national consciousness with regards to the consumption of such exhibits. Presenting the nation to itself and the world was one of the most important tasks of the national museum in the nineteenth century; a means of defining national identity and of bolstering ideologies to political ends. In the twentieth century many of these 'truths' were undermined and criticised, allowing for more varied interpretations of national pasts and cultural achievements to be developed. The Royal Museums of Fine Art in Brussels were involved in a fervent nationalisation process following the country's independence in 1830. In accordance with revolutionary ideals a common identity was needed in Belgium to link the people to each other and the state; the museum provided a forum for this, displaying a 'glorious common past' cultivated by the nationalist iconography of contemporary public art. However, the national idyll of Belgium did not correspond to the historical and geographical reality of the region; evinced by the fragmentation of the state that resulted in the country's federalisation in 1993. This effectively undermined the unitary identity promoted by the ruling elite, instrumental in the development of the museum and challenging its raison d'être. In the case of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, imagery and symbols have been used systematically to substantiate and consolidate a national identity based in a semi-mythical history of national exceptionalism. This is manifest primarily through the presentation and scale of the seventeenth century painting collection, encouraging a visual identification with this period of the country's history. Whilst the incentives behind their formation and their presentation differ, these musems illustrate the manner in which symbols and imagery drawn from history and myth, can be used to promote or substantiate prevailing discourses of identity within a static structure. The success of such an enterprise is another matter, the degree of intent and the gap between intent and effect also serve to illustrate that the romantic ideal of the nation as understood by its founders or promoters does not necessarily impinge upon its reality.
Thesis, MPhil Master of Philosophy
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