In future the traditional national museums to be found in Europe are to open multidimensional perspectives on the history and culture of both the individual countries and on Europe as a whole. To implement this new approach the European Union has initiated a program called “Eurovision – Museums Exhibiting Europe” (EMEE). This is an interview with the project’s coordinator, Prof. Dr. Susanne Popp.
Prof. Popp, could you tell us what your project is about and why is the not so typical museumgoer so important for it?
One of the project’s main focuses is on the “Distant Museum Visitor” – one who hardly ever goes to a museum. The EU has a policy on this as museums are products of the 19th century and were always oriented to a particular stratum of educated people. The stratum of educated people however has been subjected to a demographic shift and that is why new concepts and ideas have to be found in order to make museums attractive to other levels of society. Moreover this project is aimed at history museums. Due to the multicultural development of the various European societies the typical history museum whose function was to strengthen national identities is now faced with a new challenge. This adjustment to a multicultural society is one of the project’s further focal points.
Does this mean that in future all European museums are going to promote a standardised perception of history?
Many of the professionals working in the museums field are of the opinion that there should be museums devoted purely to Europe. Some of these projects are not really getting off the ground, whereas others have already been realised. It is our view however that Europe is not some kind of appendix to the national state, but something that is part of people’s everyday lives and the way they think. What we are really looking for are ways of presenting museum content and exhibits that will lead to them having an impact on different levels. For example, objects that are initially important on a national level, but which then reveal a certain significance on a European or global level. Our aim is not to promote an interpretation of history that is the same everywhere.
National costumes and uniforms, which by the way are more or less the same thing, have always been viewed as very strong identity markers for a region or a nation. The truth is however that national costumes do not have such a long tradition. It was only in the 19th century, in the wake of nation building, that they became fashionable in Europe – styles that were based on local traditions and that strengthened the national identity – often in a very artificial way. We want to show that although every national costume relates to the national image, it is at the same time a European phenomenon. National costumes also show how ideas can migrate from one place to another. The Hungarian national costume, for example, with its brightly coloured ribbons actually stems from the dressing-up games the English aristocracy used to play – this was the way the English imagined the Hungarians with lots of coloured ribbons. This image then actually made its way to Hungary in the 19th century and was adopted there as one of their own traditions.
What is the actual aim of “Eurovision”?
Museums are not to depict European history all the same way. Our aim is much more to develop ways of transforming a museum’s one-dimensional approach to promoting its exhibits to something much more multi-layered. This is a very new and very difficult task for which we have also received support from artists. In this way we hope to develop ideas that other museums can make use of.
Places of encounter instead of temples of culture
Can this one-dimensional approach to be found in history museums be compared to the content of school textbooks – content that is very different from one country to another? A German and a French history book, for example, report in a different way about the same event.
Yes. Incorporating the views of everybody involved is yet another way to create a more comprehensive picture. This can be done in a museum, for example, with the help of images: how did Poles view Germany at certain times in history? And vice versa?
Do you see the museums of the future as forums for intercultural dialogue?
Yes, most definitely. And this is exactly what we are trying to achieve with our project. The museum should move from being just a temple of learning and culture to a place of encounter; this would not entail changing the whole museum, just a few parts.
Won’t this approach appeal above all to a young audience?
Yes. Younger museumgoers are often more open to unusual ways of viewing things. Those people however who visit a traditional national museum do it not only as a matter of habit, but also to reinforce their way of seeing things. We are quite clearly interested in young people. No way however should national museums be closed down.
What is going to be done with the results of your project?
On the one hand the results will be integrated into museum education and training programs – and on the other in the training of history and art teachers. We are developing workshop models with this aim in mind. The content is furthermore to be available in the form of a module at universities.