Like many cities in the world, the one I call home – Amsterdam – is experiencing growing pains: The balance or lack thereof between tourists and citizens, the growing gap between the rich and poor, the collision between the city’s transnational outlook and my country’s growing nationalism… Cities all over the world explore how to thrive in the 21st century without falling apart. Museums find that as they transform from government institutions into civic institutions, they take on new roles and responsibilities and they are expected to play an active part in the future of the cities they are based in, and the communities they are part of.
In this context, the recently published Cities, Museums and Soft Power by Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg is a well-timed book. A collection of essays explores the relationship between museums and communities, communities and cities, cities and nations and nations and the way they use museums as soft power tools. These relationships are not straightforward, and the better essays of the book show us how museums risk becoming toys in the hands of powerful interests, while they should play a constructive role in the future of their communities.
Although some people still debate this, of course museums are used as soft power tools. The British Museum is both the proof and the poster child of the use of museums for soft power purposes, for instance in the relations between the UK (and the West) and Iran, with exhibitions such as “Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia” and the loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to the National Museum of Iran. The book describes many of these cases where nations employ museums to advance their interests, from political missions to cultural diplomacy or simply to stimulate tourism.
For cities, as Javier Jimenez argues in the book, “Museums are among [their] most valuable, prestigious and frequented assets.” He shows how museums create employment opportunities: “every 10,000 visitors create 8.2 jobs in the local economy”, among many other direct and indirect advantages of having great museums as a city. Gegê Leme Joseph argues that the exposure to cultural capital that museums generate is “[a] central factor for sustained economic empowerment and upward mobility” in Brazil.
The relationship between cities and museums goes both ways. A city wishes to have the best possible museums and if its politicians are savvy and capable, they will use them as soft power tools. Likewise, a museum could wish for the best possible city, and use its soft power to shape the city and its communities to its liking. Unfortunately, very few museums actively decide to exercise soft power take such actions.
To do so, museum leaders and professionals have to make a conscious decision to use their soft power to strengthen their communities. This, as Hayfa Matar argues in her essay about museums in the Gulf, takes considerable courage, as it means examining and confronting the multiple and sometimes painful narratives that exist in every community. “Attempts to exercise soft power are easily dismissed if the museum does not recognise the agency of those it purports to reach.”
Ngaire Blankenberg describes what happens when a museum fails to do so. Great architecture and a number of successful programmes could not help the Red Location Museum in South Africa to overcome the lack of community involvement. As a result the museum failed to achieve its (soft power) objectives: empowering the local community and attracting tourists.
A better example is provided by Gail Dexter Lord and Joy Bailey Bryant. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg has engaged Aboriginal Canadians in every phase of the 14-year development of the museum. For the community, the museum has become a place where people meet to dialogue, to explore and even to protest. The City of Winnipeg played an important leadership role in this process, clearly using the museum as a soft power tool.
While reading the different essays in the book, I can’t escape the notion that they are based on a desire for museums to be active players in their communities, more than a reality in which they shape cities for the better, truly independent from national government interests. The editors address this in the introduction, when they write that “[c]uriously museums are still seen by many as static places when in fact they are just the opposite. They are one of our society’s main adaptive strategies for managing change.” I share this dream.
For those like the authors and myself who believe museums can change the world, the last chapter with thirty-two ways for museums to activate their soft power is the key take away from the book. Of course museums have soft power and of course they should use this to improve their communities. What we need are more leaders who will actually decide to act upon this notion, and with their institutions take responsibility for the future of their cities and communities.