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. Continue ReadingRead More »