This commentary piece reflects on museum thought and the relationship between museum theory and practice as it is represented in contemporary global scholarship. The International Council of Museum’s (ICOM) 2018 publication dedicated to “Museums and Contested Histories” serves as a field site for our analysis because it seeks to reflect the diversity of museum practice and the numerous challenges faced by museum professionals globally. Our inquiry surveys shifts in museum narratives to contextualise the contestations within museum thought expressed in the ICOM journal. We recognize that the challenges it raises are increasingly relevant and live as museums are recognised as contested spaces with numerous and conflicting stakeholders, definitions and mandates. Variously invoked as a ‘process’, ‘social technology’ and ‘cultural contact zone’, museums’ role as crucial site of cultural politics has driven their engagement on a wide variety of contemporary and historic issues. With the very definition of the museum as prescribed by ICOM set to change in 2019, there is both a clear crisis of identity and a valuable opportunity to reflect upon museums as they have transformed in the past century and are understood in contemporary society.
To illuminate discussion about the emergence and implications of museums’ role as politically engaged actors within society, Part I of this article traces transitions in scholarly thought concerning the museum as it has developed in the past half-century. We draw upon socio-political context as well as transformations in scholarship to locate the shifting narratives within and about museums, and the precedent setting museological events that have contributed to their status as sites, if not agents, of contestation. This section serves to contextualise the ICOM authors and the contributions made by their various global case studies with the legacies of museological trends evident in their discussions. Part II examines how these theoretical transitions have manifested in contemporary museum practice. We use the recent ICOM publication on “Museums and Contested Histories” as a self-representation of the multitude of ways in which ‘contested histories’ are negotiated across the globe, and the relationship between museum theory and practice. This section demonstrates how practitioners variously contribute to museums and their role as agents of political activity, and reveals the diversity of museum work as it is currently practiced in the case studies presented in the ICOM volume. Finally, in Part III, we reflect upon the implications of the previous sections on how we understand museums, their theories, practices and roles within contemporary society. This analysis explores ICOM’s decision to revise their definition of the museum. With over 150 contributions already made toward the revised definition and many more certain to be forthcoming before the September 2019 cut-off and formal ICOM discussion, the museums’ multiplicity of meanings and ability to house, as well as provoke, ‘contested histories’ reveals its disputed identity. This discussion and its recognition of ‘crisis’ as a pervading phenomenon in museum studies provides a valuable way through which museums, and their function in contemporary society, can be understood (Message 2018a; Message 2018b).
Before we move to our discussion proper, a note on images is necessary. The analysis that follows responds to the museums represented in the articles and editorial perspective compiled for “Museums and Contested Histories”. However, there are many other museum examples (which exist across different museum genres) that would make positive and/or challenging contributions to this expansive discussion about contemporary practice and the role as well as ‘management’ of contestation in public spaces. While it is beyond the capacity of our engagement with a single publication to do full service to this rich field we want to indicate the ongoing discussion to which the volume contributes by providing images of a number of other key museum and exhibition examples that we feel extend or add to the dialogue presented in “Museums and Contested Histories”. We address these from time to time in the body of the text that follows but try to keep our commentary minimal (mostly contained to the image captions), believing that in most instances the images are more than capable of speaking for themselves. As such, we have represented “our” images in lieu of photographs of the examples addressed in the volume, but have hyperlinked each of these to relevant images and websites for readers to further refer to. Of course, a full range of images of case study sites are also represented in the ICOM publication itself.
There is little doubt in the thirty years since 1989 that ‘contested histories’ remain a fundamental aspect of cultural politics. While some social commentators predicted the formative year would bring an ‘End of History’ (Fukuyama 1989; Grant 2019), museums experienced “unprecedented growth and interest” and were firmly established as having entered a ‘new’ age with an agentic potential within civic society (Vergo 1989). This pivotal moment in museum thought was nevertheless prefaced by the recognition that “the museum world is facing an apparent crisis”, reflected in its numerous contestations and perceived “underlying lack of direction” (Vergo 1989). Today, museums continue to operate as privileged sites where diverse ‘histories’ and key social realities – such as what it means to belong to a particular nation, community or group identity – are represented. As global and national actors, cultural professionals, and broad citizenries each interact with the past; the museum functions as a complex assemblage of meanings that is diversely understood across the globe, and is susceptible to attracting successive ‘crises’ provoked by its many mandates and often competing interests.
The International Council of Museums (ICOM, established 1946) functions as an overarching body at the convergence of these many stakeholders. A subsidiary of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO, established 1945), ICOM was developed from the United Nations’ mandate to promote the global freedoms inscribed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An embodiment of the growing professionalism of nationally-based museum sectors following World War Two, ICOM proclaims itself to be “the voice of museum professionals on an international scale”, sharing practice through the production of scholarly works, and aiming to “raise public cultural awareness through global networks” (ICOM 2019a). In this liminal space between theory and practice, and at the boundary zone of international organisation, governmental authorities, museum professionals and the public, ICOM provides a valuable framework to explore the state of museums as the field has developed in recent decades. ICOM’s 2018 Special Issue of scholarly journal Museum International is dedicated to “Museums and Contested Histories”, and explores this diversity by investigating the way in which museums’ have reorganised themselves to address historical controversies and contemporary social issues. The volume recognises the multifaceted role played by museums across societies, and positions the museum as an arbiter as well as a byproduct of ‘contested histories’ (Altayli & Viau-Courville 2018).
This essay explores and reflects upon the state of museum thought as it has developed in recent decades. We use the contemporary practice based case studies of the ICOM volume concerning “Museums and Contested Histories” as a field site to analyse how this thought is reflected in museum theory and practice. This inquiry is relevant as museums readily evoke their mandate “to enhance social cohesion and to help foster a climate of tolerance, peace, and respect for cultural identities and diversity”, in response to both historic controversies and contemporary social issues (ICOM 2017). The stakes for these claims are high, as the public increasingly holds museums accountable for not abiding by their social role. As recently as a few weeks ago, for example, artist Nan Goldin followed up her 2018 Opioid Die-In protest at the Sackler Wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum by criticising London’s National Portrait Gallery for its proposed endowment from the controversial opioid-linked Sackler Foundation, urging museums to, “live up to their mandate… [as] a repository for the best of human values” (Brown and Pes 2019). And, a few months ago, urban geographer Teju Adisa-Farrar evoked the museums’ role to engage with their communities when denouncing the Brooklyn Museum’s appointment of a white curator to oversee the African art collection, stating: “we’re in a cultural moment where we encourage, and if necessary, demand transparency from places that have gotten away with neglecting the myriad realities of historical and contemporary art…” (Adisa-Farrar 2018). While museums’ social role in theory does not always align with realities in practice, and ‘contestation’ can be directed both within and against the museum, their currency in contemporary debate reveals their enduring significance as a site of cultural politics.
Part I: Contested Narratives
This section charts the shifting socio-political contexts and curatorial practices that have established museums as contested sites of cultural politics. It represents the scholarly frameworks and key precedent-setting case studies that contextualise the ICOM volume and its contributions. The public museum first emerged in the mid-nineteenth century as a tool of liberal governance coloured by colonial mandates (Bennett 1995), and came under scrutiny with the post-War shift toward narratives of ‘history from below’ (Thompson 1968). Static notions of nationhood and identity traditionally dominated the institution, and were rejected by practitioners as new approaches to museology reimagined the possibilities of the museum as an involved and responsive actor within contemporary society. The movement to diversify representations and embrace modes of knowledge conventionally excluded from museums attracted controversy as new collective agencies manifested in societal conflict broadly conceptualised as ‘culture wars’. While museums have used ideas of ‘crisis’ to push past old associations and align with theories of post-colonialism, activism and human rights (Knell 2007; Sandell 2016), the contestations provoked by preceding decades of conflict remain ever-present and broadly unresolved. As museum narratives have rapidly transformed, they continue to negotiate diverse histories, publics and stakeholders.
The burgeoning social history movement encouraged museum practitioners to interrogate the institutions’ state-centric foundations and paved way to its evolution into a more representative site of community engagement. Prior to the zeitgeist shift following World War Two that reimagined museums with a new social role, public museums largely operated as governmental apparatuses tasked with “social management” (Bennett 1995: 6; Bennett 2015). As museums emerged from the mid-nineteenth century, they were imbued with imperial methods of categorisation and control, and became one of several civic institutions that dictated cultural value and tied individuals to the state in ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson 2006: 184; Appadurai & Breckenridge 1990).
Social history grew from the mid-1960s to encourage the revision of these dominant historical emphases (Thompson 1968), with museums’ state-oriented narratives considered by museum professionals as insufficient to represent the diverse populace. New museological methods that explored how to emphasise agency, self-representation and collaboration emerged as an attempt to redress these past imbalances. With new approaches including contemporary cause-based collecting, community consultation, and oral history documentation, museum practice applied the methodological approaches emerging in scholarship to become more representative of ordinary lived experience (Isaac 2006; Morphy 2015). These approaches continue to underpin the foundation of museums in contemporary scholarship, as ICOM contributor de Wildt evokes Orhan Pamuk’s A Modest Manifesto for Museums in asserting that: “present and future museums should not longer represent the State, but recreate the world of individual human beings” (de Wildt 2018). This reorientation of the purpose of the museum toward a more representative site focused on individual experience paved way to the rise of socially oriented and community-based museums throughout the world.
Museums’ adoption of social history methodologies coincided with a surging popularity in identity politics and an acknowledgement of its unique potential to promote diverse views and foster political engagement. This built upon the recognition that museums always had been political, as instruments of government rather than sites of neutrality and presumed truth, and became visible to practitioners who adopted the museums’ political ethos to respond to social issues of the day. For example, the protest movements of the 1950s and 1960s inspired the emergence of contemporary cause based collecting, which led to the acquisition of ephemeral objects associated with political reform that had up previously been excluded from the museum collecting policies (Message 2012; Message 2014; Message 2019). These impacted large ‘national’ museums, as well as independent or cause-based repositories. For example, the political history collections at the National Museum of American History in Washington DC now include social reform movements as a collecting priority area in recognition of the contribution that these have made historically to democracy in the U.S. (Message 2014; Message 2019).
The Smithsonian Institution, like ICOM, has operated with both national and global mandates since it was established in 1846. A small number of some of its curators early on recognised the possibilities for museums to be harnessed as sites of civic engagement during times of socio-political transformation. By collecting the material culture of the movement, curators identified “that [the] ‘nation’” as defined by the museum was in fact “a contested term that does not easily speak to a full range of constituencies” (Message 2012: 22). The understanding that museums were spaces of contested understanding paved way to the narrative of museums as ‘a forum’ rather than a static ‘temple’, with the ‘forum’ ideal encouraging museums to develop into spaces of multiple voices where debate could be aired and conflicting perspectives represented (Duncan 1971). This defining shift in museum narratives and its accompanying methodologies endures in contemporary museum thought, as Reynolds and Blair’s ICOM contribution on the Ulster Museum in Northern Ireland is built upon the theory that “museums have acquired more weight as social actors” and are therefore uniquely positioned to play an engaged role in turbulent times (Reynolds & Blair 2018).
The advent of postmodern scholarship from the late 1970s further questioned singular narratives of the museum as a site of unified stability, with sustained controversies concerning historical identities culminating in ‘culture wars’ across the globe and within communities (Dubin 2006). The period surrounding 1989 marked an increased academic interest in museums’ political currency and ability to provoke debate concerning historic and contemporary issues (Luke 2003). This was in part accelerated by the emerging agencies of minority identities in the previous decade, which had become mainstream in civic spaces as museums increasingly followed mandates for inclusivity and representation. Research into the public sphere at a time of increasing ideological uncertainty brought by the end of the Cold War contributed to this ‘New Museology’ that envisioned museums as uniquely able, and indeed responsible, for representing the interest of diverse groups within polarised society (Vergo 1989; Message 2004). The “postmodern turn” associated with ‘New Museology’ rejected singular truths and emphasised multivocal narratives, with scholars and practitioners developing museology to encompass ‘reflexive curatorship’ that was “informed by the premise that exhibits…” and the authority that determined their respective representations, “[was] neither neutral nor tropeless” (Butler 2006: 25).
This scholarly reorientation radically transformed traditional museum epistemologies, as the case of several iconic exhibitions of the 1990s and their resultant controversies reveal. The Smithsonian’s 1991 exhibition The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920 critiqued orthodox narratives of “the Old West” in America’s grand heritage discourse, and was seen by conservative commentators to be “an instance of civic religious sacrilege” committed against the national image (Luke 2003: 8). In a similar fashion, the 1995 Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Origins of the Cold War exhibit displaying Enola Gay was censored in its attempts to acknowledge both perspectives of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Considered ‘unpatriotic’ and a breach of the purpose of civic institutions, the Smithsonian Institution was criticised for pursuing a critical curatorial stance, revealing that national identity remained a deeply contested space (Luke 2003).
While ‘culture wars’ manifest across the globe with different shapes and temporal meanings, the contestations they embody concerning national identity and historic values continue to be negotiated in museum scholarship. Despite the teleological claims that the defeat of the Soviet Union and triumph of the West heralded the ‘end of history’ (Fukuyama 1989), the censorship of exhibits such as The West as America and Crossroads reveal history’s ever-present currency as “the cultural right [told] citizens they ought not, and indeed [could not], use their civic judgment” (Luke 2003: 17) to critically engage with museum narratives. Rather than operating as the forum for debate proposed in the previously decade (Duncan 1971), museums remained tied to national interests and conservative authorities irrespective of attempts to challenge the status quo. The continuity of these contestations is evident in the ICOM volume, as museum practitioners recount their struggle to negotiate their professional mandate to promote discussions relating to nationhood and identity, while constrained by national mandates within their post-conflict society. As Sirok and Zuma, representing Slovenia and South Africa respectively, reveal: “museums can act as active participants in political consolidation” just as much as they can be “actors of social change” (Sirok 2018).
Despite museums in many cases remaining bound to national interests as their main source of funding, the postcolonial movement towards forging relationships with source communities increased the diversity of museums’ stakeholder interests and enriched the multiplicity of their mandates. Adapting the theory of ‘contact zones’ from anthropologist Mary Louise Pratt, James Clifford’s application of the concept to museums was immensely influential for museum practice and scholarship as relationships with source communities came to be seen as “sites for historical negotiation [and] occasions for an ongoing contact” (Clifford 1997: 194). While this theory in practice tended to understate its asymmetrical nature for assuming an “equal reciprocity and mutual benefit” impossible within the institutional power of the museum, ‘contact zones’ provide an important way through which relationships with communities were, and continue to be, understood (Boast 2011: 63). The appeal of museums as contact zones continues to be that “it asks for partnership rather than superficial involvement” (Peers & Brown 2003: 2; Butler 2006), with the recollections of Aikio, a Sámi indigenous museum professional and scholar contributing to the ICOM journal, communicating the crux of the theory as “an ongoing relationship” (Aikio 2018).
Alternately, the 1989 exhibit Into the Heart of Africa exemplified the problems that can arise from inadequate community consultation. The exhibition utilised reflexive curatorship intended to highlight the hypocrisies of imperialism, yet misdirected its irony, and was seen by many members of the community as perpetuating colonial stereotypes (Butler 2006). The Royal Ontario Museum’s unwillingness to consult with the affected communities and the protest that ensued drew attention to the plight of contemporary racial conflict in Canadian society (Butler 2006). The ongoing collaboration required by the contact zone theory, and its recognitions of the interrelated conditions of the past and the present, is recognised in de Wildt’s ICOM contribution. In her work with descendants of the slave trade reflecting on their lives during an exhibit on 150 years of emancipation, de Wildt reveals she sought to demonstrate “the effects of the past on the present”, as well as “how the present shapes understandings of the past” (de Wildt 2018).
By the close of the twentieth century, the tenets of new museology and the narrative that museums were relevant, and indeed essential spaces, to exhibit the concerns of contemporary society led to the foundation of a number of new national and agenda-based museums (including the NMAI, e.g. Figure 7, and the NMAAHC, e.g Figure 4). While specific exhibitions had been experimenting with new museological techniques for close to a decade, new museums promised a reformulation of the museum complete with flashy modern architecture, interdisciplinary approaches to exhibitions and display, enhanced responsiveness to stakeholders, communities and audiences, and multimedia technologies.
The opening of the National Museum of Australia (NMA) in 2001 epitomised the aspirations and controversies that accompanied these new museum meanings. Notably criticised as “try[ing] to compete with amusement parks at the expense of research and artefacts”, with Australian Prime Minister John Howard even famously exclaiming that the NMA is “very un-museum-like” (see Witcomb 2003), the NMA Director Dawn Casey was nevertheless confident the museum’s ‘new’ approaches would excel “as an interpreter of societal change” (Casey 2001). Implementing social history approaches and a focus on indigenous and environmental narratives, the NMA was condemned by conservative commentators who believed Australia’s triumphant histories had been denigrated by its postmodern curatorial style. Similar views have been leveled at other ‘new museums’; as criticism at a perceived lack of narrative is common as visitors are encouraged to act as “flâneurs” who “enjoy the bourgeoisie pleasure of idle spectating” rather than being guided by an overarching force (Isaac 2006; Lehrer 2015). The implementation a non-linear narrative continues in museum practice, and is purposed with allowing reflection whilst simultaneously directing audiences to specific outcomes. This is evidenced in Henry’s contribution in the ICOM journal, as she states that the Museum of the City Museum of New York (at which she works), “is not about history per se” but is concerned instead with a “profoundly civic enterprise” just as involved with the future as with the past (Henry 2018).
The scholarly understanding that museums are political sites that constantly negotiate authority, representation and multiple mandates has led to museums’ prevailing interest in ideals of human rights and inclusivity. Ivan Karp wrote in 1992 that as “privileged agents of civic society, museums have a fundamental obligation to take sides in struggles of identity (and indeed cannot avoid it)” (Karp 1992: 15). This theory retains its significance in current museum scholarship as a number of museums have emerged in recent decades with specific mandates for championing social justice. However, as several cases have illustrated, ‘human rights’ can itself be a contested term, and the alignment of social justice with national narratives can provoke controversy from a diverse citizenry (Luke 2003; Lehrer 2015; Message 2018b; Message 2018c). The opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Canada, 2014 demonstrates this contested arena, as national agendas that promote human rights can be criticised for its innate selectivity, as many protest groups from a range of political persuasions flocked to denounce the museums’ narratives, as well as the omission of Canada’s own historic rights violations (Lehrer 2015). While many nations have specific governmental mandates to promote human rights and policies of multiculturalism, “‘human rights’, like museums, have relational meanings” that are contested in both theory and practice (Message 2018c).
Museums therefore cannot be viewed as “static cultural monument[s]” but must be regarded “as fluid and responsive, dynamic, shaping, political, particular and complex” (Knell 2007: xx). Invaluable sites to investigate cultural politics, museums are, more than any other civic institution, representative of the manifold complexities of public life as it is represented and converges between governmental authorities, the curatorial vision of cultural professionals, and the ideals of a diverse and broad ranging citizenry. While culture and politics are inseparable, museums’ role at the boundary of both is a persisting challenge for scholars and practitioners to understand its identity and role within society. As such, a direct correlation between theory and practice is not always actualised, as museums are caught amidst a “perpetual cycle of crisis, dissonance, and renewal” that is at once productive and at other points difficult to navigate (Message & Witcomb 2015: xxxv).
Part II: Practice as a site of Contestation
The following overview of contemporary museum practice reveals the diverse application of theoretical trends and the contestation pervading museum meanings as they are negotiated across the globe. The case studies in “Museums and Contested Histories” form the focal point of this section, as they are presented by the ICOM volume as being representative of the state of current museum thought, and articulate the tensions between museum theory and practice across a variety of regions. Centering on the diverse ways in which museums can respond to contested historical narratives, interact with engaged protest, and challenge traditional museum identities, the contributors shed light on the multiple realities of museums as they are understood by diverse stakeholders and museum professionals. This volume complicates any essentialised notion of the museum, as the reflections of these contemporary museum practitioners demonstrate the multifaceted way in which museums are negotiated across the globe, and can be harnessed to respond to contemporary contexts and concerns.
While addressing shifting historical narratives remains a vital feature of new museology, the ICOM volume reveals that the multiple authorities within the museum can possess contested ideas of history, with conflict concerning how the past should be presented emerging in post-conflict societies. Museum practice encapsulates both the institutional mandates deriving from government sponsorship, as well as the curatorial judgments and creative decisions made by museum staff. Sirok and Zuma’s contributions illustrate the difficulties for post-conflict societies to respond to ‘contested histories’ within a contested political present when the interpretation of state actors and museum professionals do not align. In the case of the Slovenian Museum of Contemporary History in Ljubljana, Slovenia (Sirok 2018) and a host of post-Apartheid South African museums, including, in Durban, the Old House Museum, the Bergtheil Museum, and the KawMuhle Museum (Zuma 2018), the attempts for practitioners to exhibit multivocal interpretations of their national past is hindered by the government of the day as they preside over historical representations to the detriment of curatorial decision making.
Charting the transition of museum functions in their respective countries, Širok reveals that nationalist governments since 1989 have dismissed Soviet legacies to present “a ‘suitable’ interpretation of the past”, that bolsters a unique Slovenian identity “with a unitary interpretation of history” (Sirok 2018). In Zuma’s case, the continued role of apartheid and post-apartheid museums as mouthpieces of the state demonstrates the extent to which cultural institutions can “surrender to political undertones” (Zuma 2018). In both cases, the turbulence of recent decades of political transformation can clearly override museum theory as it has evolved in the past half-century, as the agendas of new nations readily mobalise museums “as active participants in political consolidation” (Sirok 2018). This resonates with Knell’s assertion that museums cannot be considered a product of linear development, as museums can be “a product of rejecting perceived norms of museum practice” as much “as they are about adopting them” (Knell 2007). Pabst’s reflection on the moral challenges faced by museum staff working with contested histories at museums including her own, the Vest-Agder Museum in Kristiansand, Norway, demonstrates this paradoxical state, as while curators may see within their role “a possibility to engage actively as societal actors”, governments can affect “scaring political change… towards a more-national-oriented, one dimensional description of events” (Pabst 2018).
As contested histories may lead to contested practice, the ICOM volume also demonstrates the possibility inhabited by shifting narratives as they are exhibited within communities as a productive element of social reflection. Exemplifying the social role of the museum, Reynolds and Blair argue that while contemporary history is fraught with national divisions, museums in Northern Ireland have been harnessed as a site distinct from governmental narratives. Unlike Širok and Zuma, Reynolds and Blair’s reflection that museums can serve “as a constructive arena for assisting post-conflict societies to confront and deal with the challenges of the past”, reveals the diversity of museum practice as it shifts according to temporality and regional context (Reynolds & Blair 2018). Reflecting upon a 2018 exhibit entitled The Troubles and Beyond at the Ulster Museum in Belfast (National Museums NI), Reynolds and Blair locate the potential for non-consensus oral history displays to bolster community understanding and empathy in times of conflict.
Museums’ ability to operate as agents of community cohesion is further expanded in Albert’s ICOM contribution, as she recalls curating an exhibit exploring shantytowns in Spain’s Barcelona City Museum, and demonstrates that museums are capable of “overcome[ing] a legacy of conflict” within communities as well as at a national scale (Albert 2018). A geographically contested space, Albert chose the subject matter of shantytowns to “dispel a false dichotomy between the Catalan capital’s mainstream, or legitimate history, and contested or marginalised historical narratives”. Attracting varying responses from stakeholders who were concerned the exhibit could promote “urban precarity”, it nevertheless went forward to contribute to a broader and more inclusive notion of the Barcelona community and its shared history (Albert 2018). Clearly, the ability for museums to display shifting narratives and ‘contested histories’ varies greatly, with some political contexts and recent pasts allowing museums to “acquire more weight as social actors”, while in other cases they can remain dictated by state authorities (Reynolds and Blair 2018).
The ICOM volume explores the unique potential for heterogeneous museums to engage in activist roles, and reimagines practice as capable of operating as site of ‘protest’. It recognises museums as spaces of political engagement that can influence or even direct debate concerning contested issues, as it is broadly understood that museums, “through the narratives they construct and publicly represent, contribute to shaping the moral and political climate” that negotiates social issues and, “within which human rights are felt and experienced” (Sandell 2016: 135). Increasingly, scholars have positioned museums as responsible for ‘choosing sides’ in debates concerning contested contemporary issues (Karp 1992; Sandell 2016; Message 2018b), with Henry’s contribution from the New York City Museum revealing an emphasis on the “conflicts and multiple perspectives among New Yorkers as historical actors” as a form of social activism while “the politics of the nation are deeply polarised” (Henry 2018). Recalling exhibits concerning Muslim and Latina identity, the AIDs crisis and women’s suffrage, Henry’s highlighting of diverse identities and ideals of citizenship are particularly significant in light of debates concerning such issues within the United States. The ability for museums to direct social reflection is also evident with Henry’s development of the interactive exhibit Future City Lab. Centering on future planning, Henry established the criterion through which visitors would engage with the space on “an implicit assumption of consensus of shared values” such as inclusivity, community and diversity (Henry 2018). The museum is therefore specially positioned to foster social reflection and critical engagement with contemporary histories during contested political climates.
While museums increasingly cultivate their social role to interact with political issues, the ICOM volume alludes to the limited control curators hold over the meanings and affect of their exhibitions. Reflecting upon the biographical approach used by the Amsterdam Museum in the Netherlands to “talk concretely about abstract phenomena like class, mortality, migration [and] religious differences” (de Wildt 2018), de Wildt’s contribution explores the role of the museum in negotiating “competing moral visions of society” (Sandell 2016). Curating an exhibition charting 400 years of prostitution in Amsterdam, de Wildt’s interview of sex workers using oral history methodologies was intended to address the contested topic traditionally considered taboo within the museum environment. Through an interactive display that simulated the Red Light District with a soundtrack of audible street harassment, visitors were encouraged to reflect on the historic and continuing stigmas faced by individuals within the sex industry. However, the requests from women to remove source material depicting their past and present role as sex workers were “a painful recollection of how limited the museums ability to combat stigma can be”. While de Wildt saw through her exhibition “the possibility … [to] point out areas in society which ought to be illuminated”, the museum is limited in its ability to control broader social attitudes (de Wildt 2018). This reveals that despite curators’ attempts to encourage self-reflection, the meanings taken from exhibitions are inevitably largely individual and unable to be fully controlled.
The ICOM publication also raises questions about institutional identity and reveals that the authorities determining the museums’ composition are democratising as practitioners struggle against enduring nationalistic and colonial legacies. For Áile Aikio, her identity as both a Sámi indigenous woman and a museum professional exists in a contested world where she encounters difficulty in balancing multiple mandates. Recognising that, in the words of Ivan Karp, “exhibitions tell us who we are and, perhaps most significantly, who we are not”, Aikio understands Finnish museums as “privileged arenas for presenting images of self and ‘other’”, where the Sámi have always occupied the later role (Karp in Aikio 2018, 103). Interrogating the power relations implicit in museums’ institutional composition at the Sámi Museum Siida in Anár (Inari), Aikio reveals the reality whereby Sámi histories are catalogued in Finnish language databases, and the majority of Sámi cultural objects housed in Finland’s capital, Helsinki. Further questioning the merits of the binary ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ cultural heritage approach lauded by UNESCO, Aikio sites indigenous epistemologies as the knowledge system required to adequately explore Sámi histories. Reflecting on the traditional composition of the museum, Aikio states that, “in most cases, when seen from the perspective of the indigenous source community, museums and museum professionals are outsiders, despite their expertise on the community” (Aikio 2018). The shifting institutional makeup of the museum therefore heralds immense possibilities and the potential for an ongoing and broad reaching cultural ‘contact zone’ (Clifford 1997). The recognition of these institutional deficits and the call to reform traditional museum deficits reaffirms its potential within contemporary society, as movements to decolonise the museum will take strides in improving the diversity of its representations.
Concerns regarding museum collections and the varied way its social role can be achieved are further sites of contestation explored by the ICOM volume as museum identities rapidly evolve to respond to shifting contexts. Witting’s insight into the difficulties faced by museum professionals in responding to contemporary tragedies at Kulturmagasinet at Helsingborg, Sweden, and Mouliou’s reflection on the establishment of a temporary museum space for refugee youth in Athens, reveals the diverse ways in which museums negotiate their role within their communities and their responsibilities regarding contemporary social issues. Engaging in contemporary cause based collecting after a violent clash at a Swedish football match, Witting explores the challenges that arise from documenting tragic events as they have “increasingly become an aspect of museum work” with multiple concerns to be negotiated (Witting 2018).
Provoking debates concerning the museums’ role as a purveyor of social events, whilst also attempting to respect the sentimental value of memorial objects for individuals, Witting calls for a revision of the ICOM code of ethics as such practices become increasingly difficult to manage, and are simultaneously recognised as an essential part of museum collecting habits and capable of engaging communities in a shared healing process. Similar difficulties emerged in Mouliou’s initiative to create a pop-up museum in a refugee community on the outskirts of Athens, in Greece. Intending the displaced “teenagers to experience a reality that is different from their current situation [and] identity as refugees”, Mouliou directed a series of museum-like activities within the city to forge intercultural dialogues and foster a sense of shared belonging (Mouliou 2018). Despite existing in a temporary and non-institutional space, the exhibition, called ‘The Museum of Our Discoveries’, had enduring effects on the marginalised group. Mouliou reports increased levels of empowerment and social cohesion within the camp. Challenging traditional ideals of museum collecting and exhibition making, both contributions demonstrate the evolving nature of the museum and the breadth of its understanding.
In assessing the contemporary state of museum practice as it responds to ‘contested histories’, the ICOM volume provides significant observations regarding the state of museum thought as it is broadly negotiated by institutional forces, professional staff, and the publics it represents. Occupying a contested position in their ability to represent ‘difficult’ histories, regional context heavily determines the ability for museums to act as purveyors of social cohesion in post-conflict societies. Museum activism is also a site of contestation, as it is a multidirectional force whose various effects can be difficult to assess. The institutional composition of the museum is further under question, as practitioners challenge its traditional epistemologies, collecting practices, and physical locality in response to emerging social issues. Significantly, this contestation can be considered a profoundly productive element in contemporary museum understandings. Contestation encourages self-reflexivity and questions regarding the museums role in the past, present and future that have been discussed in the ICOM volume.
Part III: Contested Identities
While both museum theory and practice articulate a commitment to represent and respond to ‘contested histories’, their diverse temporal contexts and the multiple ways they are understood by various stakeholders confirms their role as a site of contestation. The implication of this complex state of play on how museum visitors, practitioners and scholars understand museums is that their political operations exist as a multidirectional force. Global organisations such as ICOM and the national governments they depend on function as external authorities with political leverage over museums as an institution. Curatorial and other museum professionals also exercise authority over representations, narratives, and activist practices, and invariably make political statements regarding identity, historical controversies, and contemporary social issues in their every day practice. A broad and heterogeneous citizenry interprets these forces in numerous ways, as the previous discussion reveals the paradox whereby museums come under scrutiny for being ‘too political’, or in other cases, ‘not political enough’, as well both guiding, and being a byproduct of, ‘contested histories’.
ICOM’s role at the periphery of these different political actors and its decision to revise the definition of the museum in 2019 reflects the contested state of the field. Over 150 proposals have already been submitted globally (with submissions categorised by nationality of origin), with attempts to assert a singular definition over the museum undoubtedly revealing a crisis concerning its identity (ICOM 2019b). It is clear that the definition as it currently stands is at odds with the museums’ multiple realities, as it claims: A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment” (ICOM Statutes, Article 3, Section 1, 2007)
While the value inferred by this statute appears oversimplified when considering the diverse representations of museum work as expressed in the ICOM volume, ICOM recognises the definition “does not reflect and express adequately the complexities of the 21st century and the current responsibilities and commitments of museums, nor their challenges and visions for the future” (ICOM 2019b). The crisis of identity concerning a new definition or a ‘backbone’ of the museum reveals the difficulties that arise from attempts to assert authority over all museums, as practitioners increasingly recognise that “[t]he original concept of the museum, born in modern Europe and exported around the world, has become a cultural hybrid and clearly one model no longer offers groups and sub-groups of people the possibility to narrate their own paths” (Brown & Mairesse 2018).
This contestation provides an opportunity to reflect upon the role of the museum and the value that arises from discussing ‘what’ museums are, ‘how they work, and ‘who’ they work for. It is clear from the transitions in scholarship and the contributions of the ICOM volume that there is no singular answer to ‘what’ museums are, as they are invoked in various ways depending on temporal context, specific mandate, and stakeholder interests. Museums also ‘work’ in a multitude of ways, with their social role increasingly established as their most defining characteristic in the twenty-first century (Brown & Mairesse 2018; Peers and Brown 2003). ICOM’s attempts to assert a singular definition over the museum also raises questions about ‘who’ the museum works for, as their dependence on national governments as well as curatorial professionals, can entail different and sometimes competing agendas (Luke 2002; Sirok 2018; Zuma 2018). The various and conflicting notions of ‘what’ a museum is and how it ought to be understood also provides an important way through which we can understand cultural politics more broadly. Perhaps more than any other civic space, museums establish identities and cultural value. However, ‘what’ the museum is has also been reimagined in recent decades, as activist practices have cemented its role as an engaged site that are held accountable for abiding by the mandates they have set. As such, Lehrer’s reflection on the Canadian Museum of Human Rights holds global relevance for, ‘[i]n the end, the museum will be defined by what it enables: the alternate narrative is catalyses, [and] the challenges to its own blind spots that it engenders” (Lehrer 2015: 1210).
This article has charted the transitions in museum narratives and explored the contested state of museums as they are reflected in contemporary practice and ICOMs recent publication on “Museums and Contested Histories”. Despite reflecting on thirty years since 1989 and the pronouncement of a ‘crisis’ faced by museums, it is clear that many issues of the era continue to be broadly debated, and show little sign of resolution. The issues concerning authority, ownership and narrative surveyed by Part I of this article and confirmed by the complex international case studies of Part II, are unlikely to ever be resolved. Perhaps this is as it should be. In the final instance, this article has demonstrated that despite continued contestations, museums’ and their practitioners increasingly strive to fulfil mandates for inclusion, diversity and engagement (ICOM 2018). When museums fail in these aims, activism against the museum has been seen to hold the institutions accountable for reaching their full potential and realising their social role (Butler 2006; Sandell 2012; Adisa-Farrar 2018; Brown and Pes 2019; Message 2018b; Message 2019). The ICOM publication further demonstrates that despite contestation, museums’ are increasingly self-reflective, and recognise their evolving state and purpose with the decision to revise its definition. While ‘crisis’ has been continually evoked in museum thought in previous decades, the discussions it enables are fundamentally productive, encouraging reflexivity and ensuring museums’ remain critical sites of cultural politics.
 This volume is particularly relevant to this theme of this issue of Roots § Routes as its theme developed as a result of ICOM’s annual theme for 2017, “Museums and Contested Histories: Saying the Unspeakable in Museums”.
 Many historians were involved in formulating the social history movement, with E.P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class among the most notable texts attributed with popularising ‘history from below’, and inspiring many subsequent scholars as well as cultural professionals.
 By forging a connection between people and the state, Tony Bennett reveals, “the public museum exemplified the development of a new ‘governmental’ relation to culture”, as objects were categorised and displayed in ways that “could be enlisted… for new tasks of social management” (Bennett: 1995, 6). This national project operated within the same network as amusement parks and department stores, as public museums exuded an authority intended to mould “self-perpetuating” citizens “that would not only be governable but would freely assent to [their] governance” (Bennett: 2015, 4).
 Museums operated throughout European Empires and served as signifiers of national progress and the ethnographic imperial project. Motivated by anthropology’s colonial mandate, ethnography and its system of classification was closely bound with museum collecting and existed within a broad and totalising system of control, as Benedict Anderson reveals – like the map and the census – the museum “applied [peoples, religions and languages] with endless flexibility under the state’s real or contemplated control” (Anderson: 2006, 184).
 While these ideals emerged within historical and other disciplinary scholarship at the same time as it was present in museum practice, museum studies as a discipline did not exist until the following decades.
 Community-based museums focus on individual and collective experience and have taken different forms depending on regional context and the specific period in which they emerged. For example, eco-museums were a predominantly European phenomena focused on a ‘borderless’ approach that rejected the traditional museum setting and tradition of object collecting. Tribal museums in the United States and the ‘ethnic museum movement’ in Australia emerged to counter the deficits of indigenous knowledge present in museum narratives and were focused on indigenous epistemologies and ways of collecting. These museums all possessed similar intentions of fostering ownership, self-representation and engaging the traditionally minority communities in their own historical representation (Message 2014; Message 2018b).
 The term ‘culture wars’ first entered mainstream discussion in the late 1980s, and is described by sociologist Steven Dubin as “impassioned confrontations between groups within the same society, polarised over so-called hot button issues falling broadly within the realms of race and ethnicity; the body, sexuality, and sexual orientation; identity politics; religion; and patriotism and national identity” (Dubin 2006: 477). The phenomena is most often attributed to the tumultuous post-Cold War ideological climate, the growth of civil rights movements from the 1950s, and new academic theories such as the new social history, postcolonial, feminism, race theory and queer theory.
 There are many examples of particular ‘agenda’ museums ranging from the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles (1993), the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC (1993), the Immigration Museum in Melbourne (1998), the National Museum of the American Indian (2004), the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool (2007), the Canadian Human Rights Museum (2008) and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (2016).
 Protestors included anti-abortion advocates, indigenous rights groups, and environmental activists. Significantly, the Shoal Lake indigenous community whose land the museum was built on created an oppositional “Canadian Museum for Human Rights Violations” within their community to draw attention to persisting inequalities within Canada. Despite the state museums’ mandate to exhibit universalist narratives of human rights, national interests remain engrained, as Erica Lehrer reflects, “the single clearest idea the museum communicates is one of singularly heroic Canada: a safe haven vis à vis mostly foreign atrocities” (Lehrer, 2015).
 This is evident in the United States Holocaust Museum, as the onus it places on universal human rights and reflectivity concludes with triumphant images of the contemporary nation-state of Israel without any recognition of Palestine and the persisting human rights abuses that mark the regional conflict.
 The criterion of the Future City Lab includes:
- Housing a Growing City: How can we meet the housing needs of New Yorkers?
- Making a Living: What can we do to provide economic opportunity for the next generation?
- Getting Around: How can we make it easier for people to get into and around the city?
- Living Together: How can we foster a more inclusive city?
- Living with Nature: How can New York City enhance its natural environment and cope with climate change?
 While contemporary cause based collecting largely emerged during the political reform movements of the 1960s and 1970s and was broadly concentrated on issues such as civil rights, environmental, gender, and anti-War activism (Message 2014), it began to involve documenting tragedy such as terrorism and natural disasters following 9/11. Issues that arise from contemporary cause based collecting following tragedy includes, but is not limited to: consulting with the communities whom the material involves, ensuring material is collected and exhibited in a sympathetic way, and ethics regarding the involvement of curators and the public in recounting traumatic events. See Dale-Hallett et al (2015).
 An exemplary current example is the Brown Girls Museum Blog which was developed by museum professionals, Ravon Ruffin and Amanda Figueroa as ‘a site to promote people of color in the public humanities as emerging professionals, as audience and as cultural creators. BGMB encourages people of color to make space for themselves in the museum, and engage in critical dialogue toward greater diversity and cultural equity. We write so that others cannot tell our story for us’, http://www.browngirlsmuseumblog.com
Adisa-Farrar, Teju (2018) Why are white curators still running African art collections?, The Guardian 3 April.
Aikio, Aile (2018) Guovtti ilmmi gaskkas. Balancing Between Two Contested Worlds: The Challenges and Benefits of Being an Indigenous Museum Professional, Museums and Contested Histories, ICOM: 100-111
Albert, Joan Roca I (2018) The Informal City in the Museum of Barcelona, Museums and Contested Histories, ICOM: 48-59.
Appadurai, Arjun & Breckenridge, Carol A (1990) Museums Are Good to Think: Heritage on View in India, No touching, no spitting no praying: The Museum in South Asia, edited by Saloni Mathur and Kavita Singh, London and New York, Routledge: 173-183.
Bennett, Tony (1995) The Birth of the Modern Museum: History, Theory, Politics. London and New York: Routledge.
Bennett, Tony (2015) Thinking (With) Museums: From Exhibitionary Complex to Governmental Assemblage, The International Handbook of Museum Studies: Museum Theory, edited by Andrea Witcomb and Kylie Message, John Wiley & Sons: 3-20.
Boast, Robin (2011) Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited, Museum Anthropology, vol. 34, no. 1: 57-70.
Brown, Kate & Pes, Javier (2019) In Landmark Decision, London’s National Portrait Gallery Drops a $1.1 Million Gift from the Sacklers, Artnet News, 19 March.
Brown, Karen & Mairesse, François (2018) The Definition of the Museum through its social role, Curator: The Museum Journal: 1-15.
Butler, Shelley Ruth (2008) Contested Representations: Revisiting Into the Heart of Africa. Toronto: Broadview Press.
Clifford, James (1997) Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.
Dale-Hallett et al (2015) Sites of Trauma: Contemporary Collecting and Natural Disaster, The International Handbook of Museum Studies: Museum Theory, edited by Andrea Witcomb and Kylie Message, John Wiley & Sons: 531-551.
Davison, Graeme (2001) National museums in a global age: Observations abroad and reflections at home, National Museums: Negotiating Histories Conference Proceedings.
De Wildt, Annemarie (2018) The City Museum as an Empathic Space Museums and Contested Histories, ICOM: 72-83.
Dubin, Steven C (2006) Incivilities in Civil(-ized) Places: “Culture Wars” in Comparative Perspective, A Companion to Museum Studies, edited by Sharon MacDonald, Blackwell Publishing: 477-493.
Fukuyama, Francis (1989) The End of History?, The National Interest, No. 16 (Summer 1989): 3-18.
Henry, Sarah M (2018) Confronting New York’s Present and Future, Museums and Contested Histories, ICOM: 2018.
International Council of Museums (2017) ICOM Statement on President Trump’s 27 January Executive Order, 3 March 2017.
International Council of Museums (2018), Museums and Contested Histories, Museum International, vol. 70, no.3-4: 1-145.
International Council of Museums (2019a) Missions and Objectives.
International Council of Museums (2019b) Take part in creating the new museum definition: Already 117 proposals to check out!, March 18 2019.
Isaac, Gwyneira (2006) What are your expectations Telling Us? Encounters with the NMAI, American Indian Quarterly, vol.30, no.4-4.
Karp, Ivan (1992) “Introduction: Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture”, Museums and Communities: The Politics of Pubic Culture, Washington: Smithsonian Institution.
Knell, Simon et al. (2007) Museum Revolutions: How Museums Change and Are Changed, London and New York: Routledge.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara (2006) World Heritage and Cultural Economics, Museum Friction: Public Cultures / Global Transformations, edited by Ivan Karp et. al. Durham NC: Duke University Press: 161-201.
Krauss, Rosalind (1990) The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum, October, vol. 54: 3-17,
Lehrer, Erica (2015) Thinking through the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, The American Studies Association: 1196-1216.
Luke, Timothy (2003) Museums Politics: Power Plays at the Exhibition. Minneapolis MN: The University of Minnesota Press.
Mathur, Saloni (2005) Social Thought & Commentary: Museums and Globalisation, Anthropological Quarterly, no.78, vol.3: 697-708.
Message, Kylie (2004) New Museums and the Making of Culture, Berg: Oxford and New York.
Message, Kylie (2010) Museums in the Twenty-first Century: Still Looking for Signs of Difference, Konsthistorisk Tidskrift/ Journal of Art History, vol. 78, no. 4: 204-221.
Message, Kylie (2014) Museums and Social Activism: Engaged Protest, London and New York: Routledge.
Message, Kylie (2015) “Contentious Politics and Museums as Contact Zones” The International Handbook of Museum Studies: Museum Theory, edited by Andrea Witcomb and Kylie Message, John Wiley & Sons: 253-281.
Message, Kylie (2018a) “Afterword: Making History in Contested Times”, Museums and Contested Histories, ICOM: 136-145.
Message, Kylie (2018b) The Disobedient Museum: Writing at the Edge, London and New York: Routledge.
Message, Kylie (2018c) Museums and Racism, London and New York: Routledge.
Message, Kylie (2019) Archiving Activism: The Occupy Wall Street Collection, London and New York: Routledge.
Message, Kylie & Witcomb, Andrea (2015) “Introduction: Museum Theory: An Expanded Field”, The International Handbook of Museum Studies: Museum Theory, edited by Andrea Witcomb and Kylie Message, John Wiley & Sons: xxxv-lxiii.
Morphy, Howard (2015) The Displaced Local: Multiple Agency in the Building of Museums’ Ethnographic Collections, The International Handbook of Museum Studies: Museum Theory, edited by Andrea Witcomb and Kylie Message, John Wiley & Sons: 365-388.
Mouliou, Marlen (2018) The Museum of Our Discoveries: Empowering Young Refugees in an Urban Context, Museums and Contested Histories, ICOM: 124-133.
Pabst, Katherine (2018) Considerations to Make, Needs to Balance: Two Moral Challenges Museum Employees Face When Working with Contested, Sensitive Histories, Museums and Contested Histories, ICOM: 84-97.
Peers & Brown (2003) Museums and Source Communities, London and New York: Routledge.
Reynolds, Chris & Williams, Blair (2013) Museums and ‘Difficult Pasts’: Northern Ireland’s 1968, Museums and Contested Histories, ICOM: 12-25.
Sandell, Richard (2016) Museums, Moralities and Human Rights, London and New York: Routledge.
Shelton, Anthony Alan (2006) Museums and Anthropologies: Practices and Narratives, A Companion to Museum Studies, edited by Sharon MacDonald, Blackwell Publishing.
Shelton, Anthony Alan (2009) The Public Sphere as Wilderness: Le Musée du quai Branly, The American Anthropological Association: 1-15.
Sirok, Kaja (2018) Reinterpreting and Transforming ‘Red’ Museums in Yugoslavia, Museums and Contested Histories, ICOM: 26-36.
Thompson, E.P (1968) The Making of the English Working Class, London: Pelican Books.
Vergo, Peter (1989) New Museology, London: Reaktion Books.
Witcomb, Andrea (2003) Re-Imagining the Museum: Beyond the Mausoleum, London and New York: Routledge.
Witting, Birgitta (2018) The Weekend When Violence Took Over: On Documenting a Memorial Site, Museums and Contested Histories, ICOM, 112-123.
Yellis, Ken (2009) Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars. Curator, vol. 53, no. 4: 333-348.
Zuma, Bonginkosi (2005) The Extent to which South African Museums Surrendered to Political Undertones, Museums and Contested Histories, ICOM: 38-74.
Eleanor Foster is a Bachelor of Philosophy (Honours) student at the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University.
Kylie Message is Professor of Public Humanities in the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. She is author of New Museums and the Making of Culture (2006), Museums and Social Activism: Engaged Protest (2014), The Disobedient Museum: Writing at the Edge (2018), Museums and Racism (2018), and Archiving Activism: The Occupy Wall Street Collection (in press, 2019). She is Series Editor of the Routledge ‘Museums in Focus’ book series, which is committed to the articulation of big, even risky, ideas in small format publications, and challenges authors and readers to experiment with, innovate, and press museums and the intellectual frameworks through which we view these. It offers a platform for approaches that radically rethink the relationships between cultural and intellectual dissent and crisis and debates about museums, politics and the broader public sphere, and accepts proposals on a rolling basis.