Should Museums Be Political? Europe’s History in Crisis


Monday 18 September at 5.30PM

Stanhope Hotel Brussels, Rue du Commerce 9, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

Speakers include:

  • Dr. Katalin Deme, Central European Studies, Aarhus University Denmark
  • Jon Eirik Lundberg, curator and CEO of Laesoe Art Hall
  • Didier Rykner, art historian, journalist and founder of La Tribune de l’Art

Once, people assumed that the role of museums was to collect and preserve important items from the past and provide a place for the public to learn about history. Today, most museums think of themselves as having a very different role. The job of the modern museum, through endless new initiatives in participation and the introduction of high tech interactive digital tools, is to re-educate the public about the evils of the past, from slavery to colonialism, the oppression of women to the dangers of militarism and climate change. 

But as museums change their role, has something important been lost amid the clamour to apologise for history or to repatriate artefacts? Have museums become less about the centrality of their collections to help us preserve and better understand the past and more about the concerns of the present? 

As museums become increasingly subject to political demands, some suggest that we need a return to the museums of old: focused on historical artefacts without the political sermons. Others suggest that conservatives should ‘fight fire with fire’, and create museums with a less apologetic attitude towards national achievements and identity. Many others insist that de-colonising the museum has barely even started, and that Western countries have much more learning and reflecting to do on the evils of colonialism and racism, and many museum pieces that need to be returned. 

What should be the role of the museum in the 21st Century? Can Europe understand its past without a store of cultural treasures that illustrate its unique history? Should museums be a politics-free-zone, or have they always been political?