Museum Diplomacy: Transnational Public History and the U.S. Department of State, by Richard J.W. Harker. University of Massachusetts Press: 2020.
REVIEWED BY JACOB HIGGINS
Richard Harker’s book, Museum Diplomacy: Transnational Public History and the U.S. Department of State is a critical look at the program known as Museums Connect. Museums Connect, which operated between 2008 and 2017 under the auspices of the Department of State (DOS). It was a program intended to “support the achievement of U.S. policy goals and objectives, advance national interests, and enhance national security by informing and influencing foreign publics and expanding and strengthening the relationship between the people and the Government of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world” (6).
In the preface, Harker explains that in hindsight, he realized just how much the agenda of his collaborators in Morocco (he was a part of one of the three major case studies that he discusses in the book) was sidelined by American interests, who held the structural power in the relationship. Upon reflection, he believes this to be true of all the case studies he discusses throughout the book. In the introduction, Harker discussed the conditions and background of how the DOS came to be involved in international relationships between museums.
The three major case studies which Harker chooses to focus on are between the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, between the Museum of History and Holocaust Education in Atlanta and the Ben M’sik Community Museum in Casablanca, and between the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham and the Nelson Mandela House Museum and Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. These three exchanges between the US and Afghanistan, Morocco, and South Africa make up Chapters 2, 3, and 4, respectively.
In Chapter 2, the primary struggle was that the National Constitution Center unilaterally promoted the Hazara minority, regardless of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. This was especially obtuse, because the National Constitution Center centered the idea that America had to promote the welfare of minorities in other countries while neglecting the tribulations of minorities in America, despite the subtitle of the exhibition, “Afghanistan, America, & the Minority Imprint.”
In Chapter 3, the primary struggle was that the Moroccan partners were intellectually sidelined by the Museum of History and Holocaust Education. The Moroccan partners wanted primarily to dispel stereotypes of Muslim people as terrorists and educate the American public on hijab use. This shone through in the initial discussion between the two collaborators, but as time went on, the Moroccan team was sidelined due to a lack of funding and experience, and as a result the exhibition was staffed and run by the American team, who chose not to emphasize that point.
In Chapter 4, the primary struggle is that both museums choose to ignore present social tensions in favor of the historical comparison narrative, implying that nothing is presently wrong. This was because the Civil Rights and Anti-Apartheid movements were the historical focus of the museums, and in both societies (and given the short time frame the grant had given for the museums to work together), it was easier to discuss the past rather than the present. The result was that the collaborators ended up focusing on the “Great Men” (Nelson Mandala and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) rather than the movements themselves and the ramifications. The conclusion of the book focuses on the premise of Museums Connect, and how future attempts at museum partnerships should have inclusive democratic foundations.
This book is valuable for students of museology in that it chooses valuable case studies that reveal the shortcomings of American cultural assumptions, and provides a valuable example of how to avoid such assumptions in future exchanges. The overarching thematic challenge across the cases was the discrepancy in power between American institutions and international institutions, and how those structural power dynamics are navigated. In each of these cases, this was the result of the DOS applying “soft power” through museums; in every Museums Connect collaboration, the grant had to be managed in the form of financials, compliance, and periodic reporting by the American institution with all documents written and maintained in American English. The State Department had this goal in mind, even if the museum educators did not. The biggest takeaway from this experience should be that even in cases where the individual museum has good intentions, it is necessary to critically review the balance of power between partners in order to ensure a truly equitable relationship.
Jacob Higgins is a first year MA student in the Museum Studies Program at IUPUI. He has a Bachelor of Arts in History from Purdue University.