African, Chinese and Mexican National Museums in the United States Did You Say "National"?

By Castellano, Cristina | Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

African, Chinese and Mexican National Museums in the United States Did You Say "National"?


Castellano, Cristina, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge


The political and cultural model of the United States allows the existence of national museums with an ethnic or racial character. The immigrant communities from African, Asian and Mexican origins have museums where they represent their own artistic and cultural heritage. But: what happens when the national assimilation project of the United States integrates as "national" the cultural treasures of immigrant communities? I will try to answer these questions briefly, based on case studies which I undertook in various museums in Chicago.

I. NATIONAL MUSEUMS

In the 19th century, the economic development of the United States not only accelerated the construction of industries and railways but also increased the emergence and development of museums. Criticized for their lack of historical tradition and heritage, the United States built up national museums with the aim of defining not only its economic power but also its cultural relevance to confront the cultural power of Europe. One of the instruments of the cultural power of the US is also the museum industry. In Europe (1), as well as in the United States, museums were developed to stimulate a national conscience and to build up a national imaginary. The idea of the national imaginary as a simple collective construction coincides with the theses of Benedict Anderson who characterizes "the nation" as an imagined construction:

   It is imagined because the members
   of even the smallest nation
   will never know most of their fellow-members,
   meet them, or even
   hear of them, yet in the minds of
   each lives the image of their communion. (2)

National museums appeared to show the images and symbols that expressed the pride and made up the identity of every nation. If in the United States the notion of "museum of art" did not exist before the American Civil war, it is important to stress that Ninety-five per cent of existing museums are said to have been founded since world war II. (3) But during the 20th century:

   [...] there was a proliferation of
   small, low-budget, neighborhood
   museums, often concentrating on
   the culture of everyday life or local
   heritage; at the other, corporate
   museums, the development of museums
   "franchises," "blockbuster"
   shows, iconic, "landmark" architecture,
   "superstar" museums, and
   "meta-museums" also flourished. (4)

Nowadays, the museum enterprises in the United States (5), which are emblematic of the national art and heritage, coexist with the small community museums which are run by the younger generations of immigrant descent. But, how can a national museum represent itself through a "foreign" heritage? How can the imagined nation represent itself through the images and symbols of another national imaginary? Isn't the fact of representing the American nation with museums and images of Chinese, Mexican or African origins a contradiction in itself?

II. COMMUNITY MUSEUMS

In the 20th century, museums with an ethnic or racial character have appeared all over the Unites States. The cultural heritage of the immigrant communities has become a museum object in exhibits, and an actual issue for shows as well. It is not a right exercised by the American State, but rather conquered by social minorities: Blacks, Jews, Asians, Hispanics, homosexuals and women, among others. These museums, named "community museums" (6) pick up in their exhibits the symbols of the groups or societies of origin which they represent. In this way, they show the contexts of their past, without forgetting the cultural mutations of the present.

In the United States, one of the first community museums was the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. (7) This museum appeared in 1967 due to the growth of national museums at the time. Originally, the Anacostia was an initiative run by the marginal and poor community in Washington. Since its beginnings, the community has participated in the museological tasks.

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