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

By Castellano, Cristina | Human Architecture, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview
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African, Chinese and Mexican National Museums in the United States: Did You Say "National"?

Castellano, Cristina, Human Architecture

Abstract: This article explores how the model of the US cultural policies allows the creation of minority, racial and ethnic museums. It shows the difference between mainstreams museum and the community museums situated in peripheral neighborhoods in Illinois. It shows how the diaspora's recent museums in Chicago are questioning the imagined nations and how nomadic subjects are grounded and practicing a self-representation in US territory. The text places at the center of its analysis the case of National Museum of Mexican Art of Chicago and the contradiction of the assimilation of Mexican culture by the American hegemony. This article was originally presented in an international workshop about Migration and Museum in Paris, at the EHESS in 2009. The reader will find references to the French context throughout the text. This comparison is important because the French model of cultural policies doesn't allow a self-representation of minorities.

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.


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 Europe1, 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 States5, 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?


In the 20th century, museums with an ethnic or racial character have appeared all over the Unites States.

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


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