National museums need to adapt to Europe’s changing multicultural society

National museums are often seen as the backbone of a nation’s cultural constitution, promoting a sense of traditionalism and national pride. However, in recent times they risk losing significance if they do not adjust to social, political and demographic changes. The EUNAMUS research project, which has been exploring the role of contemporary museums in reconciling these conflicting demands, shows that museums can be a great asset to nation states, but they will need to adapt to stay relevant in a constantly changing society

In their most literal sense, museums provide sanctuary for historical relics, which can be seen as material representations of knowledge about nature, history, culture and art. It is also thought that museums embody a vision of the future by creating a sense of identity and shared values, cohesion and stability within a nation’s people. An interesting question for policy makers is how can a modern national museum celebrate both a nation’s past and promote the values of contemporary multicultural society?

The starting point for the EUNAMUS project has been to investigate the importance of museums through history, from 1750 to 2010. Findings so far show a complex relationship between different nations and their museums, many of which have been vulnerable to political demands. In general, however, they have formed an indispensible part of cultural constitutions, providing continuity from past generations and a link to future ones.

The key message for moving forward is that museums need to respond to the increasingly globalised nature of modern society by creating cohesion across borders and within multicultural nations.

Historical observations:

  • Most nation states have a national museum structure made up of one or more art, archaeology, history, ethnology, anthropology, cultural history, natural science or military museums.
  • Most European nation states opened their first national museum in the 19th century in relation to cultural, social and geopolitical changes. Exceptions are the British Museum and Le Louvre (18th century), and national museums in Bulgaria, the Republic of Ireland, Cyprus, Lithuania, Slovakia, Northern Ireland and the Sápmi nation (20th century).
  • The existence of museums for centuries has underpinned a pan-European understanding of the importance of national identity
  • Some national museums have played an important part in the development of nation states by projecting a sense of community, for example the Nuremberg German National Museum, created in 1852 before the unification of Germany in 1871.
  • Nation-building agendas are still strong in some contemporary cases, e.g. the new National Museum of Scotland.
  • Many museums in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and Estonia, have experienced ‘cultural reinterpretations’ during and after occupation. However, their survival has played a key part in keeping national identity alive during years of communist rule.
  • Museums first set up in political sovereign states, e.g. the Louvre in Paris, and the British Museum in London, have all been important in stabilising and demonstrating the power of long-established regimes.

Looking forward – Cultural policy in modern society?

Having developed the historical context of national museums, future EUNAMUS research will examine policy actions relating to national museums and from this, seek to determine how policy can both drive and reflect contemporary national and European values

Another part of the research, nearing completion, focuses on the ways in which national museums handle the issue of conflict. This is intended to help researchers communicate ways in which national museums can approach intercultural tensions, give positive representation to minority groups throughout their history and use national museums as arenas for intercultural exchange, cultural diplomacy and in reconciliation processes

Initial policy recommendations:

  • Recognise that national museums can serve as agents of social change. Carefully managed, they can perform many parallel functions and should not be regarded only as sanctuaries of historical relics.
  • Recognise that national museums provide citizens with a ‘connective tissue’. This cultural glue is vital for social cohesion. It can also help solidify support for state actions and foster confidence in representative democracy at national and European levels.
  • Museums need to strike a balance between celebrating their historical ethnicity and providing a positive representation of newer, minority groups. Successful, although controversial, examples of this are the opening of the Musée du quai Branly and the National Museum for the History of Immigration, in Paris.
  • To prevent aggressive nationalism, encourage national museums to activate transnational connections in their collections, and increase the awareness of European and global values and processes.
  • Museums may expand on the success of temporary exhibitions in the 20th century based on international cooperation between national institutions, to develop cross-cultural European and thematic, rather than state-orientated, narratives.
  • Investment is needed to reinvent interpretations of collections in national museums – this is likely to be a considerably more cost-effective strategy than investment in new building projects.

The EUNAMUS project is a multinational initiative between eight leading European universities (from Sweden, the UK, Greece, France, Estonia, Norway, Italy and Hungary). Further subtopics to be studied under EUNAMUS are the importance of architecture, modes of representation (e.g. the digital age), visitors’ experiences and the extension of the role of national museums beyond Europe, where many countries are investing heavily in their cultural heritage

A strong focus of the EUNAMUS research has been on developing a range of communication tools to make the findings accessible to all stakeholders, including cultural policy makers, museum professionals, regional planners and the general public. This has included open access websites, newsletters, books, policy briefs, conferences, media appearances and outreach events, details of which are available from the project website:

EUNAMUS – European national museums: identity politics, the uses of the past and the European citizen (duration: 1/2/2010 – 31/1/2013). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 5 “The citizen in the European Union”, Research area 5.2 “Diversities and commonalities in Europe”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).


Contact: Prof. Peter Aronsson,