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Featured Review | Museum Diplomacy in the Digital Age

Natalia Grincheva (2020). Museum Diplomacy in the Digital Age. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-8153-6999-8, 164 pp., £27.99 (paperback).

For many years, the debate about cultural diplomacy (CD) focused on state actors. That debate has been reinvigorated in recent years as scholars explore the role of non-state actors in cultural diplomacy. Natalia Grincheva is one of those scholars, most recently showcased in her book, Museum Diplomacy in the Digital Age (2020).

Grincheva analyses three online initiatives: the Virtual Museum of the Pacific, launched by the Australian Museum; the British Museum’s ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’ project; and YouTube Play, a joint effort by Google and the Guggenheim Museum. She argues that museums are intrinsically political and they have always been implicated in cultural diplomacy. However, the scope, nature and potential of that involvement is changing, not least due to their increasing openness to digital tools. Grincheva is assessing the success of these digital exhibitions against a certain notion of CD. That is one of the innovative aspects of this book.

Grincheva’s digital ethnography advances the debate about cultural diplomacy in two key ways. First, she makes explicit what has been lurking underneath the debate for years. Traditional discussions of CD tend to start with a relatively straightforward definition. Arndt’s is a good example: “Cultural Diplomacy can only be said to take place when formal diplomats, serving national governments, try to shape and channel this natural flow to advance national interests.”1 At the same time, we can’t help but acknowledge Milton Cummings’ important definition: “Cultural diplomacy is the exchange of ideas, information, art, and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding.”2 Reconciling these two definitions has not always been easy and efforts to do so tend to muddy the definitional waters.

Grincheva solves this problem by arguing that cultural diplomacy has two foundational, intertwined aspects – ‘national projection’ and ‘cultural relations.’ In doing so, she injects new life into the concept of CD. Critics of CD often lament the tilt toward ‘projection’ in the traditional list of CD examples. Grincheva applies a critical lens to the concept. But rather than jettisoning CD, she arguably revives it by showing that both elements are always present to some degree. From a normative standpoint, she certainly hopes that the ‘cultural relations’ component will become much more prominent. Indeed, one empirical focus of her book is to explore whether the digital museum can help to shift the balance by creating a space for dialogue. She shows that the prospects are good; nonetheless, success requires a redistribution of power toward the various communities that might be implicated in a particular project both to allow the emancipatory potential of museum work to shine through and to allow realization of the ‘cultural relations’ aspect of cultural diplomacy. For example, the Virtual Museum of the Pacific might have been well-intentioned in its desire to engage with Aboriginal communities. While the digital space opened a new mode of communication, the design of the project stopped short of the kind of genuine exchange that we associate with ‘cultural relations.’

In addition to her definitional innovation, Grincheva’s second contribution is to situate cultural diplomacy in relation to museum diplomacy, digital diplomacy, digital museum diplomacy, and heritage diplomacy. Again, she takes us beyond the traditional approach, which is to explore the relationship between cultural diplomacy and propaganda or public diplomacy (PD) – e.g.is CD separate and distinct from PD?G rincheva advances well beyond this somewhat stale line of inquiry by parsing the extraordinary diversity of activities taking place at the nexus of culture and diplomacy. This move, together with her redefinition of CD to include both the ‘projection’ and the ‘exchange’ components opens new terrain in our study of CD by revealing the range of sites where it might be taking place.

I had the opportunity to speak with Natalia recently about her work. I mentioned that I felt this book was quite prescient. She analysed three instances of museums choosing to move into the digital space. Yet the pandemic required the physical closure of so many museum premises and a quick pivot to digital space. I asked her about the impact of this. She observed that the pandemic not only accelerated museum’s use of the digital space. It is also arguably prompting new thinking about the very essence of what a museum is. According to the International Council of Museums (ICOM), “a museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” However, the move to digital space suggests that a museum might more accurately be defined as a ‘hybrid, polyphonic open space for critical debate between the past and the future.’ This recognition of the evolving role of the museum does not necessarily translate into a greater role for museums in cultural diplomacy. If and how they will be implicated in CD in their new hybrid incarnation is an empirical question ripe for further research. 

Patricia Goff, Wilfrid Laurier University

1. Richard T. Arndt, The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century. (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2006), XVIII.

2. Milton C. Cummings, ‘Cultural Diplomacy and the United States Government: A Survey’ (Washington, D.C.; Center for Arts and Culture, 2003), 1-15, 1.

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