What was the focus and scope of ‘EUNAMUS: European National Museums. Identity Politics, the Uses of the Past and the European Citizen’ and what is its relevance in view of contemporary social, political, and economic issues affecting Europe and its inhabitants? Which is the most relevant (and lasting) outcome of your project?

The focus and scope of EUNAMUS was to understand the cultural and political force of national museums in representing, negotiating and handling change. National museums are thus ‘defined and explored as processes of institutionalised negotiations where material collections and displays make claims and are recognised as articulating and representing national values and realities.’ Questions asked in the project are: why, by whom, when, with what material, with what result and future possibilities are those museums created?

By researching the historical formation through social, political, and scientific initiatives into buildings and exhibitions that narrate unity, negotiate conflicts and meet their audiences, we assessed various ways the complex of museums have been interacting with state and nation-making from 1750 to 2010. Providing the first comprehensive comparative study of the phenomenon of national museums in thirty-seven nations has set the foundation for understanding the role of cultural institution in societal change.

The results demonstrate the complexity of museums as institutions where logics and legitimacy from academia, politics, economics and the public sphere meet. If skilfully performed the outcome of that negotiation can help overcoming past conflicts and find future perspectives to inspire communities. If they fail they will become irrelevant and even worse, enhance levels of conflict and distrust to the point of disintegrating a nation. This reveals the crucial role of cultural investments in museums as infrastructures with a potential importance beyond a restricted cultural political agenda.

What influence have EU political and funding agendas had on the framing of your research, its lines of enquiry, methods, and expected impact?

The existence of EU programmes helped to fund and create incitement for European collaboration that would otherwise not have been as large in scope and territorial extension and cross-disciplinary in approach. Eight universities and more then fifty researchers have collaborated in the project. The push from the funding programme to interact with stakeholders and to deliver policy briefs has been frustrating due to the lack of training, developed tools and expertise to do so. However, it has also been stimulating as it has triggered a more intensive and necessary reflection on knowledge exchange. Subsequent developments have proved cultural investment—in line with European values—to have been too belated and weak to stand the test of economic crises. Unfortunately, the argument that challenges of our time needs more input from humanities and cultural sciences, has not convinced funding bodies in Europe and elsewhere. Still technological inventions are searched for in a one-dimensional thrust to help us manage change. This is insufficient.

Which roles should heritage play to address social division and crisis in Europe? Would this like like an ‘on-the-ground’ heritage practice?

Heritage usually emerges in response to threat and as hope for the future. This applies to the birth of national museums after the Napoleonic wars as well as to the making of new modern democratic nations in more recent history. New investments in heritage need to claim to prove how sustainable European communities can grow out of the current distress. Heritage that demonstrates earlier successful collaboration, sustainability and the creation of prosperity through problem resolution needs to complement heritage that demonstrates the price of failure in terms of war and disaster.

Interview by Francesca Lanz, Christopher Whitehead and Michela Bassanelli

*Peter Aronsson is Professor of History at Linnaeus University, Sweden. His recent work focus on the role of historical narrative and consciousness in directing action related to both historiography and the uses of the past in historical culture at large. He has recently taken part in three international projects including EuNaMus – European National Museums: Identity Politics, the Uses of the Past and the European Citizen(February 2010 – January 2013) which he coordinated.