Museum Diplomacy: Parsing the Global Engagement of Museums

Principal Investigator:
Sascha Priewe, CPD Research Fellow 2019-21

Museums are increasingly being recognized as significant non-state actors in public diplomacy. This project examines the international webs of relations that museums are steeped in—foregrounding the extent of their work in the international sphere. The project approaches the global work of museums as activity that produces diplomatic outcomes. In so doing, I recognize the agency of museums and their diplomatic potential. I examine the ways in which this speaks to the reshaping of the diplomatic landscape that has widened and leveled the playing field for an increasing number of actors. Here, I assess how museums have become one of the myriad actors in the “network” of public diplomacy that has displaced the dominance of the “club” of the nation state. In a broadening diplomatic playing field that is accommodating an ever-greater number of players, it is important to recognize the ways museums have long functioned as active in international work.

In this study, I will establish that museums have always been international and aim to chart how, in recent years, museum diplomacy has both broadened and deepened. This is demonstrated through initiatives including the increase in traveling exhibitions, satellite museums, museum summitry, and digital initiatives. With the resurgence of academic interest in cultural diplomacy, there has been an attendant growth in interest in the role of museums in cultural diplomacy. This project studies the international work and internationalization of museum work, the way in which this work is bridging the local and the global, by establishing a theoretical framework for museum diplomacy and by surfacing the ways in which museums can produce diplomatic outcomes.

This research project will contribute to better understanding the international work of museums, which I argue amounts to a veritable museum diplomacy practice. I aim to suggest museum diplomacy as a practice in its own right, that can occasionally, and at times deliberately, be aligned with foreign policy priorities, but one that is deeply rooted in the principles, values and interests of the museums themselves. This places the agency for diplomatic engagements into the hands of the museums, thereby challenging them to think differently about their international work.