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Challenges for Museums in the Era of Post-Nationalism ― Methods of exhibiting minority and indigenous cultures (April 2022-March 2025)

Theme Category: Ethnicity and Museums

Project Leader: SUZUKI Motoi

Project Period: April 2022–March 2025

Purpose and content of the project

This project aims to explore the issues involved in the exhibition of minority/indigenous cultures at museums in the post-nationalist era and to share the efforts and attempts made by various museums to overcome them.

Post-nationalism is a phenomenon in which the governing functions of nation-states and their peoples’ nationalistic identities, which are based on their reliance on these functions, become relatively weak, while cross-national organizations/systems larger than nations and regional and social organizations/systems smaller than nations gain more importance in people’s daily lives. Signs of post-nationalism are recognizable in changes occurring in traditional nation-state systems as a result of the so-called “glocalization”—in other words, the simultaneously occurring processes of globalization (increase in the flow of people and information across borders) and localization (enhancement of certain identities within countries).

This phenomenon also affects the cultures of minority/indigenous groups. On one hand, when minority/indigenous groups attempt to participate in global social relationships in the form of relocating themselves in pursuit of survival opportunities, they are forced to transform or reconstruct their cultures in the places to which they migrated. On the other hand, in cases where they remain in their original locations and seek opportunities for economic development or the improvement of their political position, their cultures tend to become objectified or essentialized for the purpose of asserting legitimacy as ethnic groups. It is therefore possible for the cultural consistency within an ethnic group to decrease, resulting in different shades of ethnic identity. This begs the question of how museums should present pictures of minority/indigenous groups whose cultures and identities are diversifying.

The museum is a system originally born with the nation-state in European countries at the end of the eighteenth century. It presented the unique history and culture of its country to the citizens and thereby contributed to the creation of a sense of patriotic solidarity. In contrast, minority/indigenous groups and immigrants flowing in from other countries have been underrepresented in museum exhibitions. In response to this situation, postcolonial criticism in recent years has problematized the dominant relationship of museums to minority/indigenous groups, advocating instead for dialogue and collaboration between them. While such revisions are undoubtedly important, the present project focuses on the question of how museums should recognize the cultures of minority/indigenous groups on the premise of such equality.

Specifically, the following questions emerge: should museums show the traditional cultures or the transformed cultures of minority/indigenous groups? Should the ethnic identities of these groups be represented as strong and unchanging or as fluid or plural? In addition, the more fundamental question as to how museums should exhibit the relationship between nations and minority/indigenous groups in diachronic/synchronic manners emerges. The proactive preparation of exhibition policies, which aims to make the dialogue between museums and minority/indigenous groups fruitful, is a major challenge for museums in the era of post-nationalism.

Anticipated results

This project seeks to accomplish the following three tasks: (1) to analyze changes occurring globally in cultures of minority/indigenous groups, using post-nationalism as a key concept; (2) to clarify issues and tasks involved in museum exhibitions of cultures of minority/indigenous groups when taking such changes into account; (3) to reconsider exhibitions at our museum concerning the relationship between nations and minority/indigenous groups while taking such issues and tasks into account and to conduct discussions that will guide the planning of exhibitions in the future.

The third task is especially important. In the document of “Basic Exhibition Concept 2007”, the National Museum of Ethnology recognized the role of the museum as a forum and declared that it will promote dialogue among the researchers who create exhibitions, the people belonging to the cultures that are the objects of exhibition, and museum visitors. Later, a database with dialogic functions was prepared through the Info-Forum Museum Project (2014–2021). Now that these efforts have been made, the present project considers how researchers who create exhibitions should approach the forum. We wish to use this opportunity to examine critically and update the discussion in the “Basic Exhibition Concept 2007”.


Saturday, January 20, 2024 
The Symposium of Minpaku Special Research Project for the 50th Anniversary of the Museum’s Founding
“Special Exhibition ‘Treasures of Indigenous Peoples’ Revisited: An Attempt to Exhibit Minority/Indigenous Peoples at the National Museum of Ethnology”

International Symposium

Sunday, February 25, 2024
The International Symposium of Minpaku Special Research Project for the 50th Anniversary of the Museum’s Founding
“Museums in the Era of Post-Nationalism: Methods of Exhibiting Minority/Indigenous Cultures”