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Deciphering museums, politics and impact

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No. You gotta move on. You gotta spread the word. You gotta go to Nazareth, please. And that’s, very much like… me. My world does not end within these four walls.

- David Brent.

Museums are managers of consciousness. They give us an interpretation of history, of how to view the world and locate ourselves within it. They are, if you want to put it in positive terms, great educational institutions. If you want to put it in negative terms, they are propaganda machines.

- Hans Haacke.


This paper makes a contribution towards deciphering the relationship between museums, politics and impact. I suggest that this is akin to that between three languages in the early 19th century: Greek, Demotic and Hieroglyphs. I argue that museums should be taken much more seriously by the discipline of politics and international relations. This paper begins with an analysis of the REF 2014 Impact Case Studies submitted under the Politics and International Studies Unit of Assessment. Thereafter, it looks at how museums have been examined in the field of politics and international relations. Finally, it outlines some of the benefits and opportunities of scholars in the field engaging with museums in terms of their research, as potential collaborators, and as partners for knowledge transfer and impactful activities—within and outwith the strictures of the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF).

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  1. On the theme of ‘exoticism’, consider the following Oriental daydream Napoleon would later recount to Madame de Rémusat: ‘In Egypt I found myself freed from the obstacles of an irksome civilization. I was full of dreams…I saw myself on the road to Asia, riding on an elephant, a turban on my head and in my hand the new Koran that I would have composed to suit my needs. In my undertaking I would have combined the experience of the two worlds, exploiting for my own profit the theatre of all history…The time I spent in Egypt was the most beautiful of my life’ (quoted in Chandler 1966, p. 248).

  2. By adjoining fields, I merely mean those subjects that have a substantive crossover with the discipline of politics and international relations thematically, theoretically or empirically. Typically in the social sciences or the humanities, they will often co-constitute a sub-discipline (e.g. political-economy, political-geography, political-sociology) or provide in some combination the foci for an undergraduate degree (e.g. history and politics, law and politics, development and international relations). I hope the reader will forgive me for not digressing into a long discussion on what the ‘proper’ boundaries of the discipline should be (for a further discussion see Hay 2002, pp. 1–6, 59–88). From the argument outlined above, hopefully the reader will garner that I believe in a healthy degree of intellectual cross-fertilization and cross-pollination. For a further discussion see Hay (2002, pp. 1–6, 59–88).


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Most recently, this research was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; more distantly, by Glasgow City Council. I would like to thank these funders and the amazing museum professionals I had the pleasure to work with at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum and Glasgow Museums from whom I learned so much—not least about how history and politics are mediated through museums. I would particularly like to thank (in alphabetical order): Ed Berenson, Clifford Chanin, Alexandra Drakakis, Alice Greenwald, Liz Mazucci, Jenny Pachucki, Jan Ramirez, Noah Rauch, Madeline Rosenberg, Joshua Walker and Amy Weinstein. Finally, I would also like to thank the editors of this special edition.

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Correspondence to Andrew Hammond.

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Hammond, A. Deciphering museums, politics and impact. Br Polit 13, 409–431 (2018).

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