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The concept of a ‘national museum’ is fundamentally at odds with the theory and practice of public history, with public historians’ understanding that historical experience often does not obey borders, that the nation is not always the center of human experience and culture. The argument of this essay is that transnational history—history that crosses borders, that challenges the privileging of the nation state—constitutes an opportunity for national museums to go beyond national identity and the confines of geopolitical borders. Human experience is far more complicated than can be captured in the history of a single nation, and national museums are obligated to transcend such a narrative and engage in the contested, transnational nature of history and culture. Museums are well positioned to do this because they deal not only in ideas but in objects, the material culture of times and places that did not so easily sort out into ‘nation’ and ‘other.’ Museums can make the theoretical real, illuminating how national identity has been constructed from the parts of our many cultures, ideas, and institutions, recentering the narrative and recovering the stories obscured by the ascendancy of the national narrative.
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