Public History, National Museums and Transnational History

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James B. Gardner


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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Author Biography

James B. Gardner

James Gardner has held senior management positions at the National Archives (US), the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the American Historical Association, and the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). He has been a consultant for a wide range of institutions, including the Museum of Vancouver, the National Archives of Korea and the Smithsonian Institution. He served as President of the National Council on Public History and on the AASLH Council and the editorial boards of The Public Historian and the American Alliance of Museums Press. He is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Public History (2017). Other recent publications include essays in Museum Practice: Critical Debates in the Museum Sector; Museum Theory: An Expanded Field; and The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum.