Now On Display: Museums x Diplomacy


Museums Connect was a joint initiative between the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). This initiative partnered museums in the United States with museums abroad to help foster cross-cultural engagement and exchange. On this episode of cultureXchange, we speak with Dr. Richard J.W. Harker, author of Museum Diplomacy: Transnational Public History and the U.S. Department of State, about this program and the role it played in connecting transnational public history with international diplomacy.


Episode Transcript

Hello and welcome to cultureXchanges, a podcast at the intersection of the humanities and cultural diplomacy. I’m your host Terry Harvey, Vice President of the Meridian Center for Cultural Diplomacy. This podcast series explores the impact of the arts and culture on diplomatic relations across the world through discussions with cultural diplomacy experts. 

On this episode of cultureXchanges we’re talking about the Museums Connect initiative with our guest Dr. Richard J.W. Harker. Museums Connect was a joint initiative between the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the American Alliance of Museums that partnered institutions in the United States with museums abroad to help foster cross-cultural engagement and exchange. Dr. Harker is an expert in cultural diplomacy and transnational museum partnerships and the author of Museum Diplomacy: Transnational Public History and the U.S. Department of State. In this publication, Dr. Harker discusses the role this program plays in connecting transnational public history and international diplomacy. 

TK Harvey – Well, I’m really pleased to have you here, Dr. Harker. I think our audience is going to gain much from this conversation, really diving into the importance of the Museums Connect program. I know this is near and dear to your heart, having authored that publication, but why don’t we just dive in? I’d love to get you to tell us a little bit more about the Museums Connect program for audience members who are unfamiliar with it and really how your interest and involvement began in this program?

Dr. Richard Harker – Absolutely, thanks for having me! You know, Museums Connect was a program of the State Department and the American Alliance of Museums. It ran from 2008 through 2017. And really this expansive museum and community collaboration program that sort of partnered American museums with their communities but also with a museum in another country and their communities, so really sort of expansive and elaborate. But really you know, the thing to think about with Museums Connect is it came out of the international partnership amongst museums IPAM which was a 30 year old program that partnered scholars in New Zealand with one another. So, you’d have an American curator going abroad and partnering with a curator or someone else with another museum around the world. And there was this moment in this sort of early 2000s sort of post 9/11 reckoning of how we make these programs more expansive, how do we expand their impact and Museums Connect was born.

And it was originally called Museums and Community Collaborations Abroad that was changed its name I think in about 2011 to Museums Connect. And like I said, it was funded by the Department of State Education and Cultural Affairs Bureau, but was administered by the American Alliance of Museums, which is the big national governance sort of body of American museums professional organization that really created this program that was at this fascinating intersection between public diplomacy and museum work. And so, you know over the course of the program you had dozens of projects where museums were looking to sort of souls local and global problems simultaneously and partner and with their communities, but also these global communities and it’s really, you know, the different projects range from science museums and history museums and art museums to zoos to botanical gardens.

And really the range of problems these projects addressed was expansive as well. And so, you know, you’ve got everything from the examples I wrote about in my book. Race relations and apartheid in the history of Jim Crow in America. You’ve got Muslim identity, you’ve got war-torn Afghanistan, but then you’ve got examples of you know nuclear testing of a lot of youth empowerment programming. And so really a sort of expansive program, but the very core of it, this idea of museums and their communities being sort of a conduit for conversations that bring people together that build relationships and sort of provide local benefit but provide these sorts of international global benefits as well.

So, it’s been a fun program to research but also to be a part of and my connection here goes back to 2011 when I moved to the United States. I came from England and had my first job here at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University, which is about twenty-five miles north of Atlanta. And the museum was actually just in the middle of or in the middle of its first Museums Connect round and was about to get its second as I started in the summer of 2011. So, we were partnering with the museum in Casablanca, the MC Community Museum and we’re in this these projects where we were exploring sort of Muslim identity both in Casablanca, in this working class community and then also sort of what does that mean in the American South, in Georgia, in Atlanta with sort of a totally different local context for that work.

And so, you know, that was one of the first things I worked on in my job. And I spent a year with my colleagues living and breathing this program and working with our colleagues, our friends and in Morocco. What a pleasure to do that work. This was 2011 before the world of Zoom was normalized. So, we were still on broken Internet connections and Skype and groups and all that good stuff. But we had an amazing time working with them and developing an online exhibition. And it was, it was a wonderful project, but it also in hindsight wasn’t without sort of challenges and problems and issues of power and you know, all of the things that come from our program that is as expansive as Museums Connect and so this all led me to my, to my sort of personal fascination with the project and ultimately led me to write Museum Diplomacy.

TK Harvey – Yeah, it’s incredible. And I guess in essence, I mean the Museums Connect program is really intended to breakdown these museum silos and to make sure that, you know, like minded institutions around the world are also working on similar initiatives and that we should share resources and scholarship. Thus, making both institutions rise above and be stronger and better for it.

Dr. Richard Harker – Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think you know, but, but I’d also say sort of one of the, one of the rubs here or one of the challenges is when the programs or the projects that museums embark upon aren’t really core to their central mission. So, throughout my research there was all sorts of examples of museums who, you know, they had the opportunity to get these international programs that you know, these shiny objects, this incredible work. And inevitably in all these cases the public diplomacy and the cultural diplomacy were tremendously successful. It built these incredible bonds in these relationships and these friendships. Broke down stereotypes that, you know, all the things that we would hope a program like this would do.

But the museum’s impact on the museums themselves, on their community relationships, was often a little bit more varied. And I think you know, where we saw museums that had you know programs with international partners which were very close and similar to their core mission work and the programs were incredibly successful and where we had programs where it was maybe a little bit further afield the moment that that funding and the ground ended, you know the sustainability of the programs often sort of fell away a little bit. And so, this is sort of one of one of these things we think about as we think about sustainability in museums and the work we do, which is how can we make them, you know more than just the one off gesture, more than just the one year program. And that’s something that I know a lot of people who I spoke to through my research really wrestled with as they went through these programs which is how do you make it something more than just kind of the one year grant funded program.

TK Harvey – So critical too. We all know that our supporters, in this case the Department of State, certainly want to see it live beyond the lifespan of the of the actual project. You’ve given a couple of good examples anecdotally, but I wonder if there’s one that also sticks out as a successful example of cultural diplomacy.

Dr. Richard Harker – Absolutely. Well, I think, when we think about what successful cultural diplomacy means. For this program and maybe sort of more broadly than even just this program, I was reminded of one, one Department of State employee I spoke to along the way who said, you know, this is about building relationships, it’s about building affinity and, in some ways, it’s about giving you the benefit of the doubt. So, you’re building a class of people abroad who are maybe. Given the United States the benefit of doubt because they’ve had this prolonged, deep experience where they’ve got to overcome stereotypes and see past the stereotypes and get to know people in more human ways. And so, I think all three of the programs that I write about in the book demonstrate the great affinity that happens, and I think humans want to connect. You want to build relationships. And so, you know, you have a program that’s focused on young people, and you put 15 young people from Atlanta, GA, or Kennesaw, GA, you know, in a room with compatriots from Casablanca. And those young people are going to have a good time and they are going to bond about music and movie in sports and all the things that people connect about food and culture.

But there’s sort of two specific examples that I think of as sort of, you know the best demonstration or sort of interest in demonstrations of cultural diplomacy at work in the Museums Connect program. The first is I wrote about this partnership between the National Constitution Center in Philly and. The National Museum of Afghanistan and Kabul and their two schools that they work with. One is the Constitution High School, which is a school affiliated with the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The other is Marefat High School in Kabul and they have this incredible partnership. And this is 2008, 2009 and you know, the war is raging, but these Afghan students, these Hazara students from Afghanistan come to Philadelphia and that’s part of their visits that they’re working on an exhibition with their, their American student friends, but they also go to a local media and sort of meet with the local news. And they really turned table on the news anchor and they’re saying, “Why, why do you school as students from Baltimore in Afghanistan? Why, why didn’t you talk more about who we are or our culture? Our, our differences are ethnic differences?” And they sort of, as it was told to me, they get to the point where the anchor sort of this post to cry uncle and say, you know, “I’m wrong.” We were oversimplifying this in our, in our media narratives and I just, I just sort of love this image of these students’ sort of bringing it to a news anchor and saying, you know you’re too simple, you’re oversimplifying what art story is.

And so that was one example and then the other example that struck me very poignantly was the Wright Institute in Birmingham, AL, and the partnership that they have with the Apartheid Museum and the Nelson Mandela House in Johannesburg, South Africa. The students from Birmingham who were sort of affiliated with the program and some of the stuff from the museum traveled to Johannesburg and they just have this transformative experience. That they are going from the United States with its complex racial past and sort of, you know, lack of reckoning with its racial past in some sense. And you know, they go to post-apartheid South Africa and have this really sort of, you know, profound experience suddenly being in in the racial majority while also in cases. As it was told to me sort of realizing that Africa is more than just elephants and deserts, but that, you know, it’s a living breathing infrastructure of its own. And so, we have all these incredible stories of stereotypes being undone and seeing past and, you know, sort of nuance and rich discussion happening and in all the cases that I write about. Everybody said, you know, aside from this sort of museum project element of things, the relationships and the cultural diplomacy was absolutely at the success of the of this program.

TK Harvey – What’s fun about this program is that that this is not theoretical. I mean, this is real grassroots diplomacy. You’ve got people traveling to South Africa seeing it first. And, you know, in terms of impact diplomatic ties with other countries, you know, soft power can be tricky to put in quantitative terms exactly what this is doing to advance US foreign policy objectives abroad. And, you know, it’s something that we also face in terms of what we do. But we know first-hand, like you said, the young children from Atlanta going to Casablanca. You know, that’s where your kind of shaping the hearts and minds of future hearts and minds, right? So, I wonder if you could say how this project has enhanced U.S. diplomatic ties with other countries.

Dr. Richard Harker – Well, I mean, I think it’s exactly, it’s exactly right. It’s the, it’s the hearts and minds and personally traveling to Morocco with our students. And for me to have a more complete, nuanced sense of who’s a Moroccan and what’s there, what’s their life like? Is that now when I read about Morocco in the news or hear about that on TV, II have a different perspective than I would otherwise. And I think that’s true of our students, many of whom have never been out of the country. I mean, you know, especially. How few people travel internationally you know the chance to, the chance to go and see it you know being a Muslim country for seven or ten days and have those cultural experiences and build those relationships and those friendships. It’s, it’s really profound as you said the challenge here is sort of how soft power sort of shapes foreign policy and diplomatic ties when there are so many other things, you know, whether it’s corporate identity or whether it’s hard power or all of, you know, national politics. All these things that sort of also contribute but that I was struck in my research about in this post-Cold War 1990s, the complacency that sets in American cultural diplomacy and sort of the lack of funding the center we’ve won the Cold War.

You know, everything’s good and if you think about programs like Museums Connect, it’s all part of what Hillary Clinton called that sort of that game of multidimensional chess. You know there’s just it’s one piece of a much larger puzzle but if as much funding spent on cultural diplomacy programs as the military, you can imagine the impact it would have on the scale of the impact would be so much more expansive. But certainly, I know that there are students in Afghanistan, there are students in South Africa and Morocco and all the other countries that had these partnerships with Museums Connect, who, as they ascend into their adulthood and, you know, their lives and hopefully some of them will end up in influential positions, you know, their view of the United States is going to be a little bit more nuanced than richer and generous than perhaps not having had that experience. And that’s not nothing.

TK Harvey – Yeah–no, I agree wholeheartedly, and I remember Secretary Clinton’s remarks on that evening, watching her say that being in this work, I was so proud to see our government leaders really lean in hard on soft power initiatives. You know, you are right, after the Cold War, I feel like the U.S. kind of took their, their foot off the gas pedals a bit, right? With the USIA no longer around, and that was unfortunate. But I do feel like the tides have turned where the State Department has really leaned in heavily into cultural diplomacy initiatives, certainly through their funding, but also through their innovative programming. I wonder if we could shift gears a bit. You made a point just in terms earlier about, you know, addressing local or global issues. I wonder if you could speak about what makes museums uniquely positioned to address both local and global issues during these exchanges.

Dr. Richard Harker – You know, I think museums do have a unique way that they can play a role in, in cultural diplomacy and have been by the way for 70/80/90 years. I mean museums and exhibitions abroad and the Cold War, I mean Museums Connect is not the first culture of the Bloomsday program that that museums have sort of played a role in. I think in the United States the thing that’s significant about museums is the trust that they have as institutions. There is a large level of public trust in museums and that benefits them as they conduct this potentially sort of tricky work of engaging in foreign affairs, international diplomacy and so I think that. Across really sort of sentence museums apart as institutions that convene people that can bring them together, that can tell complicated stories. And for the most part, in our highly polarized world, museums are still very much trusted public institutions and that’s that is to their benefit in this work.

I think the other thing that’s really powerful and I said you know, Museums Connect featured science museums and art museums and history museums and zoos, and aquariums is that just whatever, whatever lens museums come at their work from whatever their whatever their theme, whatever their topic, museums focus on storytelling and building empathy and create an understanding. You go to a museum to learn. And that’s not to say, you know, certainly there is much diversity within the world of museums and not all museums that equal, and not all museums are as equally outward facing as others. But sort of broadly speaking, museums are telling stories that are built in empathy and they’re trying to bring people to some greater understanding. So, you know, that really makes them ideal conduits for bringing people together in these cultural diplomacy programs.

Of course, the great challenge with a program like Museums Connect is also that in the United States, in Great Britain, where I’m from, you know, there are very deeply established museum cultures. You know, they are a part of people’s lives. Kids go on field trips that are an expected part of you know what it means to be a kid in the United States or Britain or France. But in other countries, museums don’t necessarily play the same role in public life. And so that is certainly a variable that people have to sort of think about and wrestle with as they engage in partnerships is, you know, the National Museum. Afghanistan is not a museum that means much that to people living in Kabul, you know, that is it has an incredible collection of artifacts. I mean just unbelievable collection. But that is not a museum that plays a role in most people’s lives in Afghanistan. And so, we shouldn’t be naive to that fact as we, you know, in the same way that we’re thinking about cultural differences between individuals. Our language differences, we should also think about these contextual differences and what museums mean to people and communities as well.

TK Harvey – Yeah, it’s fascinating. And yeah, to stay on that point of really there’s no two museums that are identical. I mean, obviously museums around the world are either funded differently or structured differently. They all, they all vary, right? So, I wonder how does that, that variance, that difference really impact the Museums Connect program and is it, is there an effort to sort of combine or connect museums that are perhaps at the same level the other larger museums partnering with smaller ones? I wonder if you could speak to that.

Dr. Richard Harker – In my research one of the things that came about most obviously. Was that these power dynamics which are already so challenging when you have an American funded project and this American grant language and so that the bureaucracy of American, you know, grantmaking, how do you have an equitable partnership where everybody is at the same table speaking with the same, you know, authority and power? When perhaps one museum is highly funded and professionalized and the staff have all gone to Graduate School and they have a lot of resources. And the other museum, and I’m thinking about my colleagues at the BC Community Museum, where the director is a member of the university faculty. It’s not even his full time job. It’s a sort of a one room museum. That’s an incredible asset to the community, but it’s still very infant in its life stage. And so, you know, you have these real issues of equity and power that just have to be really thoughtfully navigated and it’s certainly easy to get caught up in that. We’ve got to achieve our objectives and we need to make sure we fulfill our obligations and so.

You know, let’s steam ahead and not really have a conversation with someone who maybe has a very different cultural, you know, view of what the museum should be doing or how it should be behaving and how those works could be arrived there. But on the flip side of that, you know, the case study I write about between the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Apartheid Museum. That happened a little bit by Excel, which is the Birmingham Museum started by partnering with the Mandela House, which through a whole sort of series of events ended up becoming a partnership with also the Apartheid Museum, which is a museum much more on the scale of the Birmingham that were racing to do and with professional staff and with resources. But also, a very similar measure, you know, different countries wrestling with racial apartheid, but nonetheless very similar focus. And in that sense, that partnership was perhaps one of the most equal and equitable between the museum staff, the students involved, because both came from the same place, and both were sort of coming from. You know an equal level or an equal starting point. And so, you know these are really the cultures that the infrastructure and the resources matter a lot.

And you know, you certainly have some examples in Museums Connect with programs between organizations that had very divergent missions, but they were able to find common ground on the project that advanced them, but maybe in a little bit more of an oblique way or a sort of sideways way than some of the traditional day-to-day, you know, “normal work.”

TK Harvey – Yeah, certainly seems to be a lot of fascinating, successful anecdotes, as you’ve learned in your research and your writing. I wonder if we could point to you know what this might do for future cultural exchange programs. You know, what can the future of cultural diplomacy and exchange learn from the Museums Connect initiative?

Dr. Richard Harker – It’s a great question. And you know, I think at a baseline when you bring young people together, whether it’s museums or music or dance or Natural, you know, hip hop, you name it. I mean, you know, we were talking about some of the, the programs coming out of Meridian anytime you’re bringing young people together, especially in this global world of social media where it’s even easier to stay connected in 2022 than it was back in 2011 when we were working. In the pre-Instagram world of 2011, I think when you can bring people together to be working on a common project, good things happen. People, you know, disagreements happen, and people have to work through those disagreements. But people get humanized, and people get to understand one another and spend time with one another and learn each other’s.

And you know, I think about in our project we were sat, sat in the office of the American Alliance of Museums talking about our online exhibition, having this vigorous debate about what the graphic elements of this online site should be. And we were coming from our, you know, American centric viewpoint and the Moroccan students were coming from a very different viewpoint, that was a really tense, challenging situation. But the act of working through that and the act of collaborating and coming to consensus was so powerful. We look back on it and I’m still in touch with our student friends and our, our faculty friends and staff friends and you know, we look back on that as a moment of sort of. Gosh, how tense in the moment but how much that deepened our relationship. And so just the act of working on something with someone is really powerful.

And I think like I said earlier humans want to connect and museums are places that can bring people together and talk about themes and topics and they are sometimes challenging but can sort of help people build those relationships. And so, you know, it’s a lot less scary to work on the museum photo exhibit than it is to just pick up the phone and say you know, hi, who are you? But you get a chance to work on something that really brings people together but also allows you to express this creativity as well. And then I think about our Challenge and our opportunity as we think about sort of what can we learn from Museums Connectors, how do we scale the impact of these programs. And you know I talked about Museums Connect came out of IPAM which was a sort of one to one scholar exchange, and I think that’s pretty value in programs like that. But you know Museums Connect started to of communities and sort of bigger groups and so, the impact was scaled up. But how do you make that more expensive? How do you make that impact even greater? And also, how do you make it sustainable as well? And I think our challenge and our opportunity with cultural diplomacy is, you know, how do we make this live past the life?

Of our one year collaboration or a one year program, and in some ways the great thing about the museum exhibition is it has that life beyond the program itself. So, our online exhibit is, is still online. You can still go see that. And you know, and I know that’s true of other things that my colleagues in Birmingham, Alabama is given their tours of that museum differently because of what they learned about apartheid in South Africa. And that has shaped their interpretation. So, the institutions get richer from the experience and then that in turn shapes how they educate the hundreds of thousands of visitors that come through their doors every year. So certainly, there’s a lot to be learned from these programs.

TK Harvey – And I do fear that some people tend to use one off program a little too liberally because you know, you’ve just said yourself, I mean these young people who traveled overseas, they met counterparts in South Africa. These young people are impacted for the rest of their lives. I mean they really are forever changed.

Dr. Richard Harker – Forever changed! I think about the students that we took from Council who had prior to this program, you know, they never met a. A Muslim person before, let alone spent time in Morocco. And I can’t help but think that these people up forever changed by that experience. And similarly, you go, you know, these teenage kids from Afghanistan who, you know, were able to spend a week in Philadelphia. What a transformative experience for them and for the students in Philly that got to spend that. With their Afghan coho friends. And I think that is the lasting impact of these cultures. The policy program especially with young people is changing people’s view of the world. And you know, it’s pretty easy to, you know especially in the countries because the United States, you know, you don’t, you don’t leave. There’s so much to see and you’re not always exposed to that sort of world around you.

But what a way to learn and develop and experience the world and by literally go in and see and visit and eating meals with people and walking down the street chatting with them. And you know I remember as we walked through DC where we had met our Moroccan student colleagues, you know, they wanted to talk about homelessness. You know, this wasn’t just a rose tinted. Isn’t America wonderful? It was. We were walking past some folks sleeping on the street, and let’s talk about that. There’s no accusation. There’s no finger pointing. But it’s a real honest, hard conversation that leads to, you know, greater empathy and understanding and, you know, just more nuance. And, you know, I think it’s a good thing. And you know, everybody understands one another with a little bit more nuance.

TK Harvey – You know in essence it goes far beyond the museums just connecting. But you’ve got these people to people exchange, and I know you’ve led these young people through various countries. Likewise, for us and all our exchange programs. That’s where you see their eyes wide open and learn more things about other cultures. That’s the real heart of cultural diplomacy, right?

Dr. Richard Harker – Oh, absolutely. And, you know, I think, you know, learning to celebrate difference and learning to, you know, learning to celebrate and value the, the diversity of the world and, you know, be able to be able to put a face to a name and, you know, I even remember when we were in Morocco, we were doing these workshops. About what we wanted to be included in the exhibit. And these Moroccan students were very vividly talking about sort of the role of women wearing headscarves and the difference of opinions and how that isn’t a monolithic issue. And we will just sit their sort of taking notes, taking it in, listening to them. But you know, you can’t help them remember that. When you think about, you know, headscarves as and as an issue that sort of periodically pops up in the news. And I know that in all the conversations I had and all the research I did from this book, that all of those relationships have lasted far beyond the projects themselves. And you know, the exhibition may not be hung on the wall of the museum. 10 years later, but the participants are still friends on Facebook. They’re still exchanging messages and emails. They still visit one another if they can. You can’t beat that impact. It’s transformative people.

TK Harvey – Yeah, it doesn’t sound like a one off project to me and I’m sure to you the same. So really want to thank you for joining us on this podcast recording. I would encourage folks to learn more about the wonderful Museums Connect program and thank you again Richard it’s been a great conversation

Dr. Richard Harker – Thank you so much for having me.

Thank you for joining us today on cultureXchanges, a podcast that examines the impact of cultural diplomacy, in its many forms, on global relations. We’d like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding this podcast, our guest on this episode for taking the time to share their expertise, our podcast editor Ed Bishop, and our listeners for taking the time to engage in the world of cultural diplomacy. 

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this web page do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.