Museums develop touring exhibition programmes to fulfil strategic objectives such as boosting visitation, diversifying audiences and building international relationships and reputations. Governments and other stakeholders see them as forms of cultural diplomacy capable of promoting tourism, trade and intercultural understanding. However, very little research has been undertaken to establish the extent to which these objectives are achieved, and under what conditions.
Since late 2011 I have been working on two interconnected, transnational projects on touring exhibitions:
- Museum practices, indigenous politics and the construction of cultural identities in the traveling exhibition E Tū Ake: New Zealand, France, Mexico, Canada (2011-2013)
- Cultural diplomacy, touring exhibitions and intercultural understanding: A study of Aztecs: Conquest and Glory in Australasia (2013-2015)
These projects are the first ever comprehensive studies of international touring exhibitions across multiple venues. They seek to determine the efficacy of such exhibitions in terms of cultural diplomacy, audience engagement and intercultural understanding. The project on E Tū Ake: Standing Strong, a Māori exhibition from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, was initiated by a French colleague, Gaëlle Crenn, and myself, and also includes Natacha Gagné (Canada) and Mélanie Roustan (France). This study involved interviewing museum staff in New Zealand, France, Mexico and Canada, as well as visitors in France and Canada, to enable a comparative analysis of professional practice and visitor interpretation across venues.
While conducting field work in Mexico in 2013 for the first project, I was invited by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) to undertake a similar project on their exhibition Aztecs which they were offering in exchange for E Tū Ake, and would be shown at Te Papa, Melbourne Museum and Australian Museum. I began this project with funding from Victoria University of Wellington, following a similar methodology and theoretical framework as the earlier study. In early 2014 Leticia Pérez (ENCRyM, Mexico) joined as co-researcher on the project, with each of us assisted by a postgraduate student. We are now in the final stages of data collection, having gathered 80+ open-ended interviews with visitors across 3 museums, and 30+ in-depth interviews with staff in New Zealand, Australia and Mexico (in both English and Spanish).
During my current sabbatical from July 2015 – Feb 2016, I am working with my co-researchers on the analysis and write up of findings from both these studies. A number of publications and conference papers have already been completed by the research team. From October 2015, I am spending 3 months in Mexico working with Leticia Pérez on a book, focusing on various aspects of the Aztec exhibition and the cultural exchange that brought it about. Currently, there are no other scholarly books on the topic of international museum exhibitions.