New Paradigms for Intercultural Work in Museums – or Intercultural Work as a New Paradigm for Museum Practice? Part I

One of our favorite things about running the Incluseum is making new connections. We love when people, like today’s guest blogger, take the time to contact us to share their work. Simona Bodo is an independent researcher and consultant who co-created and edits Patrimonio and Intercultura, a rich on-line resource  devoted to the intercultural potential of heritage education projects. In this blog post, she shares some lessons she has learned from her significant body of work on how museums can promote and support dialogue and exchange between people of various cultural backgrounds, also referred to as intercultural dialogue

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In my experience as both a researcher and a consultant, there are key issues constantly coming up which I think are becoming central for museums willing to engage in the promotion of intercultural dialogue.

The first is a certain ambiguity surrounding the very notion of “intercultural work”. I started to develop this area of research within the framework of a cross-national study carried out by the ERICarts Institute on behalf of the European Commission (Bodo 2008), where my brief was to investigate the different understandings of intercultural dialogue and the resulting approaches to its promotion in museums across Europe from a very specific perspective, i.e. the main ways in which interaction is (or is not) encouraged between different groups.

Very briefly, the prevailing policy approaches emerged from the study may be described as :

  • “showcasing difference”: a knowledge-oriented multiculturalism aimed at promoting in autochthonous audiences a better understanding of “other” cultures
  • “heritage literacy”: integrating new citizens within mainstream culture, by helping them become more familiar with a country’s history, language, values and traditions
  • “culturally specific programming”: promoting cultural self-awareness in migrant communities (this is the case especially, but not exclusively, with ethnographic museums).

These responses reflect not only the ambiguity about the notion of “intercultural dialogue” I just referred to, but also the historical fact that most museums were created to represent and validate national, local or group identities, and are today clearly at odds with a new political and social agenda. These approaches also share some key features:

  • they tend to be underlined by an essentialist notion of “heritage”, which is primarily seen as a “closed” system, a received patrimony to safeguard and transmit
  • they generally avoid cross-cultural interaction, and build programs which are targeted either to “migrants” or to a “native” audience
  • even where interaction between different groups is encouraged, the main aim is to promote mutual knowledge and respect, rather than to initiate new knowledge systems, relationships, interpretive communities
  • they conceive intercultural dialogue as a goal rather than as a process which is ingrained in a museum’s practice.

I am not suggesting that the approaches I just outlined are to be discredited or abandoned; on the contrary, they all have an important role to play – not least, supporting a multicultural base and helping individuals and groups maintaining a vital link with tradition.

What I rather wish to argue is that these approaches find a new legitimacy in so far as they are seen to be part of a process ultimately aimed at generating new, inclusive and shared meanings/narratives around museum collections. This «will demand an honest, open and comprehensive rethinking on the part of museums around what it really means to carry out intercultural work. Does such work involve enhancing the cultural literacy of immigrant communities through familiarity with a country’s history, art and culture or ‘compensating’ for the misrepresentation of minorities in cultural narratives, as many museums and heritage institutions have understood it? Or, might intercultural work be conceived more productively as a bi-directional, dialogical process which is transformative of all parties (majority as well as minority representatives; those from host as well as immigrant backgrounds) and in which all are equal participants?» (Bodo 2012).

TAM TAM – The Museum for All” project, Museum of Peoples and Cultures and Fondazione Ismu - Project participant Elda’s clogs in dialogue with the Museum’s Chinese lady shoes.

TAM TAM – The Museum for All” project, Museum of Peoples and Cultures and Fondazione Ismu – Project participant Elda’s clogs in dialogue with the Museum’s Chinese lady shoes.

The challenge, therefore, seems to be working on identity «as the start, rather than as the end of the conversation» (Khan 2010). However, as a certain difficulty on the part of most museums to go beyond policies targeting individuals and groups according to their ethnicity clearly shows, the concept of “multiple identities”, which is so central to intercultural dialogue as it disengages individuals from the prevailing rationale of “cultural representation”, may well be widely accepted in theory, but in reality is very seldom placed at the heart of a museum’s work.

To be continued…

Simona Bodo is an independent researcher and consultant with a particular interest in the social agency of museums and their role in the promotion of intercultural dialogue. On these issues she acts as an advisor to public and private institutions (e.g. Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities, Brera National Picture Gallery, Istituto per i Beni Culturali of the Emilia Romagna Region, Fondazione ISMU – Initiatives and Studies on Multiethnicity, Fondazione Cariplo), and has recently taken part in a number of international research projects commissioned by the European Union and the Council of Europe. She is co-creator and editor of  Patrimonio and Intercultura, an on-line resource promoted by Fondazione ISMU and specifically devoted to the intercultural potential of heritage education projects. See bibliographic references for her most recent publications and essays.

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Bibliographic references

Bodo S. (2012), ‘Museums as intercultural spaces’, in R. Sandell, E. Nightingale (eds.), Museums, Equality
and Social Justice, Routledge, London.

Bodo S. (2008), ‘From “heritage education with intercultural goals” to “intercultural heritage education”:
conceptual framework and policy approaches in museums across Europe’, in ERICarts Institute,
Sharing Diversity. National approaches to intercultural dialogue in Europe, final report of a study
carried out on behalf of the European Commission – Directorate General for Education and Culture

Bodo S., Mascheroni S. (2012), Educare al patrimonio in chiave interculturale. Guida per educatori e
mediatori museali, Fondazione ISMU, Collana “Strumenti”, Milan.

Bodo S., Cantù S., Mascheroni S. (eds.) (2007), Progettare insieme per un patrimonio interculturale,
Quaderni ISMU 1/2007, Fondazione ISMU, Milan.

Bodo S., Gibbs K., Sani M. (2009) (eds.), Museums as places for intercultural dialogue: selected practices
from Europe, MAP for ID partners, Dublin.

Di Mauro A., Trevisin A. (eds.) (2009), Un patrimonio di culture, Regione del Veneto, Museo di Storia
Naturale e Archeologia di Montebelluna.

E. Gennaro (ed.) (2009), Patrimoni plurali. Musei, educazione e saperi in chiave culturale, Quaderni di
didattica museale n. 11, Provincia di Ravenna, Ravenna.

Khan, N. (2010), The Artist as Translator, paper delivered at the seminar ‘Super Diversity – Who
Participates Now? Discussion on the phenomenon of “super diversity” in the visual arts’, Institute of
International Visual Arts, London, 2 February.

Lattanzi V. (ed.) (2009), themed issue on “Heritage, museums, collaborative practices”,
Antropologia Museale, quarterly journal of SIMBDEA – Società Italiana per la Museografia e i Beni
Demoetnoantropologici, n. 20/21.

Pecci A. M. (ed.) (2009), Patrimoni in migrazione. Accessibilità, partecipazione, mediazione nei musei,
FrancoAngeli, Milan.

Pecci A. M., Mangiapane G. (2010), “Expographic Storytelling”: the Museum of Anthropology and
Ethnography of the University of Turin as a Field of Dialogic Representation, in “The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum”, vol. 3, n. 1.

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What do you think? How has your museum approached issues of diversity and multiculturalism? How has your institution and its workers been transformed through intercultural work?


  1. […] education projects. This week we are continuing with Part II of her guest blog post (read Part I here) in which Bodo shares some lessons she has learned about how museums can promote and support […]

  2. […] programs (e.g. at the Buffalo History Museum  and CelebrARTE at the DAM) and frameworks (e.g. Intercultural Dialogue) museum professionals are using both nationally and internationally. Today, we wish to bring […]

  3. […] connect groups. For another perspective on supporting pluralism in museums read Simona Bodo’s guest blog for the Incluseum on intercultural work in […]

  4. […] strategies to facilitate exchange/dialogue between people of different cultural backgrounds. Simona Bodo introduced us to the theoretical underpinnings and practical application of intercultural dialogue […]

  5. […] A few years ago, we had published her writing on intercultural dialogue, which you can find here. Below, she shares about her recent work with the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, Italy and their […]

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