The Invisible Hand of Europe

The Museum as a Civilizing Tool

by Łucja Piekarska-Duraj (Author)
©2020 Monographs 210 Pages


The book offers an interpretive approach to the Europeanization of heritage as found in museums. In order to make the analysis of museum diversity feasible, the research proposed and applied an analytical framework. Some general remarks conclude the work, which aims to map both the timeless and current phenomena of European identity construction.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Table of Contents
  • 1. Introductory remarks
  • A word on the title
  • Heritage and civilisation: the clash of narratives
  • In search of honest representation
  • Person in the universe of meanings
  • The museum triangle
  • 2. On the approach
  • Interpretation instead of definite explanation
  • Reality, representation and serendipity
  • Object-based representation
  • Representation and reality
  • Geographical scope
  • Types of museums analysed
  • “Non museum” images and metaphors
  • 3. European values in museums
  • The framework
  • Progress
  • Utility
  • Diversity
  • Dignity
  • Inclusion
  • Narrativity
  • Democratic Governance
  • 4. On Progress
  • Progress: how civilisation tells its story
  • Museums in search of lost time
  • Historical time and mythical universality
  • Timelessness and traveling in time
  • Flow of time and progress
  • Wars and Progress
  • Conclusions
  • 5. On utility
  • Initial remarks
  • Lights in the darkness
  • Our daily Fiat
  • Military history
  • Pennies from heaven
  • Can museums teach good taste?
  • Public utility
  • From temples to agoras
  • 6. On diversity
  • Valorising the difference
  • The city and its people
  • On the road (never) again
  • Unique by interpretation
  • The diversification of visitor experiences
  • Diversity in public service
  • Conclusions
  • 7. On dignity
  • A task and a potential
  • The right to have one’s story told
  • The Fall of Icarus
  • The ultimate denial of human dignity
  • A plait with a red ribbon
  • A head and a skull
  • 8. On inclusion
  • Heritage and participation
  • Re-enactments and meetings
  • Being like someone from the past
  • LGBTQ as an inside “Other”
  • Women, children etc.
  • Conclusions
  • 9. On narrativity
  • Heritage and narrativity
  • Stories and reality
  • Heritage as a discursive phenomenon
  • Object-based representation and story-based reality
  • A museum about me
  • Once upon a time
  • “It is forbidden to forbid”
  • The past as a symbolic resource
  • Ever after, here and now
  • Conclusions
  • 10. On democratic governance
  • Beyond reality
  • A trap for moles
  • Medieval mosaic
  • Exercises of imagination
  • Interpretation in public service
  • All the same, all equal?
  • Democracy and the Holocaust
  • Conclusions
  • 11. Final remarks
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

1. Introductory remarks

Culture, as much as heritage, is the domain characterised by tremendous dynamism and heterogeneity. It is therefore unsurprising that there is an equally tremendous diversity of approaches which aim to map their fields and conceptualize and understand their inner connections, or the processes, which they contain. Numerous debates have taken place (and will certainly continue to) where the nature of such research is questioned and problematized. This book should be seen as a set of interpretive essays presenting an approach which is far from typical academic rigour, yet instead offers an intertextual way of looking at the processes of heritage Europeanization in museums. I hope that in this way readers will have a chance to observe some of the trends and tendencies which can be found in this very diverse and dynamic domain. The choice of the dominant approach and style of this book can be sought in the uniqueness of the goal I have set myself: my goal is to see how a set of selected values forming the program of Europe is applied in museums. I believe that the notion of heritage is instrumental, not only in understanding museums, but also in capturing some of the most significant processes related to European identity. Yet as these ideas are necessarily very complex and intangible, while Europe resists being strictly defined, what this book offers is not a rigid, theory-bound work, but rather a study which presents but one of many possible ways of interpreting phenomena which cannot be fully and ultimately described. Heritage, seen as a part of collective identity, is not only complex and dynamic, but also demonstrates a high degree of interconnectedness: given this very hybrid nature, I propose analysing it in this work with the use of diverse associations and different cultural texts. Ultimately, heritage is interpreted by people who relate to it without applying a particular set of theoretical tools; eventually it ceases to be the sole preserve of academia and most interactions with it happen outside an ivory tower. There is always some degree of randomness and individuality in the perception of heritage, and it is in this spirit that the present work is conceived and framed.

Among the many different approaches to research in the humanities, the choice I have made with this book is based on two fundamental concepts, both of them instrumental to heritage, and I try to use these characteristics for the benefit of my argumentation. Interpretation is the core concept of this study, while the intertextuality of the message seems not only to be unavoidable but rather a desired quality of the work. What needs to be mentioned is that interpretive authors would not exclude themselves from the interpretation process, but on ←15 | 16→the contrary they tend to highlight their active presence in it. It is their own subjectivity that is hoped to make their work original and inspiring for others to read. The main risk posed by such an approach is that it can potentially lead to chaotic and/or hermetic reasoning. To avoid such a pitfall, it would be advisable to strive for intersubjectivity instead of subjectivity, where readers are not only encouraged to follow in the author’s footsteps, but primarily be inspired to look anew at the things they depict. This has been the raison d’ être of this work, and I can only apologize if this study occasionally seems to lose focus, changing tack to investigate ideas or concepts which appear promising to display the interconnectedness of heritage. Most of all, I am convinced that both metaphors and analogies make heritage interpretations valid. This is why readers can expect to find analogies made with surrealist painting, poetry or decontextualized metaphors, such as the one to be found in the title.

Another possible weakness of the interpretive approach might be discerned in constructing cases and building arguments which are not representative of the subject in general. On what evidence, one could ask, are these observations being formulated? To what extent do the examples provided in the book relate to the larger phenomena and actually offer some valid explanation? How can merely one’s own feeling or experience be considered a valid basis for interpretation? Again, this study is not meant to provide ultimate answers, but much more than this, to problematize certain subjects by referring to some ideas of greater universality and link them with concrete applications. It may therefore be difficult to verify the results of such findings, but the choice of approach was one which was made consciously. An essay, in opposition to a rigid academic work, may be seen as an attempt to share the author’s comments on the subject in a freer and more popular way than the classical structure that a scientific work demands. I may only hope this book will be inspiring and shed some light on what may otherwise remain hidden.

In my opinion, heritage deserves to be analysed and interpreted from many angles and perspectives. While trying to avoid factual mistakes or irrelevant arguments should be a general rule in every circumstance, with this book I would like to take the liberty afforded to an essayist for a number of reasons.

First of all, I believe interdisciplinarity is particularly suitable for the research of heritage, especially when the domain is so anthropocentric as it seems to be in its Europeanized version. Social anthropology, museum studies, memory studies or sociology would be some of the disciplines that are suitable for heritage analyses. However, as often transpires with interdisciplinarity, there is a challenge as to which angle one should choose to approach the issue from.

←16 |

The method I apply in this work is indeed interpretive, but its choice should not be seen as negating some of the usual academic expectations. Acknowledging the traditional approaches to heritage and the discipline’s own rich heritage (!), I would like to invite the readers to engage in a hopefully intersubjective interpretation of one diverse phenomenon, namely the Europeanization of heritage in museums. Many of the issues and aspects of heritage have been discussed in the academic literature on the subject and it has not been my intention to repeat, rehash or contest these previous standpoints. To do so for even one aspects of the Europeanization of heritage examined here, diversity, would be an academic monograph in itself and most certainly not my intention. Rather, with the form of this book I would like to relate directly to several aspects and qualities of heritage in the process of the Europeanization of heritage which I regard as the most significant.

Intertextuality is perhaps the most preeminent in this regard as I see much of heritage as a way of categorizing, narrating and transmitting lives in their diversity as well as the direct experiences of people in a way in which that they may be rendered intersubjective. This “translation” of the subjective into the intersubjective, from memories to social memory, takes place with the use of different cultural texts. It also employs communication strategies and specific categorizations which allow a highly complex and hybrid domain to be presented. Furthermore, not only the uniqueness of heritage but the dynamics of postmodernity as well may seem to encourage the inclusion of images, metaphors and other quotations in this work. The ubiquitous recurrence of them all, in all thinkable forms of presence (often fragmented and usually incomplete), could be considered a valid part of postmodern experience, but it also comprises a considerable part of heritage interpretation. When visitors come to museums, they do not refer to the content offered by collections having left their backgrounds, habits and emotions behind. Why would heritage analysis be invalid when it is as subjective as that of visitors to museums? One could say, because there are different expectations from academics, who try to understand and explain processes which are greater than individual participation. Yet this is precisely what this book offers. It does so, however, by adopting another of the unique characteristics of heritage: interpretation.

Heritage interpretation (HI), as a profession, could be seen as building bridges between content and visitors, between expert and non-expert audiences, between objective facts and their different interconnections or associations.1 It is not surprising, therefore, that not many academics would admit to being ←17 | 18→heritage interpreters in the sense promoted by HI professional environments. Heritage interpretation is a work which inspires other people, supporting them with their own discoveries, often helping communities to build confidence by reflecting on their own identity, while at the same time promoting knowledge and critical thinking. I would like to offer a work here where heritage is treated along these lines, recognising that it may be far from a standard academic work of heritage analysis and interpretation. In its defence, it instead offers a fusion of the academic and the popular, from the standpoint of an expert in the practice of heritage interpretation, one that hopes to build an (interpretative) bridge between these two seemingly disparate domains.

My own background as a heritage interpreter, in the university environment, museums and other heritage institutions, enables me to offer a unique insight into this issue. I have been privileged to work with experts, curators and authors as well as with various audiences and collections which all have provided me with a healthy sense of the complexity of heritage. To make the book accessible to readers in both camps, I have made the conscious decision to reduce the number of footnotes and bibliographical positions, realizing that readers interested in pursuing certain matters further will easily find the data they need. The idea of the book as a whole is to provide an overview of the aforementioned complexity and, much like a good museum guide, I then leave the reader to explore the collection on their own, giving them freedom of interpretation and, hopefully, having stimulated their curiosity to explore things further. Equally, I do not intend to supplant the need to visit these heritage institutions themselves by delving into the details to be found in their guidebooks and on museum websites. Instead, I present some selected fragments of the numerous activities conducted by museums in order to present how they might be connected with elements of the European program. Regardless of the arguably subjective selection of museums and values, it is believed that they are, like the European Union, united in their diversity and by values which are commonly seen as fundamental for European civilization.

What should also be mentioned here is that with this book I want to propose a way of linking large (abstract) ideas with their (concrete) applications in museums, by analysing object representations or exhibition-based context, but my goal remains to show some specific strategies for structuring the diversity ←18 | 19→which characterizes heritage, as well as the musealized aspect of it. Just like with professional heritage interpretation, which can be seen as a building bridge between expert and non-expert audiences, I want to show the correspondences between the concepts and the experienced reality. As a qualified and experienced heritage interpreter, this has long been my role in my professional career and one which I believe would be of use in a literary context.

The main reason why I use the term “civilizing tool” for museums is that I see the civilizing process as one which transmits certain norms and values, without judging if this specific program is superior to others. European civilization and culture should be seen as just one among many, with very similarities, especially with Western cultures. Civilizing, although it can be understood in its original sense as a way of structuring diversity and a method of adapting to specific conditions, both of which are recorded in customs and traditions, was convincingly demonstrated in the classic work of Norbert Elias.2 Having said that, it is important to note that I am not analysing if or how Europe imposes its values on other cultures, something which has taken place all too often in history, nor do I advocate the exclusiveness of these values to merely the geographical area of Europe. It is true that many, if not all, of the elements of the framework I propose here are applicable to museums outside Europe. My goal here was, however, to look at the ideas which are relevant to the European civilizational program. Museums play an important role in transmitting these values because they structure and represent the diversity of the past with, as I want to argue, reference to several key concepts, the list of which cannot be seen as complete. It is very likely that every reader could find more or perhaps different values which can be defined as fundamental for Europe.

The goal of this book is to interpret selected aspects of the Europeanization of heritage as it may be found in museums. Hence, an overall approach to heritage will be presented, acknowledging the fact that much more complex work that has been done in terms of describing this subdiscipline. What I can propose is a method of grasping the diversity of museums in analysing the processes of the Europeanization of heritage. This method is highly interpretive and attempts to inspire the readers rather than give them ultimate answers – following the paradigmatic function of a contemporary museum guide, rather than the traditional museum expert or curator. Based on these findings, and with some theoretical references to whet the appetite of those interested in exploring these matters ←19 | 20→further, I intend to present a way in which musealized heritage can be observed as an agent of Europeanization.

It should, by now, be clear that some apparently arbitrary decisions had to be made in order to limit the scope of the analysis. Whenever possible, I try to provide the reasons behind the choices I have made. There is always a risk, however, that the selection of museums and/values is neither comprehensive nor complete. In fact, it is not a risk – it is a certainty. Nevertheless, I believe it may be helpful to any who are interested in both museums and Europe. Given the heterogeneity, complexity and the dynamics of both of the terms, it might be useful to examine a framework for its analysis and interpretation. Such a framework will be presented in this book and it is hoped that it can be effectively used by other researchers and museum visitors.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (November)
Europeanization heritage identity museums interpretation democratization
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 210 pp., 21 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Łucja Piekarska-Duraj (Author)

Łucja Piekarska – Duraj is a social anthropologist studying social memory and identity, with her special area of interest being museums. Her professional experience includes various collaborations with museums and other heritage institutions, making her a keen heritage interpreter and analyst. She is affiliated with the Jagiellonian University, where she teaches and conducts research on a range of heritage, memory and identity topics.


Title: The Invisible Hand of Europe
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212 pages