The 'cultural diplomacy' of travelling exhibitions

International exhibitions do more than just tell museum-goers a story—they act as cultural ambassadors.

Dr Lee Davidson, senior lecturer in museum and heritage studies standing outside Te Papa museum

International exhibitions that tell the story of a culture through the use of stories and objects always prove popular with museum goers keen to discover more about a way of life different from their own.

But in-depth research from a Victoria academic has shown these exhibitions are more than just nice to look at—they are also top-level cultural ambassadors.

Dr Lee Davidson, a senior lecturer in Museum and Heritage Studies at Victoria’s School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies, has been studying two interconnected, transnational touring exhibitions. One study centred on E Tū Ake: Standing Strong, a show about Māori culture that was produced by Te Papa and which toured to Canada, France and Mexico. The other examined the Aztecs: Conquest and Glory exhibition that was shown across Australasia.

“The projects are the first-ever comprehensive studies of international touring exhibitions,” explains Lee. “We wanted to find out how effective such exhibitions were in terms of audience engagement, intercultural understanding and cultural diplomacy.”

To find out just how much of an impact the exhibitions made, Lee and her team interviewed museum staff at each venue about their experiences working on the exhibitions, as well as audience members about their interpretation of what they’d seen.

“We found out what made a lasting impression on people—they tended to connect with objects that had some meaning to them personally, the special stories of individuals or exhibits that had multi-sensory or emotional components.

“There were a few lessons that emerged for the people who put these sorts of shows together—there were often challenges around communication when working internationally and across cultures. A common problem was the different ways each institution wanted to market the same show—some of the images the offshore institutions wanted to use to engage the public in advertising, for example, were not culturally appropriate for the countries the exhibitions came from.”

Lee says a symposium held at Victoria earlier this year provided an opportunity to share the findings with museum staff, cultural policy experts and representatives from the international diplomatic corps.

“We discussed the fact that these exhibitions are a key way for New Zealand and other cultures to present themselves on the world stage—done well they can help advance globalisation and intercultural understanding, and connect people across political, cultural and geographical divides.”