How Museums Help Diverse Nations Reimagine Themselves

By Embracing the Ambiguity of Old Myths, the Best Exhibits Broaden a People’s Sense of Belonging

Museums are often dismissed as irrelevant diversions, as places apart, as tombs for pasts that don’t have much to do with the present.

But I study the world’s heritage museums—the national, state, or city museums that tell stories from the past—and I am convinced that the best of these institutions forge national identity and impact our civic actions far more profoundly than we recognize. National identity is a myth we create together in order to cooperate as large societies, and heritage museums tell the stories that perpetuate—and also modify—those national …