Selling Nations. Culture as big business.

Imagine that the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum decide to loan their most valuable pieces to some museums in the USA. Its sounds crazy but apparently this things happen. Countries like Turkey, Mexico and Indonesia are so desperate for better connections within the USA, that they are willing to send their finest pieces, along with millions of dollars in exchange for good old propaganda.

For instance, in 1990 150 exhibitions, performances and cultural events were held all over the USA on behalf of Mexico. Especially second or third world countries, like Mexico, try to sell their nation´s image to the USA by those so called national cultural festivals. They want to get rid of the downgrading images which people in the West have of them by promoting themselves.

Brian Wallis, author of Selling Nations, describes how those images are products of the phenomenon Orientalism. A term which was introduced in 1978 by Edward Said to define the way how ancient colonial powers from the West look at their former possessions in the East as primitive and inferior. So you will expect that these countries send some scholars to the USA to recreate their image on a more nuanced fashion. Nothing is less true.

Although these cultural festivals are initiated by the countries themselves, they are in most cases organized by Western companies and museums. Curators and directors from the USA are thereby responsible for the presentation of a country like Turkey. The result is that visitors of national cultural festivals see an image as they would like or used to see it. They see an image of a strong and confident country. In the case of Turkey, visitors saw the history and associated artefacts of the Ottoman Empire during the reign of sultan Suleyman I. A period in which the Ottoman Empire was still one of the most developed and strongest empires of the world. Curators and directors didn´t pay any attention to the more troubled side of Turkey because they weren´t paid to do that. Thereby abandoning the disinterested scholarship most museum claim to provide.

Despite different opinions, selling nations, proved in most cases successful. Culture became a business model for boosting tourism, tightening diplomatic ties and attracting capital. Selling their art and history to the highest bidder, countries like Mexico, Turkey and Indonesia seem to act a lot like their submissive predecessors.

The museums in the USA at the other hand, welcomed these new flow of money from foreign countries. National cultural festivals turned out to be a solution for many museums who had troubles with their income because of dropping subsidies and visitors revenues. It is true, for many years, especially since the financial crisis of 2008, governments try to cut on their expenses. Cultural institutions, like museums and art galleries, are easy victims of this policy. Popularity or foreign fundings are a way out of financial troubles. With the appearance of the commercialization of art and culture we need to get used to museums which no longer pay attention to pure scholarship. That´s only left for the lucky few. Still, can´t wait for the first Belgium exposition.

Lars van der Bel

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