Peggy Levitt sociologist, author and professor


(With Hanna Snellman and Hanna Forssell)

Finland in general, and Helsinki in particular, is changing. Since 1990 when there were fewer than 20,000 immigrants, more than 160,000 newcomers, primarily from Russia (62,500), Estonia (40,000), Somalia (15,000), China, and Iraq have made Helsinki their home. Although these are not particularly large numbers, they are nonetheless significant for a country of only 5 million. And while migrants are transforming the city and the nation, the National Museum of Finland (NMF) continues to put the same portrait on display. 

We believe that can change, and we want to explore how. To what extent do new immigrants see themselves on the Museum’s walls or hear themselves in its narrative? How would they integrate their own experiences into the displays? How can the Museum help create a more diverse outside by changing what it does inside? 

We ask these questions at a critical moment. During the next 3 years, the NMF is undergoing a planning process. It’s permanent exhibit, where the nation is most clearly and most visibly expressed, will be totally reinstalled. This is a window of opportunity during which new stories can be told.

We propose rewriting the story of Finland in collaboration with young people of immigrant origin. We include people between the ages of 20-35 who were either born in Finland to immigrant parents or who came to the country at a young age. Because these individuals grew up primarily in Finland, they will know some version of the national story and immigrants place in it. They will know how diversity is managed. Our collaboration will involve three steps. We will first ask participants drawn from the three main immigrant origin groups to come to the Museum and familiarize themselves with its permanent exhibit based on two guiding questions—what is the overarching storyline, and where do you see yourself in it? We will then ask them to create a different exhibit, either by rearranging objects, rewriting wall texts, or incorporating new items. Any number of products might grow out of this exercise—a virtual exhibit which visitors can walk through on line, a photo essay, or short video in which the creator reflects on the current museum installation or changes it by inserting herself in a new, or a gallery installation that disrupts the current visitor experience. 

(With Alexandra Parrs)

The struggle over who owns the archeological riches of Egypt and how and where they should be put on display is well known. But there are other struggles going on in this part of the world that are also deeply divisive. Where is Egypt on the world stage and what part of its rich and varied heritage defines it? Is it an Arab country, part of the Mediterranean orbit, part of the Middle East, or African? The Nubian Museum in Aswan, opened in 1997, highlights this part of the countries heritage. It came into being, in large part, through the efforts of the international community—particularly UNESCO—to save cultural patrimony from this part of the world. We use the history of the museum and the struggles surrounding it to understand how Egyptian nationalism, and the country’s global role, is formulated for citizens and tourists alike. 

(With Rebecca Selch and Sarah Smith)

Cultural institutions shape and are shaped by geopolitical hierarchies. The Americas and Asia Society are interesting cases for examining how these dynamics change over time. They were founded around the same time, had similar casts of characters at their helms, pursued parallel goals of creating regional imaginaries and identities, and yet play very different cultural diplomatic roles today. What does the arc of these organizations tell us about the changing geopolitical positions of the regions they claim to represent? How do long-standing cultural institutions adopt themselves to the new demands and constraints of contemporary cultural diplomacy?