Museum Studies Blog

Posted on March 3rd, 2024 in Book Reviews, Student Work by jachigg | Tags:

Museums, Modernity and Conflict: Museums and Collections in and of War Since the Nineteenth Century. Edited by Kate Hill. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. 2020.


Museums, Modernity and ConflictCommonly attributed to such varied personages as Winston Churchill, Herman Goring and Missouri Senator George Graham Vest, the aphorism ‘’History is written by the victors’’  pertains to the conception and dissemination of history, meaning that those cultures that win wars, exert their influence, and last get the final word.  A related observation about the teaching of history is that, regardless of the victor, historical interpretation is disproportionately centered around wars and geopolitical conflict.  Life during wartime tends to receive the greatest amount of attention in the telling of historical narratives. War is exciting and sexy.  When was the last time you stayed up late to watch a “peace film” on television? 

Yet another unfortunate aspect of the interconnection between the teaching of history and war is that museums have until relatively recently commonly acquired objects and enlarged their collections through outright theft and wholesale plunder: the spoils of war, which leave a sordid pall over even the most well-meaning cultural institutions.  This symbiotic relationship between museums and war is subtly yet firmly expressed in the introduction of the book Museums, Modernity and Conflict: Museums and Collections in and of War Since the Nineteenth Century in which editor Kate Hill states that “[m]useums and the control of cultural heritage assets have been a critical part of the conflict, because it is the meaning of the nation which is at stake and which is both produced and threatened by conflict.” (4) 

Museums, Modernity and Conflict: Museums and Collections in and of War Since the Nineteenth Century addresses this legacy through a collection of several well-curated essays each addressing how cultural institutions have been affected by war, concentrating on four overarching themes: the amassing of objects and the swelling of collections as a by-product of wartime pillaging; efforts on the part of museums to safeguard and preserve their collections from the threat of both looting and destruction (from both sides); attempts made by conquering forces to used the conquered nation’s museums to spread their own nationalist agendas and how those museums found ways to resist these efforts; and the rise of museums whose main or sole focus is war and/or the military as well as the acquisition of objects as a by-product of war.

The “conflict” of the book’s title is veritably addressed by the first section, entitled “Collecting and Conflict” and it is represented by two essays, one focusing on the London Art Market taking advantage of events during the Franco-Prussian War to grow their collections and the other dealing with the constantly migrating “Priam’s Treasure,” which, through a series of decisive battles, has been claimed by a succession of different countries.  The next section, entitled “Keeping Going”  features essays detailing the evacuation of art from European museums during World War II such as the painstaking relocation of art from the Louvre during World War II.  Students interested in collections management will find the Louvre essay especially enlightening as it details the painstaking procedures that the venerated museum undertook to ensure the safety of its works before and during German occupation.  This essay also reveals the surprisingly cooperative relationship between French Louvre director Jacques Jaujard and the German Kunstschutz (art preservation unit) director Franz Wolff-Metternich, which shows that appreciation of art can transcend unchecked super-nationalism, a heartening thought.

“Propaganda, Morale and Resistance” features essays that examine one British museum’s mission to maintain a sense of normalcy in the face of increasing uncertainty and impending doom, as well as the valiant yet subtle efforts of Dutch curators to resist the Nazification of their museums.  The final section, “Museums of War and Conflict,” takes a slight departure, focusing on institutions whose primary subject matter is war, or the acquisition of the weapons used to fight in it.  Of particular interest is the contribution of Germanic scholar Doreen Pastor, “Displaying Ravensbruck Concentration Camp” which traces the repurposing of a former women’s concentration camp into first a Communist propaganda shrine and then, after the fall of Communism in East Germany, a destination spotlighting the sacrifices of the camp’s victimized female prisoners. 

This volume, edited by British museum scholar Kate Hill, maintains a decidedly Anglo/Eurocentric slant, focusing primarily on the European Continent and the British Commonwealth, omitting any direct exploration of American museums or the United States’ involvement in global conflicts.  Because so much emphasis is placed on the two world wars, it would have been useful (and more honest) to include at least one essay pertaining to American museums.  While American collections were not as directly affected by the destruction wrought by these wars, the U.S. was actively involved in both of these international conflicts as well as being instrumental in art preservation efforts. Perhaps an examination of the preservation efforts of the “Monuments Men” during World War II would make this volume more complete. 

Museums, Modernity and Conflict is a comprehensive volume covering a wide range of perspectives centering on the complex relationship between museums and inter-and intranational conflict.  While I feel that the inclusion of essays focusing on countries outside of Europe would have made this a more thorough analysis, the editor’s choice to narrow her emphasis to Europe and the United Kingdom (to be fair, the British Commonwealth of Canada is represented) seems to be a calculated effort to provide a greater concentration on those nations with greater geographical proximity to each other and thus more natural interaction throughout history.  This text emphasizes to museum professionals how truly important their role can be in the preservation and expression of culture. What is most important is that Museums, Modernity and Conflict never fails to emphasize the importance of museums and the culture they present even in periods of intense adversity.


Jason Housley is a Graduate Certificate student in the Indiana University Indianapolis Museum Studies Program.