Museums and populism(s) – Perspectives from an emerging field of research

by Julia Leser, Alice Millar, Marlena Nikody and Pia Schramm on October 24, 2022

We are currently witnessing the rise of nationalist and populist politics in many European countries. In our research project Challenging Populist Truth-Making in Europe: The Role of Museums in a ‘Post-Truth’ European Society (CHAPTER), funded by the VolkswagenStiftung, we are looking into the impacts of populist politics on the cultural sphere, and specifically on European museums. In two recent public events in the Making Museums Matter Series of Online Discussions, we invited both researchers and museum practitioners to discuss the current issues that museums are facing, and present strategies that museums have developed in order to challenge the rise of populism. Here, the members of the CHAPTER research team reflect and share their thoughts on some of the aspects of populism covered in these events: terminology, openness, dialogue and tension.


We need to talk about populism

by Julia Leser (Berlin)

In 2021, when we started our empirical study and began interviewing people working across a variety of museums in Poland, the UK and Germany about their experiences with populism, I remember thinking that we probably would not find populism being that big of an issue in the field of museums.[1] Of course, I was and still am concerned about the growing impacts of populist politics on many dimensions of the cultural sector. I had read a few news articles reporting on how AfD (Alternative for Germany) politicians were hijacking guided tours at Holocaust memorial sites, or how local theatres were struggling with populist shitsorms on social media.[2] But, it seemed, nobody was talking about museums. Maybe, I wondered, museums are not yet on the radar of populist politics.

So, I vividly remember my growing surprise about what museum practitioners talked about over the course of our first interviews: they reported experiences with hate speech on social media platforms, with receiving threats in the mail and on the phone, and with far-right protests against their institutions at the front door. It was shocking to me, and I was, above all, struck by the fact that most interviewees felt that these kinds of attacks were only happening to them, and that their struggles were somehow isolated and singular experiences – when they were clearly, as the growing sample of our interviews indicated, a far-reaching and structural issue.

We have a responsibility to make these issues related to populism in the field of museums more visible and public. Museum practitioners need to be aware that this is happening not only to them, but more on a structural level. The events on ‘Museums and populism(s)’ we organized in collaboration with Making Museums Matter this year might be a first step toward a wider public debate on the issue.


Challenging Populist Truth-Making in Europe (CHAPTER): The Role of Museums in a Digital 'Post-Truth' European Society. Image: Pia Schramm

Image: Pia Schramm

In one of the two events, Hilke Wagner shared with us her experiences in the Albertinum in Dresden since she became its director in 2014, when she was almost immediately caught up in the midst of PEGIDA protests, far-right attacks, and the instrumentalisation of issues related to her activities in the museum by local AfD politicians. Hilke Wagner became the target of hate mail and constant threats, and at one point, decided to respond to them. She started talking to the people who kept attacking her. She explained that she was truly interested in those kinds of grievances that might lead people to become this aggressive. But she did not stop there. As part of the Albertinum’s public outreach activities, she implemented an open series of discussions under the title We need to talk (Wir müssen reden), and invited the public to come together and discuss controversial and politically charged issues related to the city’s history and present situation, and how these issues were represented in the museum. The series was an immediate success and even caught the attention of the international press.[3]

The story of Hilke Wagner is a striking example of why we need to talk about populism. Populist attacks against museums – in any form – are not acceptable. We cannot tolerate them, and we cannot just endure them silently. However, most people who are working in museums and experience this sort of political violence will not go public, and from our interview study, we came to understand why. Making these issues known publicly, talking to the media, or even – like Hilke Wagner – inviting the public in to have a shared conversation might come with all kinds of risks, including an increased sense of vulnerability and even more exposure to personal attacks. Not everyone wants to put themselves in such a position. Furthermore, going public and standing up against populism can be tremendously exhausting, especially in the face of a lack of resources and support. We know of instances where people decide instead to quit and/or leave the museum altogether. And many of those who stay feel alone and sometimes even alienated.

A start to tackling populism in the field of museums must be to inspire a critical debate: We need to talk about populism. We need to come together and share our experiences, express our need for support structures and resources, and make sure that museums remain dedicated and safe spaces for social pluralism, democratic experience and cultural freedom.


“Museums are not mausoleums”

by Pia Schramm (Tübingen/Berlin)

Museums are not mausoleums, as Hilke Wagner, Director of the Albertinum Dresden, framed it in her contribution to the Making Museums Matter session.[4] I agree, and our event emphasized that the modern museum needs to overcome ancient structures and dare to actively engage with (potential) visitors in order to take on the social responsibility that it has and aims to have. Unfortunately, populist practices of heritage-making and claiming the truth can make it difficult for museums to do so – the imaginary Damocles sword of populist attacks that seems to hover over heritage sites and museums triggers museum staff to question the ways they do exhibit things.

As part of the CHAPTER project, I studied how museums are affected by populist truth-making on social media, and frequently observed how the permanent anticipation of online shitstorms or offline violent attacks causes fear, anger, and frustration among museum staff. In the worst case, it even causes self-censorship, i.e., exhibitions will not be displayed or content on social media will not be posted.


Challenging Populist Truth-Making in Europe (CHAPTER): The Role of Museums in a Digital 'Post-Truth' European Society. Image: Pia Schramm

Image: Pia Schramm

In the UK, Poland, and Germany, we are confronted with very different shapes and facets of populism(s), as the
Making Museums Matter event once again made clear. But our discussion also serves as a great example that collegial exchange among museum staff and researchers can be an empowering tool to combat populist impact. I think that museums need to be participatory and think towards conversation and activation – the experiences from our panelists Jacek Kołtan, Bridget McKenzie and Hilke Wagner do show that collaboration with ‘the people,’ both the museums’ side and the ‘audiences’ side, does work. The same is valid for the digital spheres of museums: social media platforms have a huge potential for outreach.

If we dare to speak openly about difficult topics and name political dimensions of the museal work, if we are transparent, open, and authentic, we have the opportunity to really engage with audiences. As the case of Jacek Kołtan’s input on the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk has shown, though the political climate in Poland is quite complex, democratic institutions still are firmly anchored in the society. After the mayor of Gdańsk Paweł Adamowicz was murdered by a right-wing extremist in 2019, the Solidarity Centre organized a spontaneous vigil using social media platforms and more than 50,000 people came together.[5] Later on, when the Solidarity Centre’s budget was cut by the new Polish government, citizens supported the museum by contributing to a huge crowdfunding initiative, and public events and roundtables were organized to bring people together.

Even though populism challenges cultural institutions, museums generally have backing from within the wider society. We also see this in digital engagement – there is a loud minority that expresses rejection and hate vs. a large majority of supporters of cultural institutions such as museums. We should remember this spirit and realize that participatory museum work can shape societies, just as societies can and will shape museum spaces.


On the value of dialogue

by Alice Millar (London)

What I found most interesting and thought-provoking at the
Making Museums Matter event was the extent to which all our speakers put people (back) at the centre of museum practices. Bridget McKenzie, Director of the Climate Museum UK, Flow Associates and co-founder of the Culture Declares Emergency movement, argued convincingly that populist technologies are integral to the human crises of colonialism, bio-colonialism and climate change which rely on populist “in-group” narratives that delay climate action and engage in denial of climate change in order to make people feel better.[6] She therefore suggests that the most helpful offering museums can make is to invite people to be present in authentic dialogues about their impact, hoping to awaken a responsibility for the climate.


Challenging Populist Truth-Making in Europe (CHAPTER): The Role of Museums in a Digital 'Post-Truth' European Society. Image: Pia Schramm

Image: Pia Schramm

A similar sentiment was reflected by Hilke Wagner, whose case study at the Albertinum, which Julia has detailed above, demonstrated the importance of getting people together to discuss their political issues, even suggesting that reaching out to the Albertinium’s critics head on was far more successful and productive than ignoring or conceding to them.

These examples show that being in conversation with one another, including those with conflicting viewpoints to oneself, is valuable because it enables all parties to see commonalities among us all, rather than focusing on divisions that populist politics tries to exacerbate. Likewise, Jacek Kołtan spoke about prioritising “humane values” at the European Solidarity Centre as a way to commemorate undemocratic pasts, inspire new cultural initiatives and actively participate in the development of a new European identity based on solidarity of humane values, rather than a national identity that divides us based on difference.

This is something that has arisen in many of our research interviews, where museums address moral and/or ethical issues as opposed to political concerns, which enables them to appeal to wider audiences in solidarity rather than emphasise difference. Our research data suggests that this is one approach that museums can use to challenge populist strategies that seek to crudely divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ by exploiting emotional political themes. This brings us back full circle to Bridget McKenzie’s talk and the focus of the Climate Museum UK, which seeks to activate its audiences to participate in discourses about the future of our planet in ways that unite rather than divide us. Perhaps the importance of dialogue and human-centred practice is an obvious one, but nevertheless it certainly bears remembering that for museums whose work is often focused on connecting people to objects, connecting people with people may be even more vital.


“We have to discuss the tensions”

by Marlena Nikody (Krakow)

Jacek Kołtan, the Director’s Representative for Research at the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk, during the Making Museums Matter series said one sentence that seems especially important to me when I think about our research on museums and populism. The sentence ‘We have to discuss the tensions’ effectively captures the attitude of the museum professionals I have had the opportunity to talk to so far about the impact of populism on museums.

Jacek Kołtan spoke about the current political challenges that museums face in Poland, especially since 2015, when the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) won the elections. This particularly concerns museums that are funded by public money and which are (co-)organized by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The challenges we observe include budget cuts, attempts (successful or not) to interfere in the content of permanent exhibitions so that they fit in with right-wing state policy, and changes of management in certain museums dictated by ideological issues.

Kołtan noted that we often observe an agonistic model of communication between museums, their organisers, and audiences. He argued that within this agonistic model we witness unproductive disputes and tensions, which lead to confusion of experiences. If we look at the position of museum professionals in the agonistic model of communication, it becomes understandable why their attitude is often defensive – they find themselves in a situation of uncertainty, fear of losing their jobs, and a sense of constantly having to defend their position.

However, Kołtan suggested that there must be a shift towards a dialogical model of communication. The result would be broadening the cognitive horizon, a fusion of different perspectives that can lead to mutual understanding: therefore, the need to ‘discuss the tensions.’ Yet, for the dialogue to happen, there needs to be initiative from both sides. Is it even possible for both sides to be willing to participate in a constructive dialogue? Are museums ready for this? According to my observations, most certainly. Are organisers, especially political actors, able to participate in a dialogical model of communication? Several events on the museum scene, such as sudden budget cuts or the non-transparent appointment of a new management, indicate that this is often not the case. In such a context, the call ‘we have to discuss the tensions’ resonates even more strongly.


Challenging Populist Truth-Making in Europe (CHAPTER): The Role of Museums in a Digital 'Post-Truth' European Society. Image: Pia Schramm

Image: Pia Schramm



[1] One of the aims of the CHAPTER research project is to understand the impact of populist truth-making on European museums, providing a rich ethnographic comparison on a European scale. An empirical explorative interview study, coordinated by postdoc researcher Julia Leser and supported by the PhD researchers Alice Millar, Marlena Nikody and Pia Schramm, captures the experiences of museum stakeholders in Germany, Poland and the UK. It addresses the following questions: What is the impact of populist truth-making on European museums? What strategies have museums developed so far in order to challenge post-truth practices through their curatorial and educational work as well as public engagements? What strategies and politics do populist political actors support and/or enforce in museums? How are questions of museums’ own truth-making presented?

[2] For the case of Germany, the project DIALOGE KUNSTFREIHEIT: Recherche- und Diskursprojekt zu Angriffen auf die Kunstfreiheit, as part of the network DIE VIELEN, has documented about 100 politically motivated attacks against artists and cultural institutions such as theatres, heritage sites and museums between 2016 and 2021.

[3] Apperly, E. (2020, January 7). How to fight the far right? Invite them in – the German museum taking on hate. The Guardian, online:

[4] With her phrase “Museums are not mausoleums”, Wagner was referencing an influential text by Douglas Crimp (1995), “On the Museum’s Ruins”, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press.

[5] See, for example, Davies, C. (2019, January 15). ‘Hatred is becoming more visible’: shocked Gdańsk mourns slain mayor. The Guardian, online:

[6] A similar argumentation can be found, for example, in the text by strategist, researcher, and writer Renee Lertzman (2017), “How Can We Talk About Global Warming?”, Sierra, online:



This article was written after the panel discussion “Museums and populism – International perspectives” on April 13, 2022, as part of the
Making Museums Matter – Series of Online Discussions, initiated by the ICOM International Committee for Collecting. We thank our panelists, Bridget McKenzie (Climate Museum, UK), Jacek Kołtan (European Solidarity Centre Gdańsk, Poland), and Hilke Wagner (Albertinum Dresden, Germany), and Christine Gerbich and Alina Gromova for organizing the event series and inviting the CHAPTER project to collaborate for this session. We also thank Sharon Macdonald and Christoph Bareither for the valuable comments and editing of the text.


Julia Leser is a postdoctoral researcher at CARMAH in the project CHAPTER. Her fields of interest include political anthropology, political ethnography, and affect studies, and further include national security and migration control, nationalism, populism, and political theory.


Pia Schramm is a research associate of the CHAPTER project based at the University of Tübingen. Her research is concerned with digital anthropology and political discourses online, with a focus on populist truth-making practices.


Alice Millar is a PhD candidate at the University College London (UCL) and a researcher on CARMAH’s CHAPTER project. Her research focuses on how British museums are affected by populism (and vice versa), dealing with issues of truth-making, fake news, and authority.


Marlena Nikody is a PhD candidate at Jagiellonian University in Kraków and a researcher on the CHAPTER project. Her research interests focus on reparative educational practices in Poland’s historical museums against populist practices in Polish museology.


The CHAPTER research project (2020–2024) proceeds to work on the topic of “Museums and populism” in two steps: first, our ethnographic research on how museums are affected by populist politics will be finalized and published, and second, a critical debate on populist truth-making will be fostered through digital engagement with the CHAPTER app. To get all updates, follow us on Instagram and Twitter.