Conceptualising Private and Public National Identities: the Case of the Museum of Scotland

ABSTRACT - This paper presents the findings of primary research carried out by the authors on the relationship between the new Museum of Scotland and Scottish national identity. Based on in-depth interviews of potential visitors to the new museum undertaken before its opening in November 1998, the paper argues that the ways that consumersactively make and re-make their personal and national identities within museum spaces are related to the ways in which the museum engages them on these different imaginary levels. It concludes by suggesting that the differences in the way in which visitors conceptualise personal and public national identities can be used to begin to consider rethinking theories of identity formation.


Steven Cooke and Fiona McLean (1999) ,"Conceptualising Private and Public National Identities: the Case of the Museum of Scotland", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Bernard Dubois, Tina M. Lowrey, and L. J. Shrum, Marc Vanhuele, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 361-365.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1999      Pages 361-365


Steven Cooke, University of Stirling, United Kingdom

Fiona McLean, University of Stirling, United Kingdom


This paper presents the findings of primary research carried out by the authors on the relationship between the new Museum of Scotland and Scottish national identity. Based on in-depth interviews of potential visitors to the new museum undertaken before its opening in November 1998, the paper argues that the ways that consumersactively make and re-make their personal and national identities within museum spaces are related to the ways in which the museum engages them on these different imaginary levels. It concludes by suggesting that the differences in the way in which visitors conceptualise personal and public national identities can be used to begin to consider rethinking theories of identity formation.


In the late twentieth century issues of identity have come to the fore in academic discourses. In societies where challenges to the social, economic and cultural jurisdiction of the nation state are common, and where 'self’ has become fragmented and traditional structures destabilised, the concept of identity has become problematic and contentious. Central to this are debates about the global/local nexus. This paper looks at issues of national identity, focusing in particular on the nation of Scotland. National cultures construct identities by producing meanings about the nation with which we can identify, meanings which are contained in "legends and landscapes"(Daniels 1993, 5) the stories, memories and images which structure, and in turn are structured by, ideas of the nation. The new Museum of Scotland which opened in Edinburgh in November 1998, offers an opportunity to explore these complex and little understood issues. [The Museum of Scotland is one of six museums run by the umbrella organisation "National Museums of Scotland" (NMS). The NMS was set up in 1985 after the amalgamation of the Royal Scottish Museum (now the Royal Museum of Scotland) and the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland on which the Museum of Scotland is based.]

The Museum has opened at a crucial time in Scottish history. The Scottish cultural renaissance is manifested in the increase in cultural production and calls for Scottish cultural institutions. Parallel to this renaissance are political developments. A referendum held in 1997 showed an overwhelming consensus for political change; almost three-quarters of those who voted supported the idea of a devolved Scottish Parliament. Scotland has not had its own Parliament for almost 300 years, since the Union of the Scottish and English Parliaments in 1707 created a London-based Parliament of Great Britain. Despite this, Scotland retained a separate legal system and many other aspects of public life, such as the Scottish education system, have remained distinctive. Elections for this re-created Parliament were held in early 1999 and convened for the first time in May 1999. When the idea of Scotland is itself in a state of flux, the stories of the nation told in the Museum, which give a sense of location, a connection between the individual and the nation as an "imagined community" (Anderson 1983) are especially important.

This paper reports on preliminary findings of research conducted with potential consumers of the new Museum of Scotland before its opening in November 1998. First, a review is conducted of issues of identity, which then informs the next section that examines the role of the museum in constructing identities. The third section considers the responses from the interviews with potential consumers of the Museum of Scotland and discusses how they illustrate the ways that consumers make and re-make their national identities.


The traditional ways in which we think about identity are being brought into question. Conventional wisdom suggests that identity is the expression of objective and measurable differences between social groups, whether based on class, gender, age or ethnicity. Identity, within this conceptualisation, is seen to reside in the individual. However, Brown et al. (1996) have argued that identity should be thought of as located in "the signs and meanings which are given off by the social institutions they inhabit, and crucially the social actor has a considerable amount of leeway in resonating those identities which they find useful in different social settings" (Brown et al. 1996: 194). In other words, identities are social and cultural accounts which participants use tomake sense of their actions. Under the modernist perspective, the key social identities which were formed were political, social, occupational, class, and gender identities. Identity was created in the interactions between self and society. In the postmodern, social structures are rapidly changing, with the inevitable impact on all forms of social identity, including national identity.

It has been argued that the politics of consumption are central to social and cultural change in the postmodern (Tomlinson 1990). For example, cultural items readily relate ethnicity to the world of goods (Hannerz 1992), acting as expressions or symbols of ethnic identity. Consequently, cultural items that appeal to ethnic feelings are frequently possessed as commodities in the marketplace (Roosens 1995). Thus, national identity, although a political manifestation, is expressed through the cultural as well as the political.

The seminal work by Anderson on "Imagined Communities" (1983), describes the concept of "nation" as being imagined, since it has limited political boundaries. That is, the nation is a sovereign territory over which the state claims legitimacy, but which is a community involving comradeship with people one has never met,

It is imagined because members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lies the image of their communion. (Anderson 1983, 15)

This is important, because it shows we are dealing with something ephemeral, an abstraction. National identity, then, can only be an imagined communion. This imagining, for Anderson, replaces earlier forms of cultural belonging, being a phenomenon of modernity. Consequently, we can trace the roots of national identity as a phenomenon to the breakdown of existential certainties characterising modern social life (Tomlinson 1991). As these certainties break down even further in the postmodern era, so national identity grows in importance.

National identity, then, becomes "a particular kind of collective identity. In other words it is an identity constituted at a given strategic level of society" (Schlesinger 1991, 173). Nationalists are often drawn to the dramatic and creative possibilities of the arts and media, through which they can celebrate or commemorate the nation, evoking emotional responses from the community (Smith 1991). Schlesinger (1991) however contends that national cultures are not simply the repositories of shared symbols to which the entire population stands in identical relation. Instead, there is competition over the defining of such symbols. National culture then is a discourse, a way of constructing meanings which influence not only our actions, but also our conceptions of ourselves since, "It follows that the nation is not only a political entity but something which produces meaningsBa system of cultural representation" (Hall 1992, 292).

Hall and du Gay (1996) have suggested that the concepts of national and personal identity are "under erasure". The self-sustaining Cartesian self is subject to critiqueBbut it has not been replaced, it has "not been superseded dialectically" (Hall and du Gay 1996, 1). We are obliged to go on thinking with it, however problematic this may be, albeit not in the totalising way in which we have in the past. They suggest one of the ways in which the concept of identities can be reformulated is by thinking in terms of "routes" not "roots".

Though they seem to invoke an origin in a historical past with which they continue to correspond, actually identities are about questions of using the resources of history, language and culture in the process of becoming rather than being: not 'who we are’ or 'where we came from’, so much as what we might become, how we have been represented and how that bears on how we might represent ourselves (1996, 4).

Thse are produced (and consumed) within discursive sites and practices by the articulation of "specific enunciative strategies" (Hall and du Gay 1996, 4). Within this conceptualisation, museums can be seen as sites of discursive formation, a space where identities are made and re-made.


Since their inception, museums have been used to house a national heritage, thereby fulfilling national ambitions by creating a national identity. Initially created as private collections amassed by elites through conquest and exploitation, museums have since developed their role to conserve cultural heritage and to educate the public.

Museums are social institutions, the products and agents of political and social change (Kaplan 1994). Thus, periods of significant growth in museums can be related to upsurges of nationalism and a sense of national identity. For example in the UK, the founding of the Victoria and Albert Museum, which was created from the 1851 Great Exhibition, represented the pride of the nation in its industries and in its colonisation of other nations (Billinge 1993). Such Imperial exhibitions were spaces for inculcating various sections of the population with certain values concerned with Empire, by constructing spectacles of the "other" (Coombes 1987). The second significant growth of museums has taken place in the late 20th century. The growth of Scottish museums has far outpaced the growth of museums throughout the rest of the UK (McCrone et al 1995), conceivably reflecting Scotland’s reassertion of its national identity, which has culminated in the devolution referendum and the re-creation of Scotland’s own Parliament.

Since museum visiting is a social activity, visitors connect the personal to the museum’s account through spun narratives (Silverstone 1988). The visitor gives the museum object a personal expression, one that is unique to that individual. Visitors bring their own preconceptions to the museum which shape the nature and perceptions of their visit (Macdonald 1992). The museum offers the visitor "a heritage with which we continually interact, one which fuses past with present" (Lowenthal 1985, 410). Visitors give a multiplex of meanings to museum objects, meanings which are representative of their identities.

Within the reconceptualisation of identity formation put forward by Hall, du Gay and others, the museum can be seen as a place where people go to actively make and re-make their identities, to selectively select and reject and manipulate the images and identities found within. This privileging of the consumer’s active role in identity formation needs to be held in tension, however, with the symbolic and institutional power of the museum. The consumption of the museum by the visitors needs to be understood within both the context of the producer’s construction of potential preferred readings of the displays and the Museum’s role as an authoritative institution with symbolic capital in the telling of stories about the nation (Bourdieu 1990, Hooper-Greenhill 1989).


As part of a wider programme of research investigating the construction of national identity in the new Museum of Scotland, in-depth interviews were conducted with 89 members of the public before the opening of the new Museum who were identified by the NMS as target visitors. They fell in to the target segments of residents of Scotland; residents from the rest of the UK; the Scottish Diaspora; and foreign tourists. A number of topics were explored, the most significant for this paper being the notions of the potential visitor’s conception of their own representation in the new museum and of the ways in which the museum could influence meanings of Scottishness. The inerviews were tape-recorded to allow extensive analysis at a later date. The key findings from this part of the research identified the micro and macro levels in which the potential visitors perceived themselves to be represented in the new Museum of Scotland. These will be looked at in turn in the next two sections.


One of our a priori themes was the theoretical focus on the continuous making and remaking of identities within museum spaces. Part of this identity work is located in the process of identification (Hall and du Gay 1996). Therefore one of the crucial issues dealt with in the empirical work was how people thought they themselves would be represented in the new museum.

For many respondents there was an explicit assumption that, as Scots, they would be represented in a Museum of Scotland.

Well, I think that if it is a Scottish museum obviously I’m going to be represented in it

I suppose just as a Scot. While you may not have direct links to many aspects of the heritage and the culture but still there is a connection there and so yes you are represented as much as any Scot is.

However, many Scots, regardless of specific target segment, suggested a lack of connection with the exhibitions they thought would be presented in the new museum. Some denied that they would be represented. For example, responses included "I have no idea" to "Me? I doubt it will be me, it will be something more important than me I should hope", or "I think I am only a cog in the wheel. I don’t think I’m important enough to be represented anywhere".

The misunderstanding or rejection could be understood with reference to the potential variance between the authors’ understanding of 'representation’ in terms of representative culture and history, with the respondents’ understanding of the concept who perhaps saw it as how will they as a recognisable self be represented in the Museum. However, other evidence suggests that this distinction between representation and non-representation is more problematic. The identification process should rather be viewed as mediated through the representation of history that the respondents thought would be seen in the new Museum. Thus to be represented, the Museum needed to have a connection with them and their lives.

Well actually I will feel represented as long asenough about daily life in current Scotland is in thereand as long as the current bit is not completely overwhelmed by the history of the great and the good.

Hard to say, I would have to see and then I would be able to say. I think that I would have liked to have seen so and so as it applies to me and my former profession or that is an interesting concept, it shows how we worked but I don’t think I could pick something out of the air just now.

Further evidence to suggest that the identification process is built upon recognition of "our story" comes from overseas visitors, especially those from the United States of America with connections to Scotland. Although it must be recognised that the motivation for the visit to Scotland is often based on such a connection and a search for 'roots’, this group was generally more happy to answer the question and had a clear indication of just how they would be, or would like to be represented in the new Museum. They envisaged an explicit connection to their 'history’ and ancestors.

I think coming into a museum where you could identify with a certain aspect of that, I meanit would be like anything that would have to do with the Blair Castle and Atholl and that partof it. I think it gives you a personal identification point, it makes you kind of feel this is mine, this is part of me.

Oh goodness, well since I actually know the name of the clan that my great grandfather came from anything to do with that would give me some kind of connection.


As we have already suggested, museums have historically been sites where ideas of the nation have been played out. As can be seen in Central and Eastern Europe, national museums seem to be intimately bound up with the idea of the nation-state as a space where a nation can represent its history to itself and others. As McCrone et al have argued,

Objects of heritage appear [to visitors] to have the power to confer identity, and act as vehicles for bringing the past into the present, in such a way that the histories of ancestors or mythological events become an intimate part of their national identity.

(McCrone et al 1996, 187)

The Museum of Scotland as a place to "represent Scotland to the World and the World to Scotland", [The slogan of the National Museum of Scotland is "Presenting Scotland to the World and the World to Scotland". This represents the respective functions of the two main NMS museums-the Royal Museum, which contains mainly material culture from outside of Scotland to "present the World to Scotland" and the new Museum of Scotland which, in housing the artefacts and objects from Scotland, attempts to "present Scotland to the World".] can therefore be seen as a crucial site of representation given Scottish Devolution and continuing debates over the relationship between Scotland, the UK and Europe.

To try to ascertain how people viewed the relationship between the Museum and the nation, they were asked whether they could see the museum changing what it meant to be Scottish. Again, the question generated a wide range of attitudes, including a complete rejection of the notion that what it meant to be Scottish could be influenced by the new Museum. However, unlike the issue of personal identity, other responses seemed to suggest that the museum’s relationship to defining the nation was more direct. Although the notion of 'Scottishness’ seemed to be located in the 'character of the people’, and that this was thought immune to change, it was also generally felt that the Museum would enhance or solidify what it meant to be 'Scottish’.

I think it will enhance it, not necessarily change it.

No I think it will just add to your Scottishness as such rather than take away from it.

I think it has got a contribution to make to enhance the sense of identity.

This may well be linked with the perceived role of a national museum as concerned with the macro level, telling the story of Scotland as a nation rather than the story of the individual. Indeed, without prompting, a number of interviewees connected the role of the Museum in defining Scotland to changes at the macro level such as devolution.

I guess [the Museum] can help in communicating a sense of belonging and self-worth and contribute to a change of general feeling of what it means to be Scottish or whatever but it won’t do that on its own but particularly with the link up to devolution I guess it might play a role.

In order to examine further the potential for change at the macro level, the respondents were all also asked specifically whether they considered that their conceptions of Scottishness would be changed by devolution. The majority of both Scots and non-Scots suggested that Scottish identity would be affected by recent political developments. These responses generally fell into two categories, assigning devolution a similar role to that of the Museum: first in terms of enhancing 'Scottishness’ and giving an increased sense of pride in Scotland:

Hopefully it will make people more aware that they are Scotish in themselves and make them proud of what they are.

Secondly, some attributed a definitional role to devolution.

I think it will give people a sense of identity which I think has been slightly blurred over the past years. I think it will give people a chance to say "I’m Scottish and we are actually separate, and we are a separate people."

Yes it certainly will. I think it will make Scotland certainly far more the focus of Scottish life.a lot of Scots are not really orientated towards Scotland but they are orientated towards the UK economy and towards Londonand I think that will change with the Scottish Parliament andScotland as a whole would be more the focus of Scottish life again and it will be more distinctive.

Well it will give us some more sense of identity you know and instead of being amalgamated with the rest of Britain because I think it is good to be individual because we have got our own needs, we are only a population of 5 million and we are very much different from the South East of England.


As we have argued then, imaginings of the 'nation’ seem less stable or fixed than what we could term the private sphere of identity. Further evidence of the mutability of conceptions of 'Scottishness’ was gained by an examination of the interviewees’ thoughts on whether there were times when their 'Scottishness’ mattered more than others. These were then contrasted with their answers to whether they thought the Museum of Scotland would change what it meant to be Scottish. Whilst some rejected out-right the notion that their national identity changedBAOh no dear, I’m always a Scot",Bthe majority of people did suggest that their national identity mattered more at certain times than at othersBmost notably when they were abroad, or confronted with the 'other’. However, the role of the Museum in these conceptualisations prompted a more diverse range of opinions. Thus some who were conscious of the different priority given to their national identity at certain times and spaces, denied the Museum a role within this reformulation. One visitor suggested that:

[Are there times when your Scottishness matters more than others?]

Yes I think so when you are abroad for example, I think we have a great deal of respect abroad and I think we are well known for being accepted abroad in various roles whether it be business or just whether you are on holiday or what have you, yes I think it does matter. I think it’s a good label to have.

[Do you think that a Museum of Scotland could change what it means to be Scottish?]

I don’t think so. I think people will always be what they are born like. They think they are Scots or English or whatever.


[Are there times when your Scottishness matters more than others?]

No but it’s like being calledI don’t make an issue out of it but it is important that people know that I am Scottish as opposed to being BritishBI would rather say 'Scotland’, I am from Scotland or I am Scottish if you asked that or if you put it down on your passport or whatever. I think people think quite highly of the Scottish people. We are quite a unique lot. There might be negative things but I just look at the positive side of that.

[Do you think that a Museum of Scotland could change what it means to be Scottish?]

No not really.

Others, who saw their national identity as more important at different times and in different places, did give the Museum more proactive role in the shaping of national identity.

[Are there times when your Scottishness matters more than others?]

I think probably when you are abroad you are treated a lot better if you are Scottish than you are if you say you are English, I think the feeling against the English is quite strong within Europe.

[Do you think that a Museum of Scotland could change what it means to be Scottish?]

I think it can focus what it means to be Scottish, it can focus on the people.

[Are there times when your Scottishness matters more than others?]

Probably yes. I think that if you are meeting people from abroad they are always very interested if you are Scottish and you can tell them something about Scotland then yes I think it matters.

[Do you think that a Museum of Scotland could change what it means to be Scottish?]

I think it would help, I think anything that shows artefacts or can actually show the evolution of Scotland helps people then begin to understand. Unfortunately Scottish history was not taught in our schools for so many years that many generations of Scots knew nothing of their history which is a very sad situation.

So why the difference in the conceptualisation of the function of the Museum? The main differentiating factor between the attribution to the Museum of a place within the formation and re-formation of Scottish national identity and a rejection of that role seemed to be the importance that the interviewees placed on heritage in general. The final two interviewees above were members of heritage organisations and visited heritage sites on a regular basis. One, responding to the question "Are you a member of any heritage organisations?" replied "Yes, everything you can think of we are members of".

The relationship between being a heritage organisation member and its seeming corresponding attitude towards their role in the formation of national identity is still unclear. Whether a pre-existing notion of the perceived importance of museums in the shaping of national identity motivated these people into becoming members of heritage organisations or whether the perception of such a role is learnt, inculcated or is used as a way of explaining their visiting habits awaits further study.


This paper has investigated the ways in which personal and national identity are made and re-made in the Museum of Scotland. McCrone and colleagues have argued that "heritage has an identity-conferring status, not simply (or even) in collective or national terms, but in individual and personal ones" (McCrone et al 1996). This research has confirmed this, and further has suggested that the relationship between the museum, personal identity and national identity is far from clear. Within the Museum of Scotland as a site of representation there is a difference in the way that micro and macro levels of identity are expressed and potentially experienced by the visitors.

As Anderson (1983) and Schlesinger (1991) have highlighted, the nation is conceived of as an 'imagined community’, constituted at the strategic, national level. This research has identified this 'imagined community’ of Scotland, which was perceived by the interviewees as a changing concept, particularly in the light of recent political developments. By contrast, the interviewees envisaged a personal representation of a Scottish national identity in the yet to be built Museum of Scotland as relatively stable and fixed. This anomaly in the contrasting conceptions at the public and personal realms awaits further investigation into the ways in which the visitor, as a site of multiple discursive frames (Hedge 1998), relates to the spaces of the museum in the negotiation of identity. The question therefore becomes how this dissonance between personal and national identity is played out within the Museum by the visitors. This can begin to be achived by taking a more nuanced account of the possible multiple readings of the Museum. For example, do visitors react differently to the Twentieth Century gallery which is constructed of artefacts selected by members of the public and 'personalities’, as representing Scotland and their lives in the Twentieth century? Do people react differently to the different museological techniques that have been used in the museum? [The Museum is arranged so that each floor represents a certain prehistorical or historical stage. The Twentieth century gallery is located at the top of the museum. There are differences in the style of language used in the written texts describing the displays. Thus in 'early peoples', the display texts are written using a personalised 'we', whilst in other exhibitions a more conventional objective language is used.]

The Museum of Scotland is a fascinating case study through which to examine the construction and re-construction of national identities. As Hall and du Gay (1996) indicated, discursive sites, such as museums, offer the potential to examine and explain what are problematic and contentious issues. The research has identified two levels of "emotional realism" (Macdonald 1996), which visitors experience in different ways, and which suggests new ways of conceiving of identity formation.


The authors would like to thank both the Leverhulme Trust which funded this research, and the Trustees and staff of the National Museums of Scotland who have supported and co-operated with the research.


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Steven Cooke, University of Stirling, United Kingdom
Fiona McLean, University of Stirling, United Kingdom


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 1999

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