This blog is an archive for my research, interviews with designers and museum staff, and travel experiences as I explore multilingual design practices in Taiwan.
Fulbright research abroad in Taipei, Taiwan began in March 2021.   




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“How are museums and Fulbright scholars cultural diplomats?”

Language: English
Date: May 16, 2021

Listening to: Streets of Philadelphia by Bruce Springsteen


Grincheva, N. (2019). Global Trends in Museum Diplomacy: Post-Guggenheim Developments. [ebook] Taylor and Francis. URL

Nye, Joseph S., Jr. 2005. “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics”. PublicAffairs Books. URL

“Diplomacy Despite The Wall.” National Museum of American Diplomacy, U.S. Department of State, 2 Nov. 2019, URL 
This month I did something that I haven’t done since I started checking my emails every day and checking my news feeds even more often: reading a book in just a day. The book that held my attention in the age of distraction is “Global Trends in Museum Diplomacy: Post-Guggenheim Developments” by Natalia Grincheva. I was surprised to find that academic title hid a riveting deep dive into “the transformation of museums from publicly or privately funded heritage institutions into active players in the economic sector of culture.” This book made me reconsider my own assumptions about the role of museums and my own role as a Fulbright Scholar as non-state actors in international diplomacy.

What do the words “soft power” mean to you? Do you think of the pro-American capitalism messaging in the Marvel movie franchise, Kpop fans learning Korean Hangul by singing along with their favorite idols, or China publishing photos of the boxes of surgical masks they sent as a “gift” around the world? This all falls into Joseph Nye’s explanation of soft power as the ability of a country to achieve national goals through persuasion or attraction. Museums are successful agents of soft power because they have the international networks, the cultural standing, and public respect that has been built up through generations of . “The soft power of museums could be understood as an ability to ‘amplify civic discourse, accelerate cultural change, and contribute to the cultural intelligence among the great diversity of city dwellers, visitors, policy makers, and leaders’ (Lord and Blackenburg 2015,19).”

A clear example of American museum diplomacy was during the heart of the Cold War. As the official U.S. state diplomacy website notes, “Through an active exhibition program, the U.S. Information Agency circulated many shows in Soviet bloc countries to inform people about American life, economy and culture.” These exhibitions included a demonstration of new computer technology at the Leipzig Trade Fair in 1979 and an expensive exhibition in West Germany named “The Modern Art in the US” which was put on by the Museum of Modern Art (but funded by the anti-communist government group Congress for Cultural Freedom). “These cases of cultural diplomacy demonstrate the powerful role of government in setting cultural agendas, defining geopolitical focus and commissioning the international role of museums.”

Since the Cold War was a cultural war over who will shape the modern way of life, it makes sense that museums were part of the call for all hands on deck. But today museum funding from the government is dwindling. In order to pay for the high cost of operations, museums have been seeking new arrangements such as new branches in different countries, corporate brand collaborations, and ushering visitors out through the gift shop and the in-house cafe. How can museums be a cog in a diplomacy machine when they have been separating from national powers and creating more complex systems of support for the past few decades? Grincheva says that it is precisely because of the separation between museum and state that makes them more valuable arbiters of American culture.

The key piece that brought this conversation all together for me personally was the introduction of “non state actors.” Non-state actors do not have legal authority to represent their states, but many times they have other diplomatic capabilities and support from well-respected institutions. As I already mentioned, museums have international credibility but they also have something even more valuable: trust from the public. While official diplomats must adhere to working inside established private channels, museums are much better positioned to “establish closer ties with the public and thus can better serve the populations they claim to represent.”

For non-state actors, their credibility is tied with their authenticity. Excessive patronage from the government can subject museum initiatives to suspicion of being well-designed propaganda. “The credibility of museums as non-state actors of diplomacy rests on their reputation for serving up arts and culture rather than promoting national ideologies.” From my perspective, this is the most important part of the equation for any public institution. The struggle for public trust can be  seen in the emphasis that contemporary museums have started to put on their community events and engagement with social media.

Now, by this time, all of this was starting to sound eerily familiar to yours truly. I always found it interesting that the Fulbright Program would take so much care and effort to chose a select group of researchers to study abroad…and then just wire some money into our accounts and let us loose in a new country. Not that I’m complaining. But it seems weird to not even ask for check-ins on how the research is going, right? Now it makes sense to me. It was not the research that Fulbright was interested in, it was me. Of course my research has value to my own discipline, but to the State Department, all Fulbrighters are non-state actors. Well, technically we’re not because we are connected to the government. But what does that matter if the playbook is the same, if the State Department can have their non-state actors and fund them too? Every scholar is an individual with our own thoughts and agendas while also being supported by the Fulbright Program, an indirect government group with a long history of trustworthiness. Although not sworn to a diplomat’s code of conduct, every Fulbrighter I know has an invested interest in representing themselves well while abroad; no matter if we’re seeking tenure, future employment, or a just a friendly repartee with the local night market cooks. If the ideal non-state actor has a close relationship with the everyday person, well let me tell you, it doesn’t get much more up close and personal with the local population than my hours spent on the Taiwanese subway every week.  

The reason I want to share this revelation is not to seed any kind of distrust of Fulbright as some kind of shady front for American diplomacy. On the contrary, they are very clear that we are representatives of our country and are expected to act respectfully to the local community. But I was struck by the idea that considering museums, myself, and everybody else who has an angle to promote on the value of American culture playing a role of diplomat to the rest of the world. As I see it, this is a fascinating effect of globalization on cultural diplomacy.


“Global Trends in Museum Diplomacy: Post-Guggenheim Developments” is part of a series of books published by Routledge named Museums in Focus. Their mission statement reads: “Museums In Focus is motivated by the intellectual hypothesis that museums are not innately ‘useful’, safe’ or even ‘public’ places, and that recalibrating our thinking about them might benefit from adopting a more radical and oppositional form of logic and approach.” I am thoroughly impressed with the other topics in this collection, and hope to be able to continue reading and reviewing these works.


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