Cosmopolitan Ambassadors: International exhibitions, cultural diplomacy and the polycentral museum

by Lee Davidson (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand), Leticia Pérez-Castellanos (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico)

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In “Cosmopolitan Ambassadors,” Lee Davidson and Leticia Perez Castellanos examine the highly complex multifaceted domain of the international exhibition, with all of its diplomatic, mission-related, and market-oriented intentions and realities. By utilizing case studies of several large cultural exhibitions exchanged between Mexico and New Zealand, the authors ground their discourse in concrete practice and provide a compelling narrative of the creation and exchange process as experienced by a variety of participants, including host museum staff, lending museum staff, and visitors to the exhibitions. Through rigorous research, detailed analysis, and diversity of interviews, the authors shape a dynamic theoretical framework for considering international exhibitions as “mobile contact zones” which can generate more cosmopolitan intercultural communication among participants in museums. Although the book focuses on international cultural exhibitions, in particular, I found the clearly articulated descriptions of a more cosmopolitan approach and the arguments for dialogue as participatory thinking of value to a wider spectrum of museum exhibitions. The lessons learned will certainly benefit the museum field writ large.

Kathleen McLean
Independent Exhibitions principal. San Francisco; USA

Winner of the 2020 Miguel Covarrubias Prize to the best research work

How are museums working internationally through exhibitions? What motivates this work? What are the benefits and challenges? What factors contribute to success? What impact does this work have for audiences and other stakeholders? What contributions are they making to cultural diplomacy, intercultural dialogue and understanding? Cosmopolitan Ambassadors first considers the current state of knowledge about international exhibitions and proposes an interdisciplinary analytical framework encompassing museum studies, visitor studies, cultural diplomacy and international cultural relations, cosmopolitanism and intercultural studies. It then presents a comprehensive empirical analysis of an exhibition exchange involving two exhibitions that crossed five countries and three continents, connecting six high profile cultural institutions and spanning almost a decade from initial conception to completion. A detailed comparison of both the intercultural production of international exhibitions by museum partnerships and by the interpretive acts and meaning-making of visitors, reveals the many complexities, challenges, tensions and rewards of international exhibitions and their intersection with cultural diplomacy. Key themes include the realities of international collaboration, its purposes, processes and challenges; the politics of cultural (self-)representation and Indigenous museology; implications for exhibition design, interpretation, and marketing; intercultural competency and museum practice; audience reception and meaning-making; cultural diplomacy in practice and perceptions of its value. This first-ever empirically-grounded, theoretical analysis provides the basis of a new model of museums as polycentral: as places that might produce a kaleidoscopic vision of multiple centres and help to dissolve cultural boundaries by encouraging dialogue, negotiation and the search for intercultural understandings. Guidelines for practice include recommendations for successful international museum partnerships, exhibition development and maximizing the potential of museum diplomacy.

List of Figures

List of Tables



Chapter 1: Thinking through international exhibitions
- International exhibitions past and present: key issues and debates
- A model of international exhibition drivers
- Aims of the book
- Museums, cultural diplomacy and intercultural understanding: an analytical framework
- International exhibitions in practice: a case study

Chapter 2: Collaboration and complexity: producing international exhibitions
- Contexts of collaboration
- International exhibition models and forms of partnership
- Working together: collaboration in practice
- Cosmopolitan moments: foundations of an intercultural museum practice

Chapter 3: Developing intercultural exhibitions: creating the mobile contact zone
- E Tū Ake: contemporary Indigenous voices
- Mana taonga in Mexico: reception and adaptation
- Making Aztecs: a history of ambivalence
- Aztecs in Australasia: engagement and sensitivity

Chapter 4: Visiting the Borderlands: intercultural meaning-making and cosmopolitan imaginings
- Connecting with the cultural other
- Negotiating difference: making cosmopolitan and counter-cosmopolitan meanings
- Beyond the museum: resonances and ripples of meaning
- Cosmopolitan visions: valuing international exhibitions

Chapter 5: Connecting through the contact zone: cultural diplomacy and the value of international exhibitions
- Cultural diplomacy explained: theory, debates and the role of museums
- National agendas and the role of governments: Aotearoa New Zealand and Mexico in brief
- Museum diplomacy in practice: the international relations of E Tū Ake and Aztecs

Chapter 6: Museums as cosmopolitan ambassadors: towards an intercultural practice of international exhibitions
- Looking through the polycentral kaleidoscope: a theoretical understanding of international exhibitions
- Guiding practice: from cross-cultural encounters to intercultural solutions
- Where to from here? Future directions for international exhibitions

List of Acronyms

- Māori words and phrases
- Mexican words



Dr Lee Davidson is a Senior Lecturer in Museum & Heritage Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, where she specialises in visitor studies, international exhibitions, natural heritage and heritage tourism. Her interdisciplinary research has been published in journals such as Leisure Sciences, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, International Journal of Travel Research and Visitor Studies. She is the co-author of Serious Leisure and Nature (with Robert A Stebbins) and has contributed chapters to volumes by major publishers across the fields of museum studies, leisure, tourism and anthropology, including a chapter on visitor studies in the volume Museum Practice (published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2015).

Leticia Pérez-Castellanos is a professor at the Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museografía del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) in Mexico, where she previously coordinated the Post Graduate Studies Program in Museology and obtained her Master’s Degree. Her focus is on visitor studies and international exhibitions. She was the Coordinator of Visitor Studies at the Interactive Museum of Economy (MIDE) in Mexico City, before becoming Deputy Director of International Exhibitions at INAH. She collaborated with the Ibermuseos Program in the implementation of the Observatorio Iberoamericano de Museos and more recently has taught in several programs in Spain, Brazil, Guatemala, and Chile, at academic and government levels. She is a key actor in strengthening the visitor studies field in Latin America, encouraging professionalization and publications in Spanish including the series Estudios sobre públicos y museos, which she coordinates.

International cultural relations, Blockbuster exhibitions, Museology, Cultural heritage tourism, Soft Power, Public Diplomacy, Cultural globalisation, Cosmopolitan citizenship, National branding, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Intercultural studies, Museo Nacional de las Culturas, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico, Melbourne Museum, Australian Museum, Sydney

See also

Bibliographic Information

Book Title

Cosmopolitan Ambassadors: International exhibitions, cultural diplomacy and the polycentral museum





Number of pages


Physical size

236mm x 160mm


34 B&W

Publication date

February 2019