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



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.  


“En un momento en el que se ha sobrepasado el cuestionamiento sobre el rol y la función educativa del museo hacia la demanda de una responsabilidad extendida social y política, si hay algo que necesitamos es el documento que evidencie las posibilidades y retos de esta promesa. Cosmopolitan Ambassadors. International Exhibitions, Cultural Diplomacy and Polycentral Museum es una guía que presenta un panorama complejo y amplio sobre el desarrollo de las exposiciones internacionales, no solamente desde la perspectiva organizacional y estratégica sino como un modo de mediación cultural (p.22), es decir, de negociación y reconciliación de la cultura.” Read more

Nayeli Zepeda

Nodo Cultura [Spanish]

“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

“It is the rare book that weaves together multiple strands of theory and practice in a way that is timely, practical, relevant to the wider museum field and yet remains readable and accessible. Cosmopolitan Ambassadors: International Exhibitions, Cultural Diplomacy and the Polycentral Museum is a book that accomplishes all this. As is made clear by the full title, the authors base their work on a fundamental assumption that museums can and should promote cultural understanding and a cosmopolitan world view. They assert that the production, professional interactions and visitor experiences of international exhibitions can, should, and do promote intercultural interest, understanding, and a cosmopolitan world view. They provide a theoretical framework for discussing their assertion, followed by practical and richly documented case study stories of the exchange of two exhibitions: The Maori exhibition E Tu Ake: Standing Strong and the Mexican exhibition Aztecs. … Cosmopolitan Ambassadors is a profound and deep book. Its presence is timely, thought provoking and even provocative – gently and in the best sense. The book moves across theory and practice again and again; its content and messages apply to a wide range of professionals, from the pure practitioner to the pure academic, and everyone in between. It will enrich conversations in the museum field, not only about international exhibitions, but about intercultural activities of all kinds, and as such it is relevant to every organization’s work on diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as to intercultural exchange projects.

Karen Wise

Informal Learning Review #156 (May/June 2019)


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