Finally I found myself in the Hamburg Museum. Truth be told, I did not expect much but again German Museums surprise me as they always do. There is a place called Museum Island (Museumsinsel) in Berlin where you can truly enjoy among the finest museums in the world (anyway, for those who would like to go on museum studies, Germany is definitely my recommendation.)

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Part of my suspicion, before setting foot in the Hamburg Museum, comes from experience of local museums in Vietnam where they try hard to portray themselves through the lens of national memory. So each provincial museum appears as a fragment of the national one, rather than to recall a historical connection in some sort within a certain geopolitical surface. If you keep in mind that modern Vietnamese geobody was giving birth in early 19th century and consciousness of a modern nation just came in the last century, there was a long period of time in which regional difference and dynamism, if not competition dominated the landscape of present-day Vietnam.

Few months ago, I was at the Nam Dinh Museum and it was fascinating indeed in comparison with other provincial museums, and I did enjoy the trip. As a space of public memory devotes to “Nam Dinh”, the museum seems to do an excellent job in telling story about How Nam Dinh takes part in the national history and integrates with the centre/empire/capital in times. The main section of the building dedicates to an extraordinary large sculpture depicting Ho Chi Minh in his 1963-visit, and the slogan read, “Tiếp tục truyền thống cách mạng vẻ vang, xây dựng chủ nghĩa xã hội thắng lợi” [Continuing the glorious revolutionary tradition, successfully building socialism]. And if you continue going on, periodization of Nam Dinh’s History is simply identical to the orthodox national narrative. I think Nam Dinh can tell us a better story of its past.

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Should a local museum perform in that way? Should “Nam Dinh” be narrated as a “subordinate” memory of a wider story? Or should people focus more on constructing history of Nam Dinh as a more active player? I realize that Nam Dinh does not stand alone, and it reminds me of the Thanh Hoa Museum as well. Such a holy land; the Dong Son Bronze Drums “were given birth” therein. At the same space, for five hundred years between the 15th and the 19th centuries, most of the dynasties, Lords, and emperors all emerged. The story could go on to Dien Bien Phu where Gen. Giap possibly would face desperate situation if Thanh Hoa’s farmers did not get involve with their rice and French bikes.

So what is missing? I guess the idea that how to de-centralize the way public memory being promulgating at those local museums, creating a new space for local dynamism, and celebrating regional diversity which going beyond any single national exhibition. Instead of talking about Nam Dinh or Thanh Hoa in a centralized perspective, let take them down for a second and there will be more to commemorate than how many times a person from capital city visited the place and what he said. Nam Dinh and Thanh Hoa are two special places in premodern Vietnamese history where local autonomies dramatically emerged. Their dynamics pasts can be a fascinating theme for public memories which is currently missing.

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So how the story relates to Hamburg? Hamburg museum can provide some ideas in narrating the local in the global context. Given the fact that Germany has a long decentralized history (even until today), their model of a local museum (Heimatmuseum /Stadtmuseum in German) shows an alternative way public memory being constructed by recalling various element of the past that do not necessarily engage with the making of German nation. The city plays as a leading port of the area of the present-day northern Germany for centuries, and definitely it has more to remember than just a part of modern German nation state. By casting the image of Hamburg in the age of commerce in early modern Europe, industrial revolution, modern navigation, colonialism, and globalization, the museum provides a wonderful example of local response to global factors.

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Can Vietnam create such space for missing local voices?

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