Museums in Panama. A socio-historical approach with a focus on diversity, complemented by an exploration on the role of new technologies.
Museums worldwide face the challenges posed by local needs and contexts, confronted with global trends, homogenization and the complex demands of their increasingly diverse audiences. In this thesis, I will analyze the role museums play in addressing issues of diversity in Panama, a place whose role as passage and destination exposed it (from its early history on) to the challenges of diversity. The country has for a long time received immigrants and fortune seekers: Spanish colonizers during the sixteenth century; Chinese migrants who came to work at the Trans-isthmian Railroad during the 1850s Gold Rush; and labourers from the United States, Europe and the West-Indies who came to work on the Canal construction between the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. Panama also opened its doors to exiles of Latin American dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s, and in the 1990s to those returning after Panama’s own dictatorship ended. Most recently it has encouraged those wishing to escape the high costs of living in North America and Europe to create a real-estate frenzy from 2000 onwards. All of these new residents have become, in one way or another, Panamanians. This history of migrations, permanencies and change, makes of Panama an ideal starting point to inquire into the representations of diversity in museums. I will focus especially on how Panamanian museums participate in the institutional project of a pluralistic society in Panama. I argue that museums are important instances to help develop a sense of identity and belonging with their diverse audiences, as well as share with these audiences the search for an understanding of the responsibilities that democracy and globalization demand. I investigate how museum representations in Panama participate in the institutional redefinition of ideas such as ‘nation’ and ‘diversity.’ For the analysis of museums and issues of diversity in Panama, I have chosen a series of museums that I claim to be a representative sample of the different types of museums and stakeholders to be found in the country. I look at the history of the emergence of these museums, the current representations and institutional structures, complemented by the analysis of the development of a series of new media products that focus on how (and to what extent) it is possible to include minority voices and debated topics in these museums with the aid of technology.