Museums of National Literature

Rita Capurro (University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy)

Museums of national literature are part of the broader category of literary museums and, specifically, are thematic museums that collect and exhibit documents, manuscripts, books, and other objects helpful in narrating national literature. They use typical methods of museum practice. Among literary museums, these museums are not the most widespread; in any case, even if only a minority of the countries in the world have this kind of museum, some of them are significant in the national museum scene. In most cases, the museums of national literature represent the national literary canon, the list of books considered essential for a nation. Also, the canon is the country's tool to establish and convey a scale of values within a linguistic, cultural, or national context (Smith & Corse, 1998; Šeina, 2021). Museums of national literature should be at the service of communication and the formation of values within a national culture, as well as they should be a privileged instrument to facilitate communication with those from different cultures (Jordan, 2009: 156). The first museum of its genre is the Museum of National Literature Nizami Ganjavi (Nizami Gəncəvi adına Azərbaycan ədəbiyyatı muzeyi), in Baku, Azerbaijan, opened in 1939, for the 800th anniversary of the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. Except for a few rare cases (i.e., the National Museum of Literature of Ukraine, which opened in Kyiv in 1986), a wider diffusion of this type of museum started after the first decade of the 21st century.

In many cases, the museums of national literature are deeply interconnected with archives and libraries, such as the case of the German Modern Literature Museum (Literaturmuseum der Moderne - LiMo), in Marbach am Neckar, a museum created in 2006 to be a tool of mediation between a stunning collection of the Deutsches Literaturarchive’s archival documents and a broad audience (Gfrereis, 2009: 220). The archive was founded in 1955 to collect the legacies of modern and contemporary writers and to establish a place in Germany dedicated to their conservation and research. In turn, the archive had been developed within the cultural framework of the Friedrich Shiller Archive and Museum, founded in 1903. The museum's mission is peculiar because there is no intention to tell the history of German literature or even to represent the literary canon, but rather to show and tell the different expressions of German literature, including the outcasts at historical moments. Another important example of a museum of national literature strongly connected with an archive and a library is the Literature Museum in Wien, Austria. The museum is known as the museum of the Austrian National Library and its permanent exhibition presents the history of Austrian literature from the 18th century until today. Through temporary exhibitions and events, the museum aims to enhance the experience of Austrian literature with specific attention to literary tourists, encouraging the use of tools for translation for non-German speakers and the connections with city tours looking for memories of literature (Fetz, Manojlovic, & Putz, 2019). A further example is the Museum of Literature (Literatuurmuseum) in The Hague, Netherlands, hosted in the Royal Library building, and which is the foremost institute for Dutch literature, housing the most important collection of documents pertaining to Dutch literature and its authors, dating from 1750. In the case of the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLi, and, in Gaelic, Músaem Litríochta na hÉireann), its creation has followed several steps, joining the forces of different institutions, such as the National Library of Ireland and UCD Newman House, the Catholic University of Ireland, the precursor of University College Dublin. MoLi opened to the public on 21 September 2019, and its activities are mainly oriented to contemporary literature, culturally based on the two languages of the country: English and Gaelic. The language is a pivotal element in museums of national literature devoted to a specific national language, such as the National Afrikaans Literary Museum and Research Center (NALN - Nasionale Afrikaanse Letterkundige Museum en Navorsingsentrum), in Bloemfontein, South Africa, which is the central repository for all material and information documenting history, development and extent not only of Afrikaans literature, but also of Afrikaans music and theatre. In the case of the National Museum of Taiwan Literature (NMTL - Guólì Táiwān Wénxuéguǎn) founded in 2003, the representation of national literature reflects the multilingualism of a country, given by multiple factors, and the permanent exhibition narrates the history of Taiwanese literature written in Taiwanese, Japanese, Mandarin and Classical Chinese.

The representation of meaningful examples of national literature for a nation that is not currently independent is given by the Writers’ Museum, in Edinburgh, a museum devoted to three Scottish authors: Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sir Walter Scott, represented through their literary works and useful objects to tell details of their lives and personalities. The museum’s mission is to enhance knowledge of Scottish literature, and temporary exhibitions are often the occasions to present contemporary Scottish writers.

Some cases of museums of national literature stand out for their specificity. These museums are in countries with particular emphasis on literature, where there are numerous writers' house museums and where literary tourism is particularly widespread. Meaningful examples are the Literary Tower (Baleiro, 2023), in Vila Nova de Famalicão, Portugal, established by a private foundation of general interest (the Cupertino de Miranda Foundation), the Museum of Czech Literature (established in 1951 as Memorial of National Literature), and, finally, the Museum of Modern Japanese Literature (Meguro) in Tokyo, founded in 1967 and so much grown that, in 2007, it was necessary to open an additional branch in Narita.

In the end, among the examples of national literature museums whose mission is the celebration of national literature, but with a strong educational aim, characterized by many public engagement objectives, is the American Writers Museum established in Chicago in 2017 and the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature opened in Beijing in 2000 by the initiative of the writer Ba Jin (Linder, 2020-23). Both examples present national literature with a broad range of objects, documents, and books displayed in notable monumental buildings, representing a tribute to the role of national literature. The exhibition narrates works and authors with educational and didactic care.

How to cite this dictionary entry: Capurro, R. (2023). Museums of National Literature. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.

  • Aoyama, T. (2018). From ‘national’ literature to multicultural literature in ‘Japonese’ language? In K. Okano & Y. Sugimoto (Eds.). Rethining Japonese studies. Eurocentrism and the Asia-Pacfic Region, 53-72. Routledge.
  • Baleiro, R. (2023). Literary "time capsules": A taxonomy proposal of Portuguese literary museums. In G. Capecchi & R. Mosena (Eds.), Il Turismo Letterario: Casi studio ed esperienze a confronto, 141-156. Perugia Stranieri University Press.
  • Fetz, B., Manojlovic K. & Putz, K. (Eds.) (2019). Wien. Eine Stadt im Spiegel der Literatur. Folio Verlag.
  • Gfrereis, H. (2009). Cantiere eterno della fantasia. Il Museo letterario dell’età moderna a Marbach. In A. Kahrs & M. Gregorio (Eds.). Esporre la letteratura. Percorsi, pratiche, prospettive, 219-226. CLUEB.
  • Jordan, L. (2009). Standard e varietà dei musei letterari. In A. Kahrs & M. Gregorio (Eds.). Esporre la letteratura. Percorsi, pratiche, prospettive, 150-159. CLUEB.
  • Linder, B. (2020-23). Museum of Modern Chinese Literature. In Encyclopedia of Contemporary Chinese Culture.
  • Šeina, V. (2021). Nation-building canons: Historical and methodological considerations. In A. Kučinskienė, V. Šeina, & B. Speičytė (Eds.) Literary canon formation as nation-building in central Europe and the Baltics: 19th to Early 20th Century. Brill.
  • Smith, E. A., & Corse, S. M. (1998). Nationalism and literature: The politics of culture in Canada and the United States. American Literature, 70(2), 422–422.