Museums and “Hard History”

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What’s “hard history?”  It’s not difficult to find hard to talk about subjects in any of the three countries who sponsored the conference and this session on Thursday, September 11 included talks from three nations, plus more, in a session at the Museum of Religion.  But the three primary foci were on the legacies of World War II; of the Soviet times; and of colonialism.

A post about all the speakers in detail would be far too long, so I’ll attempt to explore just a few points that interested and intrigued me within these themes.  Dr. Franziske Nentwig of the Berlin City Museum talked about the relationships of the post-war museums in that city.  The German-Russian Museum in Berlin was initially founded as a museum of German-Russian relations solely for the Russian military–originally local people did not have any access so now the challenge is to make it appealing for both locals and visitors.   Its founding principles still mean that the war is presented from a Soviet military perspective, making it in the only place in history to have a Russian history of that war; while the Allierton Museum, the Allied Museum) tells the story of post-war Berlin from the perspective of the three Western allies.  Having such a richness of museums means that the Berlin City Museum can be, as Neuwig said, “a key to the door of the city history.”

Ulrich Fritz and Jorg Skribeleit presented a fascinating discussion of the changing interpretation at concentration camp sites, beginning with the day that General Patton forced local citizens to view the dead at Ohdruff. They spoke about the camps as giant artifacts themselves, but also that the political purpose of the camps as memorials was to prove the Nazi terror.  Rather than just memorial purposes though, they now talked about modern interpretive techniques at the camp. Their talk generated the most questions and discussions at the section. Said one audience member, “we must actively use this past.”  Another wanted to know about the lack of representation of all the Soviet citizens in camps, while some in the audience wondered about the lack of presentations at this conference about the terror of the Soviets.   One  audience member spoke about the difference between moral values and moralization as a way of thinking about different interpretation.

Karen Franklin of the United States spoke about the complicated issues of the return of looted Jewish cultural property and the efforts to create guidelines and best practices for museums, individuals, and nations. The project is not due for completion until 2016; but it’s clear that the group is exploring complex issues and will make a valuable contribution to our understandings.  Orit Engleberg-Baram shared a fascinating comparative analysis on the ways in which the memory of the Holocaust is presented at Yad-Vashem in Israel and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  In the telling, both states shape a narrative where “there” was the disaster and “here” is the solution; but in Israel the “here” is redemption and in the US the “here” is democracy.

The Soviet past was discussed in several presentations.  In Kazan, the Lenin and Gorky Museums were each created in the 1930s; because both the leader and the writer had lived in Kazan and became idols during the Soviet times.  Dr. Gulchachak Nazipova spoke about the rethinking of these museums, using in part, visitor perspectives.  When visitors were asked why these choose the Gorky Museum to visit, the top results were “to choose the right path” and to “highlight the destiny of the person who came from the bottom.”   A question from the audience raised the issue of how we, as museum professionals, feel about memorial museums that are essentially, cults of personalities.

Dr. Julia Cantor of the Hermitage spoke most directly about the issues of Soviet times, when she said, museums were dependent on authorities, were idealogical agents to transmit the Soviet values in their world.  She mentioned that some keepers kept a variety of objects, sometimes against the current ideology–but that “we have nothing that explains the terror of the state against its own people.”  Correctly, she noted that every nation has shameful chapters, not only victories.  But she also believes that visitors are not ready to comprehend the tragedies related to the Stalin era.  For instance, in post-Soviet time it has become clear how badly the Siege of Leningrad had been presented in museums.   “All the facts should be presented,” and she singled out the Museum of Political History as a place that “calls visitors to start learning.”  One audience member asked how she knew that people weren’t ready for the difficult issues and Dr. Caplan mentioned sociological polls and conversations, “we see that often visitors aren’t ready to comprehend.” This frankness was greatly appreciated and it’s always my hope that, like the Political Museum, every museum could become a place “to start learning,” that part of our job is to begin that process of understanding “hard history.”

Talks on the colonial legacy ranged from Anjuli Grantham, who spoke about the way Alaska museums have interpreted the legacy of the Russian era in Alaska, including the relationships between Russians and the Native peoples; and some practical problems of a fuller, nuanced interpretation including that many primary source documents are in Russia and a lack of Native written sources, although both oral traditions and archaeology expand knowledge.

“Being ashamed is not the same as making amends,”  said Dr. Pauline van de Zee as she spoke about Belgium’s colonial history in museum presentations at the Museum of Central Africa in Antwerp.   Belgium cannot escape the connotations of colonialism.  A new approach stresses economic factors and the museum is still exploring how to connect its collection with the growing diversity of the local community. Arjuan Canditti called the colonial past “a dynamic narrative, not a closed archive,” as she spoke about Indo-Dutch history in Indonesian museums.  Dr. Leila Koivunen of Finland explored the National Museum of Finland’s decision to only show Finnish culture, leading to what she called the “silencing of [other] national cultures.”

The day ended with a presentation that was not about World War II, the Soviet times, or the colonial past:  Magnus Olofsson’s talk on the Vasa Museum, a failure turned success.  The sinking of the Vasa in the 1620s was a national failure, but its restoration and opening as a museum has come to symbolize two golden ages, the “Big Power” age of the 17th century; and the 1950s and 60s, the time of restoration, when the country took a large technological and social leap forward.  Particularly interesting to me was that this was the only place I heard at the conference about the power of corporations and museums;  Olofssen mentioned that today, corporations want to be associated with such a powerful symbol; making fundraising easy but perhaps raising other issues.

As an audience member, this session was full of topics I wanted to dive deeper in.  I didn’t want just audience comments or single questions, I wanted the opportunity to dive deeper in conversation with my colleagues from around the world.  Perhaps future such gatherings could include fewer presentations and more time for small group and roundtable conversations.  I believe such an approach would provide deep and long-lasting meanings.

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