Reluctant Heritage? Revisiting museums and memory sites in Central and Eastern Europe
The conference Reluctant Heritage: Revisiting museums and memory sites in Central and Eastern Europe from a transnational perspective, which took place in Bucharest from 4–5 November 2016 associated with the international research project ‘Museums and Controversial Collections’, questioned the role of museums and memory sites in a post-dictatorial context. We looked at museums and sites of memory as loci of memory and heritage, but also as fundamentally political places where the relationships between the past, the present, and the future of a society are forged. The research aims were to interrogate current museum practices. Many of us were especially interested in the relationship between the post-dictatorship museum and the communities of the objects displayed and/or archived.
Some of the questions the conference brought up are ones even those not studying the field can contemplate: How can post-dictatorship museums deal with, variously, the legacies of violence, colonial, post-colonial, occupied, and other ‘pasts’? How did these museums reassess their collections in the post-Cold War era? Can similar practices be observed in a transnational perspective as each community deals with very different, difficult pasts? The conference scrutinized to what extent post-dictatorial societies, influenced by political and social change, constructed a discursive criminalization of previous regimes.
Papers explored how heritage sites (memorials, detention centres, sacred sites, and the former houses of dictators, to name just a few) and museums connected to regime change in Central and Eastern Europe were in dialogue with broader research in Europe (Italy, Finland, Cyprus, etc.) and Latin America (Argentina and Uruguay). The papers also testified to the practice of heritage and how the curation of exhibitions can be read both as ethnography and as an agent of social-political changes. In some contexts, the heritage process has contributed to a discursive criminalization of the previous regime, for instance by transforming detention centres in museums and memory sites. In others, it has facilitated implicit forms of rehabilitation under the guise of commercially exploiting the legacy-architectural, artistic, political- of the former regime.
The case study of the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant exemplified this dynamic in its study of how three different narratives of WWII-occupied Ukraine and postwar Romania ‘emigrated’ to the US in the 1970s and returned after 1989 via a vaguely provenanced ethnographic collection of textiles. Upon accession to the museum, the ensuing exhibition of the textiles aimed to showcase absence as well as presence and the uncertainties surrounding identity, history, and heritage – cultural and family alike – in postwar and post-socialist Romania.
It also emerged that, in places of recent and past conflicts, members of ethnic minorities tended to divide society into groups pertaining to the ‘Self’ or the ‘Other;’ accordingly, the practice of museumification and memorialization has proven to be a place of tension between contrasting collective memories, which often shift following a change of regime. Museums play a central role in inscribing collective and individual memory via the construction of a coherent historical narrative about the past, which ostensibly reinforces a shared ‘group’ national identity and social cohesion.
Drawing on the case study of Mussolini’s villa in Rome, I discussed the way the Fascist problematic past has been addressed by looking at the way Mussolini’s presence at the villa has been represented. Compared to other cases of dictatorship’s property, Mussolini’s life at Villa Torlonia was an example of silencing rather than remembering his presence: this may be because of the problematic role difficult heritage plays as marker of ‘worthwhile’ history deserving admiration or it could be part of a broader national politic of memory and forgetting.
When the prevailing political and social cleavages of previously divided societies are not resolved due to a lack of a unifying historical narrative, there is no common understanding of the country’s recent and more distant pasts. Museums and heritage then become a performative stage: they risk representing a preferred narrative and thus neglecting others, but they also have the potential to express multivocality and anticipate societal and cultural change, rather than simply reacting to it.
The double-edged nature of such heritage work was evident across many papers at ‘Reluctant Heritage,’ but the diversity of approaches and viewpoints discussed made clear that post-dictatorial and post-war heritage is a vibrant and crucial field within and beyond Central and Eastern Europe.
About the author
I am a PhD student in Heritage Studies and Museums at the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge were I also obtained my MPhil. I am part of the Troina Project at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and I worked in Troina and its heritages for my MPhil dissertation. During my fieldwork I participated in the opening of the first museum in town and worked on the display of WWII remains.
My interest lies in the intersection between heritage, memory and identity and how they inform each other. My PhD research project looks at the complex process of heritage formation and exclusion in Fascist Italy and how Fascist heritage is perceived today. I am also interested in how politics of the past informed national and international cultural policies, with a primarily interest in Nazi-Fascism and in how museums deal with controversial collections and histories.