Tag Archives: ddr

Core course week 9 part 1: Museums of remembering

20 Dec
DDR Museum/Stasi Museum by Squid Ink on Flickr

DDR Museum/Stasi Museum by Squid Ink on Flickr

Notes from  class: 30th November 2010

Continuing the interdisciplinary approach to the core course, the Department of European Cultures and Languages lent us Silke Arnold-de Simine, to introduce the idea of memory in the museum, with an emphasis on reconstruction and imaginative empathy; her lecture was perhaps the flipside of Annie Coombes’ session on the fundamental difficulties of any kind of reconstruction at all.

Silke started with Pierre Nora’s idea of ‘lieux de mémoire’ or sites of memory: places that are left where tradition has dissolved and the ‘milieux de mémoire’, or real environments of memory no longer exist. The museum collects, preserves and transfers memories, both collective and individual, but we might do well to ask whose memories are being preserved and for what.

The idea of ‘memory museums’ was also found in Susan Sontag’s writings, particularly in the context of thinking about and mourning the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. We considered some examples of museums that seek to reconstruct historical moments or processes:

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Tower of Faces in which photographs from the 1920s and 30s of the inhabitants of the Lithuanian village of Eishishok, who were almost all murdered by Einsatzgruppen in 1941; and also the large photographic image of the liberation of the camps which confronts you at the entrance to the galleries. At the end of the visitor’s passage through the museum they can listen to the testimony of survivors.

The Imperial War Museum’s Blitz Experience which ‘takes children back in time to 1940 and the Blitz’ through the simulation of the war experience: sirens and bomb vibrations.

German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven, documenting the experience of 19th century German emigrants to the new world, where visitors don’t just hear the stories of emigrants spoken by actors, but are encouraged to pretend to be emigrants themselves (this kind of thing, the personal bodily re-enactment of history, Silke noted, is more common as an adult activity in Germany than it is in the UK).

The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, which uses film to tell the narratives of slaves, but which don’t have the status of testimony: an actor is performing words written to typify the experience  of the middle passage rather than directly reporting experience of it.

There’s a complex set of relationships between reconstruction, community memory an empathy here. In the Bremerhaven museum, for example, the subject matter (19th century emigration) belongs to the locality (Bremerhaven as a post from which emigrants left), thought the experience is beyond the living memory of individuals. At the same time, it also feeds a personal connection to North American tourists of German descent.

Discussion opened up in the class. ‘We live in the age of simulation’, opined some:  therefore all narrative media have the ring of fiction. Others suggested that a staged narrative such as a film or play requires the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of its audience, where as a visitor to a museum you remain aware of your own presence (this had echoes of Annie Coombes’ question of whether  a museum could do all of what a film does to tell the stories of individuals involved in political struggle).

In some reconstructive environments, such as South African museums and even Auschwitz, witnesses can act as guides; this isn’t possible for a museum of slavery.

We discussed the instrumentality or otherwise of memory museums: Yad Vashem is oriented so that the visitor’s final view is of the vista across the hills towards Jerusalem, a vindication of the Zionist project; the Liverpool museum lists the name of those who benefited from the slave trade. Also the impact of audiences; while some like Yad Vashem do exist for a ‘memory community’, they also exist for an international ‘dark tourism’, delivering a feeling of horror as a commodity.

Silke’s own research includes work on museums of the former DDR; a space which includes two seemingly mutually exclusive currents: ostalgie, or nostalgia for the social and cultural world of the communist east; and memorialising the injustice of the communist police state. Ostalgie sells t-shirts and model Trabants, but can also be seen to marginalise victims of the regime; nevertheless, the desire to remember and the object of that desire (the DDR) remain identical.

In the end, Silke suggested, perhaps we have to distinguish between the memory museum and the memorial museum, and recognise the more joyful impulses in the former, and the necessary mourning attached to the latter.


Museum Cultures Symposium

21 Mar

Museum Cultures Symposium
Department of History of Art and Screen Media, School of Arts, Birkbeck

Friday 12 March 2010

Annie Coombes introduced the symposium and the Birkbeck MA in Museum Cultures, focusing on three recent innovations in museum cultures themselves: digital experimentation, commemorating genocide and museums as social and community agents. Her own work focuses somewhere between the latter two: she highlighted some contrasts between popular and successful South African site museums, and the emergence of Kenyan ‘peace museums’. In South Africa, at Robben Island, where a national liberation narrative is presented in the context of a place where significant events took place. At Robben Island, tours are frequently given by former prisoners, but their narrative privileges the role of the ANC at the cost of the PAC or Black Consciousness Movement.

Peace museums, very small collections of artifacts and media, often housed in only one room, have emerged in Kenya as part of reconciliation efforts since the post-electoral violence of 2008, but she highlighted the Lari peace museum, built in a location where longstanding social divisions between former Mau Mau and former members of the Kanya Home Guard went back to a traumatic event in the national liberation struggle. Such museums, she argued, through their presentation and reinforcement of fragmentary lived experience, for a local audience, provided an alternative to the grander and less subtle narratives of national liberation embodied in places like Robben Island.

Gabriel Koureas discussed the foundation of the Imperial War Museum through its first director, Sir Martin Conway, and his attitudes to mountaineering, masculinity and the appreciation of the beauty of art. Like the ICA, the IWM was at first peripatetic, finding host venues for its exhibitions, the first of which was held at Crystal Palace in 1920. Its didn’t acquire its current home, a former hospital with a trademark psychiatric panopticon structure, until the 1930s. Conway’s concern was the assertion of masculinity & individuality against the suburbanisation of everyday life, and he considered art, like sport, to be a necessary and vital part of human life. The history of war through the presentation of objects (rather than say through memoirs, like that of ambulance worker W M Floyd) replaced war’s literal and traumatic connection with working class male masculinity (in that their purpose was to be operated by young working class men to kill other young working class men) with an aestheticised relationship in which their appreciation formed part of acquiring the previously aristocratic possession of taste.

Pat Simpson presented part of her ongoing research into the State Darwin museum in Moscow, and its relationship to Darwinism and soviet science. Founded in 1907 by Aleksandr Kots, the museum uses a combination of art, taxidermy and objects to engage visitors with evolutionary science. Darwinism as an evolutionary theory was identified with the radical left before the revolution, and enjoyed favour in the initial Bolshevik period. The museum was called on to provide evidence of microevolution in the diversity of animal furs when the rouble had collapsed and fur was one of the USSR’s few reliable currency-generating exports. Mendelian Darwinism lost favour from the thirties with the emergence of a Lysenkoist model of evolution that harked back to Lamarck, and the inheritance of acquired characteristics (vernal wheat and a remade Homo Sovieticus). The objects, however, from stuffed elephants to sculptures of primitive man, having no inherent truths, were simply rearranged to represent prevailing theories. Since 1989, the museum has acquired a new building and an apparent rapprochement with orthodox Darwinism.

Fiona Candlin, editor of The Object Reader discussed the decline of handling objects, and tactual associations with connoisseurship as function of curation during the last two centuries. Beginning with diary evidence of eighteenth century visitors to museums handling objects, she worked forwards to the late twentieth century when handling objects becomes an ‘access’ activity for ‘non-traditional’ (read working class) audiences at the same time as contemporary art moves away from the (touchable) object and into performance and relationally aesthetic work. The recognised virtue of connoisseurship, heavily dependent on touch and associated with the white cotton gloves of an expert depended on the integration of intellectual and technical knowledge, the kind of knowledge necessary to tell real from fake objects. Its decline was less due to the postmodern academic deconstruction of connoisseurship itself then with the expansion of the UK’s higher education system, the increase in students studying museum subjects and distance learning, all factors which made intimacy with objects less possible. The closure of the Museums Association diploma and professionalisation of museum jobs also distanced the intellectual appreciation of objects from their practical handling.

During the Tory era, when cultural heritage organisations were expected to produce popular blockbuster shows, the V&A took the lead in separating cultural knowledge and expertise from collections management, a practice that has now become the norm. After the Labour victory of 1997, commercialisation was renounced, but social inclusion and education were prioritised, with a corresponding de-emphasis on the inherently tasteful knowledge of the ‘curatorial caste’. Curatorship has moved into a kind of showmanship; Frieze magazine has compared curators to film directors, artists, editors, authors and CEOs; meanwhile the title of ‘curator’ is applied to many other activities such as programming (most of which involve some kind of selection): intimate knowledge of objects is no longer its characteristic. Opening objects to handling by the public suggests a corresponding transfer of ownership: museum collections now ‘belong’ to us, but a simultaneous emphasis on the visual creates a more democratic picture of museums, because the sight of objects is equal to all.

Silke Arnold-de Simine discussed the phenomenon of DDR Museums, and their relationship to memories of everyday life. The memorial landscape of the DDR is divided between memorials to oppression, and displays and collections around everyday life in the DDR, a country which effectively ceased to exist in 1989. She concentrated on two examples, the commercial DDR Museum, a visitor attraction in Berlin, and the Documentation Centre of everyday Culture in the DDR, both of which seek to create some sort of picture of life in the DDR separate from a commemoration or preservation of the mechanics of the oppressive regime itself. Both are controversial to some extent for their concentration on ‘ostalgie’ (the culture that fetishises objects like ampelmännchen), but claim to deal with the gap between personal memory and political cultural memory. The two institutions differ: while the DDR Museum caters to international visitors, the Documentation Centre aims for a more comprehensive picture of diversity through catalogued objects and associated donors’ stories. There is room for a ‘reflective nostalgia’  which also functions in some ways as a critique of post-Wende German capitalism.