On this day we discussed museums in Warsaw, Prague, Berlin, Eisenhüttenstadt, and Vilnius, which all deal with the history between 1945 and 1989. I liked the way this activity was organized, working in small groups was productive and we got a good overview about the five museums and a sixth one presented by the moderator.
While I understood the frustration of one of the participants, after every single museum (except one) had been heavily criticized for their approaches, I felt like there was also an important lesson to be learned from this frustration:
That there cannot be one true interpretation of history, which can claim to represent the reality of a given historical moment in space and time. This also means that a museum aspiring to present a neatly worked out master narrative of the period referred to as “Communism” is most likely to have a distinct ideological agenda, and neither willing nor able to include multiple, contradicting perspectives.
Similar problems occurred when we started discussing words, such as “communism” and “genocide” (“freedom” could inspire similar discussions). While being neatly defined in dictionaries, these words remain abstractions. Using them to represent real-life phenomena makes it extremely difficult to talk about historical events, without stepping into ideological traps and constantly missing each other’s points.
For me, these discussions showed the importance of working with as little abstraction as possible. By this I mean “doing” (as in, researching, studying, teaching) history “from below”, starting for example with an individual person and their experiences. Or with a certain place, a building, monument, or a city. Or with an object, as it is often done in museums nowadays.
Approaches like this, in my opinion, have the advantage of raising interest by their immediate accessibility, by being tangible and material. Literally everything, everywhere, can become a point of interest from which to start. When studying history on this “ethnographic” level, there are always material objects, concrete places, special individuals to hold on to, making it harder to be distracted and confused by abstract ideologies, political and social changes, and propaganda(s).
It was great to have the extra-hour for free discussion! Perhaps one hour “open space” every day would have been useful?