By Barbara Pavlek Löbl
Last week the Vienna Public History team was attending the 6th World Conference of the International Federation for Public History in Berlin. For five days, public historians from all corners of the world gathered to present their research, discuss current issues in the field, and enjoy the variety of public history offers available in the German capital.
The conference lasted for three full days, with 51 panels, 7 workshops and 3 working groups organized in 10 parallel sessions, a poster session, a panel discussion on “Babylon Berlin”, and a chance to attend almost 20 different free city tours, exhibitions or excursions on the last day. With many interesting talks on various topics – regional and global discussions on theory and practice, different media of public history (with a focus on social media and video games), documentation and presentation in museums and archives, history education, tourism, re-enactments, oral history and much more, it was very hard to choose which panel to attend.
The Vienna team participated with a panel on “History politics: Current comparative insights in the Croatian, English, Italian and Polish situation”, organized and chaired by Prof. Marko Demantowsky. The focus of this panel was on different forms of history politics and its influence on the public discourse in different contexts.
Dr. Serge Noiret (European University Institute, Florence) discussed the addition of a new National Memorial Day in the Italian civic calendar, which is meant to commemorate the victims of expulsion and mass murders of Italians from Istria and Dalmatia by Tito’s partisans after the World War II. The memory of this event is used by the ruling parties for their own political gain, blurring the historical facts and fostering historical revisionism.
Prof. Terry Haydn (University of East Anglia) showed how the state-regulated history education in the United Kingdom shapes the public perception of the British empire, and empires in general. The treatment of this topic in schools contributes to the persistence of mainstream views of the British imperialism and colonization as a largely positive period in the history of the UK, and ignores the calls for a more critical and balanced approach.
My own contribution presented the political uses of historical symbols on national currency, on the example of design of Croatian national currency in the 90s and the new designs of national sides of Croatian Euro coins. Sadly, due to the unplanned absence of Prof. Krzysztof Ruchniewicz (University of Wrocław), the Polish perspective was missing.
The second panel on political uses of the past chaired by Dr. Serge Noiret featured several interesting talks, further expanding the debate on political uses of history. Sylvia Bailey (North Carolina State University) discussed the formation of national identity in post-Cold War Germany characterized by the two dominant narratives: the memory of and repentance for the atrocities committed under Nazi regime, and the vision of unified Germany as a tolerant, multicultural, modern nation. Dr. Fabio Spirinelli (University of Luxembourg) presented the ongoing project of rebranding Luxemburg as a tourist destination, which includes the use of controversial, polished master narratives about its history in tourist guides and publications. The thought-provoking presentation on history scholarship and pseudo history in the public space of the post-soviet Russia by Dr. Vera Dubina (University of Bremen, visiting scholar) stood out by managing to engage the audience with a mix of well-argued critique, and a healthy dose of sharp (and dark) humor.
From other sessions I attended, I would like to mention a couple of panels and presentations that I found particularly interesting.
I attended two panels on digital public history. In the first, Dr. Rosalind Beiler, Casey Wolf (both University of Central Florida), Prof. Ursula Lehmkuhl (University of Trier) and Jana Keck (German Historical Institute Washington) presented their research on mobility and lives of German minorities in the US through letters sent between the relatives and friends across the Atlantic. Apart from presenting the digital archives of letters they collected (https://migrantconnections.org/; PRINT; https://www.auswandererbriefe.de/), they also discussed the problems they faced on the way, from collaborating with the public in collecting, transcribing and analyzing the letters, to conducting interviews with the letter keepers, and preparing the materials for publication online following the current best practice principles (FAIR and CARE).
In the second panel, Dr. Karla Escobar Hernandez (MPI for Legal History and Legal Theory, Frankfurt am Main) presented her projects on indigenous histories and legal practices in Colombia, studying the transmission of historical narratives through different media (for more information, see here). Dr. Luis Antonio Coelho Ferla (University of São Paulo) presented a community-driven mapping project of the history of São Paulo (Paulicea 2.0,), and Dr. Giancarlo Macchi Jánica (University of Sienna) the project digitizing the Repetti geographical dictionary. Both presentations highlighted the necessity of interdisciplinary collaboration, and the importance of focusing on the content rather than design, creating resources that will be used by professionals and the general public.
It was also quite interesting that several panels at this conference focused on current debates on public history, history politics, and memory in former Yugoslav countries, some including comparative perspectives from Belarusian, Ukrainian and South American contexts. Here I would highlight the discussions of attempts to deal with the past marked by wars by Dr. Snježana Koren (University of Zagreb), Dr. Branimir Janković (University of Zagreb) and Dr. Dennis Dierks (University of Jena), as well as analyses of public history in Serbian media (Dr. Aleksandra Kolaković, Institute for Political Studies, Belgrade) and memory practices at a small community museum in Croatia (Nataša Jagdhun, Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena).
Finally, the conference featured two panels on public history in South Africa. I attended the one chaired by Prof. Noor Nieftagodien (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg). He highlighted the role of public history in creating a space for public debate, and the importance of archives for not only preserving history but stimulating and sustaining community engagement. Dr. Tshepo Moloi (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg) further discussed the challenges public historians face in their fieldwork, especially when documenting oral histories, while stressing the importance of listening and responding to the initiatives and interest coming from inside the communities.
At the end of the conference, we were introduced to a unique form of public history. The performance “Umnqa!—Never Defeated” by the pantsula dancer Likhaya Jack and the poet Azile Cibi from South Africa captured the pain and deep wounds of colonization, while in the same time representing the resilience and the unbroken spirit of Southern African people. In the end, the audience was invited to join in and learn some basic steps of pantsula – which, of course, turned out to be quite a difficult challenge.
Last day program
On the last day, not discouraged by a rainy and fresh morning after an extremely hot week, I took an opportunity to join a walking tour “Berlin as a landscape of remembrance”, visiting the Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, the Memorial for the victims of national socialist “euthanasia” killings, the Memorial to the homosexuals persecuted under the national socialist regime, and the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe murdered under the national socialist regime. Our guide has very kindly and professionally adapted his tour to us five historians, and turned the whole experience into an interesting debate about the political and activist initiatives and which led to the installment of these monuments, as well as their competing interests, the vision of the artists, the public reception, and the changing context of the places in the city center where the monuments are located.
I also took the opportunity to visit the exhibition “Richard Wagner and the Nationalization of Feeling” (“Richard Wagner und das deutsche Gefühl”) in the German History Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum). Through a combination of personal objects belonging to the famous composer and his family and multimedia presentations of his works, the exhibition highlights the role Wagner’s works played in the creation of “Germanness”, connecting it with the wider context of the turbulent 19th century: birth of nation states and formation of national identities through discussions about the past, and the exploration of the origin of nations, their languages and myths. The exhibition also presents Wagner’s legacy: on the one hand, his use of history politics and his antisemitic views inspired the ideology of national socialists, and on the other, his works are still influencing popular culture, from leitmotifs in the “Star Wars” music of John Williams, to fantasy worlds of “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter”.
Some final impressions
As a newcomer to the discipline, I learned a lot at the Berlin conference and gained some insight into a huge variety of practices, methods and theories studied by public historians around the world. Still, I felt a that the schedule was a bit overwhelming. I believe IFPH would greatly profit from hybrid formats – having a possibility to watch some presentations online would enable colleagues who might not be able to travel for various reasons to still participate at the conference, and filming the presentations would allow the participants to see some presentations they have missed. Nonetheless, it was a great pleasure to be able to attend this conference in person, meet a lot of new people and have stimulating discussions.