Monday, 7 March 2016

HANDLING HISTORY GENTLY

RESEARCH COLUMN

BY: ANYA BAKER

Last year, I wrote a research paper on the Third Balkan War: "Two Bridges in Bosnia: Narratives Informing Memorialized Spaces Post-Conflict". The war started the year I was born, 1992, and ended the year my family moved to Austria, 1995. Around the same time, tens of thousands of Bosnians fled as refugees into Austria. Reading eyewitness accounts as a graduate student, I understand the war to be a mess of competing ethno-religious narratives leading to horrific atrocities. As a little kid watching reports of the rebuilding efforts on the news, I simply understood that the levelling of entire cities from shells and bombs and bullets had fundamentally altered the lives of my classmates. It was as if everything that marked the landscapes as theirs had been erased. Almost a quarter-of-a-century later, the restored landscapes are still a sea of competing narratives about the events of the war jostling against each other for prominence. A single feature of the landscape -- a bridge or a building or a rebuilt neighbourhood -- legitimizes trauma and becomes embedded with it. The presence of survivors representing different narratives creates a complex series of locally curated associations of peoples with a single public space.

The Marketplace of Warsaw during WWII and after it's restoration. Source.

History -- even 25-year-old history, even 150-year-old history, even 1000-year-old history -- is not dead. Its active interpretation makes it live and powerful. Accepted historical record is distended and narratives bleed into interpretation. As a young museum professional in a global society saturated in fresh trauma and looking to find meaning and justification in age-old narratives of similar violence, it is not lost on me that I am an outsider to many of these interpretations and narratives. I can research and interpret difficult or painful histories, but they will never be my stories. Narratives of incredible violence can pain me and testimonies move me, but that does not give me leave to root about disturbing freshly-settled dirt. There are gatekeepers to certain histories for a reason: to protect the community from further harm, to uphold an understanding of events that is likely under attack, and to ensure the survival of community-specific cultural memories in the face of a sometimes unstable future.

Research is an important step towards interpreting difficult history. Source.

As Menachem Wecker writes about discussing #BlackLivesMatter at the "History, Rebellion, and Reconciliation" symposium at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, people need museums to be a place where they can feel safe to engage with their own history, both in isolation and as it intersects with the histories of others. As a museum professional, it will always be my job to help people respectfully interact with the meaning and integrity of another person or communities' experience without appropriating or diminishing important narratives. Similarly, it is imperative to reject the upholding of damaging assumptions that obscure uncomfortable realities.

Thinking on my research, I keep coming back to Disha Jani's article in The Toast, "Traces of Destruction: The Emotional Work of Studying Painful History". She and other young academics of colour discuss how, when working with their own histories, they deal with the "sensation of being-distracted -- always distracted -- by how your work is making you feel." Museums engaging with difficult topics almost demand that the people whose histories are on display engage intimately with their feelings just to be part of the conversation. Difficult histories and subjects will always be discussed -- whether with a bridge or an exhibit display as an interpretive locus -- but treating those histories gently and respectfully will be what allows people to feel comfortable using the museum as an extension of their community's historical and cultural memory.

Many museums are making increasing efforts to be more inclusive. Source.

Editor's note: Anya Baker came into Museum Studies after a degree in English Literature, and so is interested in narrative, storytelling, and public interactions with heritage and memory -- whether it is in her "Sew What?" column on fashion history, or her other areas of research. She will be doing a lightning talk about her research on the two bridges at the upcoming iSchool Conference.

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