Friday, 13 April 2018

Taking UNREST to Australia – Agonism and Australia’s First Nations

In this post, UNREST project leader Professor Stefan Berger discusses his recent trip to Australia, where he was a guest of the Australian Centre for Public History at University of Technology Sydney.


**

I have just spent the month of March on a Distinguished Visiting Fellowship at University of Technology Sydney – with the Centre for Public History, courtesy of Anna Clark. I used some of my time there looking at how Australian public history is dealing with the issue of Australian first nations (1). This issue was at the heart of the Australian history wars of the 1980s and 1990s (2).

When Captain Cook landed in Botany Bay in 1770, and when the first British fleet arrived 18 years later, the white invaders encountered the first nations of Australia. Despite some early efforts at intercultural mediation, it was to be a disastrous encounter for the first nations. Not only did many of their members die of diseases unknown to them and brought by the invaders, the latter also at times waged a genocidal war against the first nations, and their history books were soon to put forward the claim that Australia was a terra nullius, a land that had not been inhabited before it was ‘settled’ by white people. Hence invasion and war were re-invented as peaceful settlement, and the first nations were pushed to the margins of society, discriminated against in every possible way and forgotten as much as possible.

Children of Aboriginal families were torn from their homes until the late 1960s in an attempt to make them into white Australians (3),  in other words to ‘civilise’ them and ‘free’ them from the status of ‘savages’ ascribed to them by the racist viewpoints of a white majority culture that also implemented a ‘white Australia’ policy restricting any immigration to white people and banning, as far as possible, any migration from Asia (4). Despite its geographic location close to the Asian continent, Australia effectively defined itself as an Anglo-Celtic culture with roots in Britain and, especially post-1945 a close relationship with the USA, another allegedly Anglo-Saxon culture.

Many Australian histories in the late nineteenth century did ascribe a certain ‘Australianness’ in their promotion of federation and they also emphasized a certain distinctness from Britain. They were in fact echoing the strong link between nation-building and history writing that could also be found across Europe at the time (5). Nevertheless, so strong was the Britishness of Australia before 1914 that no Australian history was taught in Australia’s schools and universities – only British history and the history of the British empire (6). Only after the Federation of the different Australian territories in 1901 did a nation-building process come under way which culminated in the First World War, which became the key foundational event for Australia until today, most visible and tangible in the Canberra war memorial (7).

The destruction and marginalisation of Aboriginal communities was critically reviewed from the 1970s onwards. It went alongside a significant move of Australian academic culture to the left, with a strong influence of new left thinking in particular. In this context, more and more research focussed on the racism that was at the heart of Australia’s policies towards its first nations. Soon it turned into a broad research stream at Australia’s universities. And the debates on this research did not take place in the ivory tower. They were prominently picked up by politics. The Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating publicly acknowledged white guilt to Australia’s First nations in his powerful Redfern speech of 1992: ‘We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practiced discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice.’ He sought to redress some of the issues plaguing aboriginal communities in the 1990s. He also sought to overcome the legacies of the ‘white Australia’ policy by anchoring Australia more firmly within Asia.

Australia’s Liberal Party (which is really more closely related ideologically to the British Conservatives) under John Howard sensed that many white Australians were not comfortable with such a re-orientation towards Asia nor were they entirely happy with the self-critical approach towards the white ‘settlement’ of Australia. Hence he launched a broad public historical counterattack and accused mainstream Australian historiography of denigrating Australian achievements of the past. They allegedly promoted a ‘black armband history’ that did not do justice to the historical record of white Australia.

In seeking historical support for this, he could only muster the voices of two historians, who really were outsiders to the historical profession in Australia, Geoffrey Blainey and Keith Windschuttle. Their access to the Murdoch-owned Australian media ensured them an influential voice in the public debate, and however much the academy was, in its vast majority, fighting against their accusations of a ‘black armband’ history, they were simply dismissed in the media as Marxist or Marxisant and unpatriotic.

The political debate became extremely polarized between the vast majority of the academia that lined up behind the Labor Party, where Kevin Rudd, as Labor Prime Minister, made an official apology to the stolen generations on 13 February 2008. And the Liberals had their icons in Blainey and Windschuttle who portrayed themselves as victims of a left-wing academic cabal. In a way this is where Australia’s history politics vis-à-vis its first nations still stands today. A vast amount of scholarship has gone into filling in many of the blank spots of first nation history and the history of the relationship between the first nations and the white invaders from the eighteenth century to the present day.

Even when visiting places, such as the Botanical Gardens in Sydney, one cannot escape an acknowledgment of white guilt, and the language of invasion. Some scholars with Aboriginal roots are nowadays filling important posts for Aboriginal history and their histories that have increasingly been researched is also nowadays taught in schools across the nation. Every public event that takes place in Australia today starts with a routine acknowledgement that it takes place on first nation land.

So, despite the Liberals’ history politics and regardless of Blainey’s and Windschuttle’s writings, the public history of Australia today is almost dominated by a cosmopolitan consensus around the need to integrate the history of  first nation Australia into the mainstream. Has the left then won the Australian history wars? I doubt it very much.

As I learned during a seminar with one of the foremost historians of Aboriginal Australia, Heidi Norman, during my stay at UTS, the overwhelming advances of historical research have not placated a sense within Aboriginal communities that their histories are still being distorted. The 2017 ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ by Aboriginal leaders is demanding the setting up of a commission that would supervise agreements between the white government and the first nation, and, importantly, also supervise ‘truth-telling about our history’.

There is then, a clear sense at the heart of the Aboriginal community that the truth is still not being told. Mark McKenna, in an article for the Australian journal The Quarterly Essay has recently argued that the agendas in terms of justified Aboriginal rights and demands has not moved forward from the debates of the 1990s: ‘Australians still struggle to include Indigenous people in our vision of the nation.’ Two histories, one Aboriginal and one white, McKenna argues, ‘have yet to find a way to meet […] At a fundamental level, we [the whites, SB] have failed to see, failed to listen, failed even to hear.’

McKenna acknowledges change in Australian historical consciousness: ‘The cultures and histories of Indigenous Australia … have moved from the periphery of Australia’s national imagination to its centre, where they rightly belong.’ And he calls this ‘the most significant shift in Australia’s historical consciousness since European settlement began.’ Yet he admits that it did not have the impact on wider society that it deserves. His remedy seems rather conventional: reconciliation through truth-telling – a classic cosmopolitan means of coming to terms with the past, and one that has already failed in so many places that one can only wonder why it is still so often referred to as a remedy for past injustice.

The dominant cosmopolitanism, which McKenna ultimately also appeals to, has been powerless in bringing about real change and has in fact become a ritualistic exercise of Australian political correctness on the part of those who feel better in acknowledging the wrongs of the past without being able to do something in the present and without changing the minds of possibly still a majority of Australians who feel proud of their white history. The school teaching of Aboriginal history is also often done so poorly and in such a circumscribed and politically-correct way that it will be, for many, if not most school children, a rather off-putting experience, as was confirmed to me in discussions with Paul Kiem who is Professional Officer of the History Teachers’ Association of New South Wales.

Having looked at some of the historical sites and history museums in Sydney, there is the same sense of acknowledging first nations history but in a ritualistic sense that does not really manage to engage visitors. It stands aside, almost as one story among others. Travelling, during my stay, to the spiritual heart of Aboriginal Australia, to Uluru, I found a resort that has an Aboriginal artist in residence programme and a cultural centre where tourists can learn about Aboriginal culture, customs, history and their present-day situation, but all of this feels entirely marginal to the real business of the resort of Uluru, which is about the touristic and entirely commodified experience of Australia’s desert and its magnificent landscape.

In Alice Springs the galleries are full of Aboriginal art, but the many gallerists I met were all white. Even in the local museum, most people you actually see are white. The Aborigines in Alice seem to live a world apart – and their looks, when they met my white face, were mistrustful and hostile. They knew who the invader was and is. Even here, in their alleged heartland, they do not seem to belong. Or perhaps it is their way of showing us, i.e. the non-Aboriginal people, that we do not belong. In any case, they do not seem to have found a way of having their stories heard, which is why I think they are still calling for truthful history.

Now, the truth has, of course, become unfashionable in historical theory. But if we look for a moment at the theoretical framework we are adopting for our UNREST project, then we see that there are certain striking parallels to the Australian story I have been telling here. Representations of war in Europe had been strongly antagonistic until 1945, as had been the representation of the ‘war’ between Australia’s first nations and the white invaders until the 1970s. Under the strong influence of the European Union, this antagonistic framework for the representation of war has given way to a cosmopolitan framework, in which common victimhood and common opposition to war is emphasized. In Australia, the emergence of a cosmopolitan framework of memory from the 1970s onwards had to do with a recognition of past injustice on behalf of the whites and the search for action that might in some way, shape or form remedy centuries of genocidal policies, discrimination and exclusion.

In both cases, it would appear, these cosmopolitan memory frameworks do not seem to work. In Europe they have been powerless in preventing the rise of vernacular nationalisms since the end of the Cold War, that are directed directly against the cosmopolitan memory framework of the EU. And in Australia, cosmopolitanism has not yet found a way of truly engaging the majority of the white population with first nation history in such a way as to problematize the comfort zone of the dominant national storyline. Consequently, a sense of exclusion remains on the side of the first nations, while wide sections of white Australia have a sense of not wanting to be confronted with a black armband history – regardless of the majority opinion within the Academy.

Just as UNREST is asking in relation to a European history of war whether a more agonistic approach might be better able to contain vernacular nationalisms, so one could also ask whether in Australia a more agonistic approach might actually produce a breakthrough in the apparent stalemate between those wanting to celebrate the achievements of white settlement since the eighteenth century and those reminding white Australians that those successes have been achieved against a background of genocide, discrimination and exclusion.

Such agonism in both cases would have to be based on a proper contextualisation of histories with a focus on victims, perpetrators and bystanders alike, which is what the leaders of the Australian first nations might have in mind when the talk about truthful histories. It would also mean abandoning moral absolutes which lead to normative posturing rather than fruitful debate. It would also mean the beginning of an open-ended dialogic exchange, where multiple voices and multi-vocality are accepted as expressions of different political interests within a democratic sphere of government.

And it would mean mobilising the passions of solidarity, in this case with Australia’s first nations, in seeking to speak on behalf of those positions that currently get marginalised. Agonism is not a value-neutral tool. It is a means of a left, currently emasculated by decades of neoliberal dominance, to get back into the discussion (8). In Australia it could mobilise what seems a rather tired and directionless left to seek active ways out of the stalemate over the Australian history wars. In Europe it could mobilise (and has done so since the financial crisis of 2007) a left to re-establish a more politicised view on politics, not only but also relating to the memory of war.

Notes

(1) I am grateful to the members of the Centre for Public History at UTS, and in particular to Anna Clark, for discussing these issues with me during my stay at UTS in March 2018.

(2) Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, new edn, 2004 [first published 2003].

(3) Peter Read, The Stolen Generations: The Removal of Aboriginal Children in New South Wales, 1883 – 1969, Sydney: NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs, 2006 [first published 1981].

(4) Jane Carey and Claire McLisky (eds), Creating White Australia, Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2009.

(5) Stefan Berger with Christoph Conrad, The Past as History: National Identity and Historical Consciousness in Modern Europe, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

(6) Mark Hearn, ‘Writing the Nation in Australia: Australian Historians and Narrative Myths of Nations’, in: Stefan Berger (ed.), Writing the Nation: a Global Perspective, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007, pp. 103 – 125.

(7) Alistair Thomson, Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend, new edn, Clayton: Monash University Press, 2013 [first published by Oxford University Press, 1994].

(8) Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically, London: Verso, 2013; see also the attempt to relate Mouffe’s theory to memory studies by Anna Cento Bull and Hans Lauge Hansen, ‘On Agonistic Memory’, Memory Studies 9:4 (2016), pp. 390–404.


Monday, 12 February 2018

Agonism as a transformative experience - Theatre and audience analysis in UNREST

In this blog post, Diana González Martín (Aarhus University) of the UNREST project talks about her work analysing audience responses to Donde el bosque se espesa (Where the Forest Thickens), a play produced by UNREST partners Micomicón.

A video of the premiere of the play can be viewed here (with English subtitles).

You can also watch the teaser trailer produced for the play here.

**

As a work package dedicated to the creation of an agonistic theatre performance, UNREST’s WP6.1 focuses on the elaboration of a methodology for the observation and the generation of agonistic memory. During the first year of the project, Spanish theatre company Micomicón has created an original theatre performance with the collaboration of UNREST’s researchers entitled Donde el bosque se espesa (Where the Forest Thickens). It was world-premiered in June 2017 in Teatro del Bosque, Madrid.

Micomicón enjoyed total artistic freedom while creating the performance except for the fact that it should materialize agonistic memory on the stage. Among its agonistic traits, the following are worthy of mention: emphasis on socio-political contexts for the emergence of conflict and perpetration; inclusion of bystanders’, victims’ and perpetrators’ perspectives; insistence on characterizing victims as political actors with agency; aim to activate self-reflective and self-critical processes in spectators by unsettling their emotions in order to challenge their ideological assumptions.


The premiere audience discuss the play at Teatro del Bosque
A second stage of WP6.1 research, which is currently in progress, consists of a mixed-methods audience analysis to explore the impact of Donde el bosque se espesa in diverse audiences in three different European settings (Spain, Bosnia and Poland). Two main research questions drive this audience analysis:

  1. What kind of changes can be identified in the public’s modes of remembering past conflicts? Did the theatre performance contribute to unsettle fixed and essentialist memory patterns or did in any other form stimulate reflective and agonistic modes of remembering?
  2. What kind of interpretation biases can be observed between different stakeholders groups (activists, policy makers, cultural heritage professionals)?

Diana González Martin (right) and Daniela De Angeli (left)
of UNREST prepare to conduct interviews as
part of their fieldwork
Since agonism is a relational mode of remembering, we do not consider stakeholders as mere data givers and researchers as mere data collectors, but we do believe that agonism is to be generated by the interaction between artists, researchers and stakeholders. Therefore we conduct qualitative interviewing and quantitative surveys through action research approach to engage stakeholders and encourage them to become active participants. Through their participation they become co-creators of the performance and of political agonism by, for example, proposing alternative endings to the play and reflecting their own emotions and assumptions.

What this work package’s fieldwork can contribute to UNREST theoretical frame so far is a deepening of agonistic affects and an unveiling of how emotional shifts actually occur in order to get to know the way in which enemies can become political adversaries.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Challenging Visitors

In this post, UNREST doctoral researcher Eleanor Rowley discusses the role of museum visitor research in the UNREST project.

Museums dealing with the heritage of conflict are important shapers and communicators of cultural memory and, -- profiting from both the museum boom and the memory boom -- they enjoy unprecedented popularity. A key focus of the UNREST project is therefore an analysis of the memory messages transmitted by war museums. But the communication of these messages is a process that extends beyond transmission to include reception and interpretation by the audience. Recognizing that the museum is an ‘open work’ completed by its visitors, the UNREST project is also conducting visitor research, a process which throws up its own set of challenges.

Young visitors examine a display the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Peronne
Image (c) Eleanor Rowley

Studying visitors is not a new practice; early examples in the US and the UK demonstrate that museum professionals have sought to generate data on visitor behaviour since at least the nineteenth century. However, studies did not become widespread until the late twentieth century when accountability measures set by funders began to require the evaluation of exhibitions, including data on visitors.


Following models innovated in the education sector (also under scrutiny for cost efficiency), external evaluators sought to measure behavioural variables in order to assess educational impact. Trends in visitation were also tracked and some museums launched in-house studies, establishing a feedback loop through which visitor data was incorporated into the development of exhibitions. More recently, public policy promoting inclusivity and accessibility has also stimulated visitor studies with museums collecting data to inform their audience development programmes.

In this climate, visitor studies as a field of both professional practice and academic study has exploded. However, the adoption of up-to-date methods is uneven. Two concerns strike me as problematic as we attempt to understand visitor experience and perceptions at museums dealing with violent pasts.

Young visitors watch a video display at Imperial War Museum North
Image (c) Eleanor Rowley


Firstly, the uneven development of visitor studies in our five museums across Europe means that some museums can tell us more about their visitors than others. This is symptomatic of the field more generally, where many factors can promote or inhibit visitor research. National or local policy contexts, funding sources, accountability requirements and budgeting concerns can all play a part in how many or few resources are invested in studying visitors.

The cultural and educational climate of the museum profession is also significant, with visitor research better established as a legitimate concern in some contexts than others. In the literature it has even been reported that senior figures in some institutions perceive the growth of visitor studies as an unwelcome, populist encroachment on decision making in museums.

Secondly, epistemological and methodological developments in visitor studies over recent decades have led to interesting hypotheses about visitor motivation and experience that could indicate a need for museums of difficult history to do more to challenge their visitors.

Until the 1990s, most visitor studies focused on the educational value of museum visiting and followed a positivist, behavioural paradigm. That is, evaluators sought to observe the visitor’s behaviour and measure the knowledge accumulated during a visit. This approach to visitor studies has been successfully challenged and supplemented (though not replaced) by a more interpretive, constructivist orientation. The latter approach emphasises the context of museum visiting as well as the visitor’s ability to interpret exhibits and construct meaning for herself through the course of a visit.

Visitors looking at a display at the Thiepval Museum
Image (c) Eleanor Rowley


One important finding arising from this way of investigating museum visitation is that people are highly selective, both about the museums they choose to visit and the exhibitions and objects they pay attention to. As a free choice leisure activity in a climate where people often consider themselves ‘time poor’, visiting a museum can become a way of affirming a sense of self (for example as somebody who appreciates or is interested in a particular subject, or as somebody who values lifelong learning or cultural, scientific or historical understanding). Researchers have noted that visitors not only make choices on which museums to visit based on prior interest, enthusiasm and knowledge, but these factors can also play a large part in directing their attention and the assimilation of new information encountered in museum settings.

This confirmation bias raises an important question for museums of all kinds about how to attract, interest and inform visitors with regard to novel and challenging topics and interpretations, but it is particularly pertinent for museums that seek to unsettle comfortable memories. Given the sophistication of today’s audiences, are museums of difficult history in fact too easy on their visitors? Do they (or are they able to) invest enough in studying their visitors to find out?

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Should the Statues Fall?

UNREST researchers Anna Bull and David Clarke have contributed a guest post to 'The Policy Space', an Australian policy blog run by the Institute for Governance & Policy Analysis,
University of Canberra.

Their post discusses recent controversies over the preservation or removal of statues and other material traces of past oppression. You can read their contribution here.

Monday, 22 May 2017

A Meeting Place for all Nations?

In this post, Dr Marianna Deganutti, who is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Bath working on the UNREST project, discusses her research on visitor responses to the Kobarid/Caporetto/Karfreit Museum in Slovenia.


The Kobarid museum is located in a borderland at the crossroads of the three main European civilizations (the Germanic, the Slav and the Latin). Can the Kobarid Museum therefore be considered a meeting place for all nations? This is what we have been testing over the last few months through an in-depth examination of the museum books of comments over several years as well as on the basis of interviews to visitors.

Situated just 8 kilometers from the Italian border, the Kobarid Museum displays the events that occurred during World War One on the Soška fronta / Isonzo Front between the Austro-Hungarian, German and Italian armies. More specifically, the museum focuses on the Battle of Kobarid or the 12th Soča/Isonzo battle, that corresponded to a crushing Austro-Hungaro-German victory over the Italian forces. This battle is therefore commemorated as the ‘miracle of Karfreit’ by Austrians and as the ‘debacle of Caporetto’ by the Italians.

As one can immediately imagine, the legacy of these events contributed to divided memories. The main exhibition conveys  a strong anti-war message, through the display of the suffering of soldiers from all sides. This obviously reduces the potential clash between diverging viewpoints, but at the same time it may prevent critical reflection on some of the most controversial historical and political issues related to the twentieth century, that are still very much related to people’s lives.

While there are elements in the museum which rare connected with these issues, they are not explained to the visitors or indeed problematized. For instance, as well as focusing on the First World War, the museum touches upon the fascist occupation of the Primorska region in the interwar period and during World War Two, when Slovenia was divided between Italy, Germany and Hungary, and when, in parallel, a civil war between collaborators and partisans was going on. The message of internationalism and peace conveyed by the exhibition related to World War One sits side by side with the message of a ‘just war’ fought by the Slovene partisans against fascist and Nazi occupiers and collaborationists. This apparent contradiction is not explored or reflected upon, nor is the memory rift that continues to divide Slovenia to this day over the nature and role of both partisans and collaborationists.
Flags of combatant nations hung side-by-side in the museum at Kobarid (image (c) Marianna Deganutti)


For this reason, when we approached began to analyse the reception of this museum as part of the UNREST project, we aimed at investigating visitors’ reactions. In particular, we were interested in understanding: how do visitors’ react to the message of peace promoted by the museum? Do they interact with other perspectives? Do they engage with unsettling, controversial and still unresolved issues related to past conflicts?

To test visitors’ reactions we decided to analyse the books of comments with a specific focus on comments written by Italian and Slovene visitors. The museum has collected all comment books since its opening in 1990. Due to the overwhelming number of comments throughout the years, it was not possible to examine and code them all. Therefore, we just selected some key years, including 1993, when the museum received the European prize, 1991, when Slovenia became independent and 2004, when it joined Europe and NATO.

The last 'Kobarid Room' shows the controversial history of the town and the surrounding area over the last century (image (c) Marianna Deganutti)

The analysis showed that a majority of visitors react positively to the message of peace. The museum can certainly be considered a meeting place between Central European countries (such as Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia etc.) and Western countries (in particular Italy, but there are many visitors also from the UK, Spain and France). Anti-war comments widely prevail in all these cases and are usually related to the fact that soldiers of both armies suffered and that war is a catastrophic event that needs to be prevented.

The 'Black Room' shows the horrors of the battlefield (image (c) Marianna Deganutti)

This is also what emerged from the interviews to the visitors, who strongly condemned war. However, within this category there is a significant number of people who support the anti-war message, but remain sceptical about the possibility of learning from the past and not repeating the same mistakes in the future.

Another important category of comments is present in the book of comments, though it did not emerge from the interviews. Many visitors seem to reject the message of the museum and support a patriotic or nationalist perspective. Some of them even strive for historical revenge. In their comments the linguistic register also changes, and words like honour, heroes, medals and glory (often written in capital letters) convey fairly bellicose sentiments and views.

This patriotic group is obviously not interested in any possible encounter with the other, unlike the main group, which is moved primarily by strong feelings of compassion for all those who suffered and died in World War One, whichever side they fought on.

In interviews, visitors seemed ready to recognize the existence and legitimacy of different perspectives. However, the lack of historical contextualisation in the museum was remarked upon by many visitors, whose feelings of compassion for the other did not seem to foster greater understanding of the other’s ‘difficult heritage’.

We can conclude that the Kobarid Museum has potential as a meeting-place for all (European) nations. The dominant cosmopolitan message, the emotions that are stimulated by the main exhibition, the message of European peace and solidarity may foster a dialogue across national boundaries.

However, the museum just hints at some difficult and unsettling historical events, that are not explained in depth. The visitor who is well disposed to meet the other would find it difficult to recognize, understand and come to terms with the conflictual past that has left a long-lasting legacy at both the international and domestic levels.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Welcome to the UNREST blog!

The research project Unsettling Remembering and Social Cohesion and Transnational Europe has now been running for a year. In the first twelve months of our work, we have updated stakeholders on our activities via our website, our newsletters and our Facebook and Twitter feeds.
In our first year, we have held stakeholder workshops and research meetings, and have conducted detailed research at a variety of museum and exhumation sites in Germany, Spain, Poland and France. We have also been developing a museum exhibit and a theatre play which address key theoretical ideas from our project.



The Historial of the Great War in Péronne, France


As this empirical and theoretical work continues over the next two years, we will be sharing our research findings with the general public, with stakeholders, and with other researchers. This blog will provide a showcase for that research in progress, which will lead to publications in academic journals, new digital tools, our museum exhibit and both a live and a video-recorded version of the play we will produce.