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.