The first turning point: from critical to consensual, from concept to artefacts

Attempts to compare, de-construct or reveal mutually exclusive national narratives of participating museums from SEE was not easily accepted nor implemented within the project group. In Turin, when the discussion on a concrete concept for the joint exhibition started, the first critical turning point took place - the point from which the joint cooperation was shaped more in the direction of presenting commonalities and avoiding conflicting narratives. At this meeting there was evident lack of mutual confidence among participants; an implicit or explicit pressure due to the fact that participants were put in the role of simultaneously being museum professionals and representatives of their own nation-states. Some of the participants were dependent on political authorities; there was a heterogeneity in terms of their educational (and ideological) background, and a lack of previous experiences in similar kinds of cooperation - all factors causing divergent ideas about the future of joint cooperation.

The following accounts paint well the atmosphere of the meeting and the silent political pressure that was felt by participants, which is important to bear in mind when analysing the development of this project:

I’ve never been to a dinner more silent than the dinner on the first meeting I was attending in Turin. I was sitting with these ladies, female directors, and chitchatting a little bit with my academic colleagues... but the others, they were close to completely silent, watching each other very suspiciously... very, very, you know, ‘what can I say, what can’t I say.’ So I can understand the cautiousness, not really, being insecure on, or rather... They were knowledgeable about the ubiquities of their own positions, that they are both the politicians in a way, because, many of them were politically appointed, and there were elections coming... And that they were sitting in a very loose position and they might be out... and they were... So you could really feel the tension.

(External scientific project advisor)67

Yes - What is expected of me? And expected is this: I have exactly specified coordinates within which I have to move, which have not been imposed on me now, before the start of the project from the side of the Ministry. Maybe they even were imposed to some directors, but even if there were these cases, these directors would not communicate this explicitly. But in some cases it was just about the fact that these coordinates are so simple and unquestionable things... that there is no conversation nor diverges from that - you have to follow that route. Because now (with this project) you are going out of that one narrative which exists in your permanent displays, and for that you need knowledge, or courage or I don’t even know what else...

(Anonymous interviewee)68

The situation created was obviously one outside the comfort zone, in relation to participants’ previous knowledge, the discourses and practices of their institutions, the official collective memory and historiography, as well as curatorial and diplomatic responsibility. No one ever openly raised the issue of how limited they are from their governments. As reflected by the participants, those who are limited do not say they are, but they just try to avoid discussion.

As reflected in the second statement, there was no need for clear instructions from governments, because each participant was aware of the coordinates established by the official collective memory and national historical discourse, reflected in the permanent display of their own institutions and in historiographies based on which they themselves have been educated. The established national discourses were the mechanism that governed the conduct of most participants. Therefore, everyone was working within his/her own implicit knowledge of what was acceptable and what not. As a result, most participants were unwilling, cautious or uncomfortable with questioning their national narratives or with comparing them to the narratives of neighbouring countries.

But, in Berlin, it was still OK, while in the next meeting in Turin, at the time when a big museum of Risorgimento was opened, it was very difficult, because the whole idea to put national history into a kind of comparative context or some broader context that has to do with the phenomenon of European nation-states [...] was really hard to explain here and one could see that people could not understand that this future exhibition is not the presentation of their nation or state on some representative level, but is supposed to be exactly the opposite. And already in Turin, when everything looked as if it will blow up, even the question was raised publicly by participants why is this political project pushed. I, of course, knew from the beginning that this is a political project, but I said that everything is politics, so are our museums and presentations, so we should not run away from it.

(Anonymous interviewee)69

What happened in Turin is an evident clash between participants who wanted to take a more post-modernist stand and reveal the mechanisms of nation-state building including conflicting issues that this process can cause, and those who wanted to make things less political, avoid conflicting themes and talk affirmatively about common heritage. This second group, wanted to diverge from the idea of dealing with history towards the idea of an ethnographic overview of everyday common culture void of any political implications. The clash of thinking behind these two groups is well expressed in these two reflections:

They insisted that we should not talk about things that conflict us, but should talk affirmatively about common grounds. I thought we should talk about both, because both are part of specific collective memories and some broader phenomena. The explanation was that conflicts should not be part of an exhibition like this and that this is now considered a desirable museological practice, but that we should insist on these positive insights of the past, because no one would feel pleased to look at certain things again. Now, this is a matter of understanding, because, if we put things on more general level, and if we observe whole context of nationalism as one general phenomena... that represents a big threat for representatives of national museums. Most museums of the ‘newly made’ nation-states had a big problem with this.

(Anonymous interviewee)[1]

I have been very cautious from the beginning of the project, and I have to admit that I tried to avoid it in this project, since that is my general attitude that I don’t like to mingle with things that are problematic. That is why we introduced some additional themes like coffee drinking, education position of women in society, in order to soften this political shadow that hung over the topic of the exhibition.

Not so much in getting to problematic relationships and political issues.

I was not alone in this... we tried to make this a bit easier, together with colleagues from Turkey. It was in Berlin that we tried to talk more about the festivities, the everyday life, and somehow we did as much as we could, but unfortunately after everything was completed Turkey decided to leave the project.

(Anonymous interviewee)[2]

In this and many other accounts it is interesting to observe how curators who did not want to address contested interpretations thought that the ‘politics’ and ‘the political’ were foreign notions to museums and therefore should be avoided. As opposed to curators who were willing to reflect on tensions created by the construction of national narratives, curators who wanted to skip this implicitly positioned their own museum practices as apolitical and positioned the talk about everyday culture as apolitical as well. Both approaches - one that wanted to take a critical deconstructivist stand and address not only positive but conflicting sides of national identities, and the other that wanted a harmonious, comforting, balanced interpretation as a way to present the common heritage of the Balkans - were legitimate and had their pros and cons for the enhancement of dialogue in the region. Neither of them wanted to perpetuate conflicts and neither of them wanted to stay bound to exclusive national narratives.

The first group, however, thought that conflicting narratives should be made visible, deconstructed and dialogued not in order to make a revision of ‘historical truths’, but in order to create critical awareness among citizens and make them understand exclusive and manipulative aspects of national historiographies. This is exactly what I would call the understanding heritage within inclusive heritage discourse. The other approach, however, strongly felt that the comparison and display of conflicting narratives might become problematic to participants, museums, participating states and citizens and thus potentially trigger and deepen conflicts. Therefore, they advocated for the creation of an alternative narrative which capitalizes on the concept of shared history and shared heritage - a concept which focuses citizens’ minds on the commonalities of historical experiences.

What is evident in the framework of a multilateral cooperation mediated by UNESCO such as this one is that it was impossible to experiment with the first approach, if someone in the group did not feel comfortable with it. If individual participants were bound by the imagined or imposed political interests of their nation-states, UNESCO as an organization was in its own way bound not to offend the interest of its member nation-states, as ‘symbolic stock-holders’.[3] Therefore, despite its authority and potential to bring different sides to the same table, it was limited by the sum of interests appearing around that table:

They [the governments] are our main, not stakeholders but ‘stockholders’, because we are an inter-governmental organization. We are composed by our Member States and our first national partner and counterpart in state authorities and governments. Then for our daily work, it is very important for us to engage local stakeholders - local communities, municipalities, local agencies, etc. But of course, for the very nature of the organization it is necessary that what we do is agreed with the state authorities because they are our partner, our governing body. So we have to respond and report on what we do on our Member States.

(UNESCO Venice Office representative)[4]

So with Imagining the Balkans, the whole issue was to have the countries working together and define, through representatives of national history museums, define among them a common concept, a common vision of telling, you know, part of their common history and through a movable itinerary exhibition. We facilitated the process but we did not steer it! Of course it was not up to us to indicate what we should interpret in history and to shape the exhibition concept! Of course we facilitated the process and have brought them together at the same table.

(UNESCO Venice Office representative)[4]

From these accounts one can read that despite first intentions and hints by UNESCO, the very nature of this organization went against provocation. This tension between the legitimacy to work on peace and the will to solve conflicts, mixed with a fear of transparently entering in dialogue on conflicts, is the tension deeply embedded in UNESCO. Therefore, the most important goal for UNESCO as a mediator was not to cause additional political conflicts but, to try to make everyone willing to cooperate within the group. Therefore, it was decided that it was not the time to ‘deconstruct the evilness of nationalism’. As one of the external expert advisors states:

And that made me sure that one of my main advice was really a good one - and that was to tap things down. Cause academic historians, they were pushing this sort of relativist, critical constructivist too hard. Because in my view you need to be able to work through the conflict, you need to analyse where are they and how close they are to blood, to reality and how can you deal with them... Because in my view you can go straight on the conflicts only after two or three generations, you need to take a much more cautious roundabout to work that through... Because if we stayed on this official historical level and how to deconstruct the evilness of nationalism, it would have been impossible for people to do that so early after people have died for this sort of national stand.

(External scientific project advisor)75

This statement could have been challenged in many ways - first, for not openly addressing the ‘evilness of nationalism’ that all generations in SEE had lived through during wars in which people were dying for the national idea. Nationalism, therefore, was not something that people have died for only during the 1990s, but an idea that perpetuated armed conflicts in numerous uprisings in the 19th century and seven wars during the 20th - affecting two or three generations. Krause calmed things down by focusing the group on proposing lighter topics - education, industrialization, celebrations - all following the discourse of modernization in the region. The group drew a list of stray potential themes which seemed important to tackle and categorised them under three major thematic lines as follows: ‘Living in the Balkans’, ‘Educating in the Balkans’ and ‘Representing the Balkans’.

Most importantly, Krause also proposed a change of approach. Instead of discussing the exhibition concept from a blank slate, he proposed that each museum select 10 objects from their collections which would cover some of the topics relating to 19th-century history of the Balkans. This was a turning point and a calming point as the curators went back to their museums with a task to connect with collections and select 10 objects and stories to present at the next meeting.

  • [1] Interview conducted in Belgrade, 6 May 2015.
  • [2] Skype interview, 22 July 2015
  • [3] Even though UNESCO as an organization does not have stocks in a market sense, meaningthat Member States cannot own its stocks, there is a sort of symbolic stock holding going onin the relationship of UNESCO and its Member States. This comes from Member States beingthe founders and important part in the governance of this organization, so in different actionsthe interests of the member-states are protected. The stocks owned correspond in this casewith the strengths of the symbolic capital of particular Member State, which is usuallycorrelated with economic and political capital of a state in wider geopolitics, as well as thefunding provided for UNESCO.
  • [4] Skype interview, 15 July 2015
  • [5] Skype interview, 15 July 2015
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