Interview with Anastasia Serikova
EMA asks questions to winner of the 2021 Master Study of the Year Award. In this issue, Hazal Sahin from EMA has interviewed Anastasia Serikova who is a second year student in Saint-Petersburg State Institute of Culture Department of Museology and Cultural Heritage. We have talked about her thesis which is called “The Interpretation of Dissonant Heritage in Museum Institutions in Russia and Germany” and her further projects.
1. Firstly, i thank you for agreeing to interview with us. The topic of your thesis is very interesting. How did you come up with this idea about presenting dissonant heritage in museums?
First of all, I also thank you for inviting me to this interview. It is a significant step and experience for me because I have never presented my ideas in a form of an interview yet.
I first encountered the topic of dissonant heritage in 2016 when I was taking part in a volunteer program “Work away” in Germany. Such programs give young people an excellent opportunity to discover foreign countries, meet other cultures, and broaden their horizons in general. After working in one hotel in Bavaria I used all possible ways to visit as many museums as possible. At that time I had already finished the third year of my Bachelor studies in museology and heritage studies, but I didn`t know at all what to dedicate my B.A. thesis, what to search, rather than what to do in the future – stay in the field of museum work or maybe change it after getting B.A. degree.
Thus, I was visiting a range of museums (arts, historical, local, natural, and others) mostly in Bavaria, and was seeking inspiration, ideas, something that would be interesting for me. One day, I was taken to the Dokumentation Obersalzberg1 – a place of learning and remembrance relating to the history of this area and the National Socialist dictatorship. I hadn`t known anything about the history of this place and I also hadn`t had any expectations before my visit. I just thought it was an ordinary museum, however, it wasn`t. You can not only see historical pieces of evidence in museum institutions working with dissonant heritage but also “feel” the history. By that I mean, that you acknowledge that events you had read about in books are absolutely real and they were exactly in this place. This recognition comes only through the atmosphere of real historical place and documents without any impact of affect, and it makes a strong impression. This impression encouraged me to start studying dissonant heritage in my B.A. thesis, then I stepped it up in my M.A. thesis, and my research hasn`t finished yet. In this way, I unexpectedly found my research area and indicated (at least for myself) a visible gap in museology, especially in the Russian language. With regard to dissonant heritage, museum practice is far ahead of theory, that`s why it is so demanding to focus on the conceptual, theoretical issues of dissonant heritage to step it up.
The development of the humanitarian field of knowledge in the XX century had broadened the concept of heritage from protecting beautiful and expensive things, objects, and places to the understanding that other types of heritage are also impostant for culture and society. This way, museum institutions have started to deal with objects and places associated with crimes against humanity, and historical events or periods affected any countries or societies traumatically. For interpretation of such things, they have still been using mainly ideas of memory and trauma studies.
Moreover, a common term, which we can apply to indicate this heritage, still doesn`t exist. I have used “dissonant” heritage before, it is the first definition of this phenomenon proposed by J.E. Tunbridge and G.J. Ashworth in 1996. But we can also name it “contested”, “inconvenient”, “unwanted”, “toxic” heritage as other researchers made in the following decades. I personally prefer to use the term “difficult heritage”, introduced by Sh. Macdonald, because it is more neutral.
What is difficult heritage exactly? Well, the consensus about this definition doesn`t exist yet. But we can outline that the main difference between a “difficult” heritage and a “normal” heritage researchers see in the presence of some traumatic event, a contradiction or dissonance in society about a particular historical event in the anamnesis of a thing, an object, or a place, that makes it valuable and in need of conservation for society.
This category of heritage will always be perceived and interpreted ambiguously, but in order for us not to get a “post-human in a post-museum” in the near future, it should be preserved and presented to people. It is this type of heritage that encourages reflection, makes people worry, and has a strong emotional impact. Therefore, it should be adopted by critical and experimental museology, become an impetus for new conceptual ideas, as, for example, in the study of V. Kisić2
2. How did you feel when you heard the news of your thesis won “The Master Study of The Year Award”?
I was extremely surprised and didn`t believe in it at first! When I submitted my thesis to the competition, I didn`t expect anything, I just made it for gaining experience. I am not considering my thesis as a completely finished work, for me, it is just a significant step, a milestone in my research of difficult heritage. That`s why I couldn`t imagine that my work can be appreciated by an international jury of “The Master Study of The Year Award” so high. it is incredibly motivating me to move further in my research.
3. Why have you chosen to examine just these two countries specifically, Russia and Germany?
The first reason relates to the formalities and requirements of academic writing. On the one side, the Master Thesis has to be quite a short scientific work, but on the other side, it should cover the topic announced in the title completely. The Master thesis also has to be very concentrated and in- depth research. On this occasion, the task is to find a balance between the scale of research and formal requirements. I decided to solve this problem by putting a quite restricted frame of research (in my case – geographical).
The second reason is about the meanings. From my point of view, Germany is the country that is primarily associated with difficult heritage by the audience. We all have heard at least once about such places as the concentration camps Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen, and that now we can visit them. Perhaps, many readers have been to these and other similar places.
It is caused, on the one hand, by the processes taking place in the field of understanding the heritage (which I spoke about above), and on the other hand, by a considerable work done on the studying and negotiating3 of the period of National Socialism in this country in the second half of the 20th century. It doesn`t mean, that Germany is a role model of dealing with difficult heritage, insofar as each country and society is one of a kind in its own way and has its own unique set of historical themes that can be considered in terms of difficult heritage. Therefore, simple copying or repeating of someone else’s experience is unlikely to be effective. But at the same time, we can consider Germany as an example of how a variety of practices in the area of difficult heritage are applied in museum interpretation, museum pedagogy, museum design, architecture, etc. Acknowledgment and consideration of these practices would be useful for countries that are in the early stages of dealing with their difficult heritage.
I chose Russia as the second country for my thesis, firstly because difficult heritage has been still an uncommon topic of museological research here. There are only a few articles considering this issue fragmentally. In this case, my work, which places the Russian difficult heritage in a theoretical context, can make this gap visible and at least partly contribute to its reduction. Secondly, this is the country of my residence, and the problems of museum interpretation of difficult heritage in modern Russia cause concern, I hope, not only me. Identifying and investigating these problems now, in my opinion, is a small step towards solving them in the future.
4. In the thesis, you have mentioned “triumph / victim, hot / cold memory, winners/losers, victims/criminals” models for interpreting exhibitions, could you please open these concepts for our readers?
Yes, sure, it is a remarkable question. Models or narratives based on the state’s cultural policy set the attitude to the past. It may be more or less ideological in relation to the past, especially to traumatic historical stages and periods. The countries examined in this thesis are examples of two different models of dealing with the past.
In Russia is a triumphal or heroic narrative. This model of constructing national memory has existed for many centuries and until recently it has been the only one option for states to relate to the past. A narrative of trauma has developed in Germany. Such an attitude towards the past was
formed as a reaction to the crimes of Nazism towards the end of the 20th century, and it grows out of the socio-humanitarian direction of trauma studies.
Within the framework of each model, there are concepts that mostly influence the museum interpretation of difficult heritage. For example, for the narrative of triumph, this is the concept of “cold” and “hot” memory of J. Assman. “Cold” memory captures the repetitive past, shows integrity, continuity, it silents contradictions. From J. Assman`s point of view, “cold” memory is the memory of power, strengthening itself through an appeal to the unshakable past, it may be the “myth of the founding” of the state. “Hot” memory is aimed at identifying uniqueness in the past, no matter positive or negative. This model of attitude to the past is characteristic of the oppressed sections of society, ordinary people. J. Assman characterizes “hot” memory with the ability to use the past to form ideas about the present, which is why “hot” memory exists in the form of a story that actualizes the past for the needs of the present.
In turn, for the model of attitude to the past as a trauma, the concept of B. Giesen has been the most influential for the museum interpretation of difficult heritage. The concept proposes four figures involved in the collective memory of the community: the winner (triumphant hero), the defeated hero (tragic hero), the victim (victim), and the perpetrator (perpetrator). Their selection occurs, firstly, according to the parameter of a person being in the position of a subject or object, and secondly, according to the ability to overcome obstacles by a person. Later, A. Assman continued the concept of B. Giesen largely. She stated the change of the structural opposition “winners/losers” to “victims/criminals” in the memorial culture of Germany. There are also more universal concepts that can be applied equally to both narratives. Such concepts include, for example, places of memory of P. Nora and post-memory of M. Hirsch.
I have chosen a strategy of comparing how these concepts influence museum practice in Russia and Germany, how they set the theoretical framework for showing different aspects of tragic historical events, and through what visual markers they appear in the expositions of these two countries. This, in the end, made it possible to show the main conceptual elements of a complex, multi-level “mosaic” of meanings, which are museum expositions in Russia and Germany, interpreting difficult heritage.
5. “J. Harris notes that now a new type of museum is being formed, allowing visitors to reflect on their own life experience, including traumatic (Bezzybova 2017:160), allowing them to feel like a part of the community.”
Haven’t museums helped people to feel part of the community from the beginning? What do you think new museums are different from the old ones. How could learning programmes contribute to involve visitors and creating immersive spaces?
First of all, we need to clarify what we mean by the “beginning” of museums, because this phenomenon has its roots in the depths of centuries. Based on the context of your question and your attention to the visitor of the museum, we can consider as the starting point for the existence of the museum its accessibility to the general public. As a public institution, the museum appeared only in the 19th century, or to be more precise, this process was launched at the end of the 18th century, when the Louvre was opened to the public in 1793. Despite the fact that the entrance to the museum ceased to be a privilege and became a right (as K. Hudson wrote in his book “The Social History of Museums. What the Visitors Thought”, 1975), the most important task of museums was to present the heritage of the country and the strengthening of the statehood. The museums opened to the public were called upon to visualize the idea of identity and the history of the country within the framework of a triumphant attitude towards the past, according to O.
Navarro4, as “a place where heroes and martyrs live and die, a place for which they are happy to give their lives.”
In the countries of Latin America, museums not only didn`t set themselves the task of giving people the opportunity to feel part of the community but, on the contrary, excluded less protected social groups (for example, the indigenous population, slaves) from museums discourse and emphasized the dominance of other groups. On this occasion, O. Navarro notes that the cultures of pre- Columbian America were then outside the framework of museum representation both in the countries of the New World and in Europe, where their history was presented in museums through the “art”, biological and/or ethnographic discourses. These issues, called post-colonial studies, have been discussed in the context of cultural heritage protection since the 1990s5. The processes that have been taking place in Western society since the middle of the 20th century (the civil rights movement, mass migration, post-colonialism, etc.) have contributed to the growth of awareness and discussion about the relationship between the museum and society. The emergence of the new museology in the 1970s was an important step in the development of the museum’s mission towards the society in which it is located and its interaction with its members. New types of museums have emerged as a result of these ideas.
How do new types of museums (community museums, eco-museums, etc.) differ from the old or “classical” museums? First of all, the fact that new museums deal with not only and not so much with collections of objects, but with everything that makes up living everyday life. One of the founders of the new museology, the French museologist H. de Varine6 contrasted the characteristics of the new museum “heritage – place – population” with those characteristics of the traditional museum “collection – building – public”. Another distinctive feature of new museums is the study, description, and interpretation of both tangible and intangible heritage. Thus, the focus of new types of museums on the collection of information, interaction with the surrounding worlds, communities, contributed to the intensification of the discussion about the social mission of the museum in the 21st century.
Moving on to the last part of your question, I`m going to focus first on how the museum’s educational programs involve visitors. To answer this question, I would like to turn to the work of K. Hudson “Museums of Influence” (1987). In the last chapter, “Landmarks for the Future,” K. Hudson
wrote that the key task facing museums is how to make the average visitor feel self-confidence against the backdrop of changes taking place in the modern world. In order to give visitors self- confidence, to give them a sense of the ground under their feet, the museum has to understand clearly the needs of the community in which it is located and to solve them at the level and by those means that are available to the museum. The extent to which a museum’s educational (or any other) programs of interacting with audiences solve its problems is an indicator of its attractiveness and involvement. For this, the museum should pay attention to the needs of a certain age and social groups included in the community and develop educational programs in accordance with the needs and interests of the target audience.
One of these needs of the museum audience may be the need for interesting leisure, getting new experiences, which the museum can solve by creating an immersive space or exhibition7. The growth in popularity of immersive projects over the past 10-15 years is directly related to the development of modern technologies, as they allow artists to create large-scale works of art that visitors can literally immerse themselves in. Such an exhibition or exposition is a holistic creative statement, a separate piece of art, created from a complex combination of images, light, color, sound, tactile materials, perhaps even smells. Creating an immersive museum space is a long and complex process involving a group of experts: artists, photographers, screenwriters, engineers,
etc. In addition to the self-expression of the authors of the immersive museum project, their primary task is that visitors (both adults and children) receive qualitatively new impressions, visual experiences, emotions. Therefore, immersiveness is widely used in many art museums and galleries, natural science, archaeological museums, etc.
6. Do you think digital platforms and gadgets could help intrepret this hard issues in museums, and what way?
It seems to be that we don’t know that yet. Digital platforms and gadgets deal with images of heritage rather than with real things, objects, or places themselves, and this is not just about difficult heritage. Considering these non-material images, we move from museum communication into the plane of visual communication. The investigation, how difficult heritage is digitalized, translated, interpreted in the scope of visual culture, is a completely new aspect of its study.
In particular, the Center for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage8 of the Humboldt- Universität zu Berlin (headed by S. McDonald) has launched a new research project “Curating Digital Images”9 in 2020, focusing on the study of digital images of heritage (including those classified as “difficult”) in the museum context from the position of anthropological research. In my opinion, the implementation of this research project largely will determine the vector for the development of research on the difficult heritage for the next decade.
My Ph.D. research with the title “Museum interpretation of dissonant heritage in contemporary visual culture” also focuses on how museum interpretation of difficult heritage influences its positioning in modern visual culture. We are interested in questions: what images of difficult heritage are translated into the visual space through museum interpretation? How do they function within the framework of the museum and visual communication? What is the role of the museum audience in visualizing difficult heritage and disseminating its images? To answer them, we
discover the museum’s interpretation of difficult heritage in visual culture in Russia and Europa, because it exists in any form in all countries.
Studying research questions, we focus on difficult heritage as a phenomenon that lies in an interdisciplinary field of research. For this, we combine a “traditional” cultural approach to this topic with museological concepts of Е. Hooper-Greenhill and L. Smith and methods used in studies of visual culture and political discourse. The focus on the visual sources will allow us to collect the most relevant data on the role of museum interpretation of difficult heritage in its positioning in modern visual culture, as well as to generalize and analyze disparate visual representations of difficult heritage using a single (in our case, museological) research optics.
7. Lastly, do you have further research topics or any new projects that you could tell us?
My scientific interests are not limited to difficult heritage, and I am also very interested in the problems of modern museological education – what departments exist in different countries, who teaches there, what is emphasized in teaching. I am currently working on an article on museological education in German universities. As part of the preparation of this article, it was very gratifying for me to discover an interest in the difficult heritage in some departments in Germany. In particular, the Professur of Museology in Würzburg is working on a dissertation on the attitude of teachers to participatory practices in educational work and the culture of memory in museum institutions10 working with the difficult legacy of the National Socialist period11. As I constantly work with foreign scientific literature and Russian sources, I understand that in Russia there is a problem of accessibility and awareness of researchers about the works of foreign authors. Therefore, I consider the preparation of detailed reviews of foreign studies that are not known to us as an important element of my scientific work.
In general, I want to continue to research difficult heritage, because this topic is so multifaceted that it is unlikely that there will come a time in the future when we can say that we have an exhaustive picture on this issue. From my point of view, the study of difficult heritage in our century will rise to the same level in importance as the new and critical museology. They were something completely innovative about 50 years ago, but after some time they were recognized and accepted by the scientific community, and now they are perceived us (at least the younger generation of researchers) as something basic in the field of museology and heritage.