Internet, Museums and Politics: Project Outline and Literature Review
This is part of our special feature, Digitization of Memory and Politics in Eastern Europe.
To say that history fuels conflicts and inspires sacrifice in times of war borders on a truism. Are people, however, emotionally invested in history in times of peace and prosperity?
In February 2019, the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk—a museum of the Polish trade union famous for the 1980 anti-communist strikes—sought financial assistance from the conservative central government. The latter agreed to grant a subsidy in exchange for a greater say in the day-to-day running of the museum, hitherto frequently associated with the opposition parties. The museum declined and started an online fundraiser, which within one month exceeded $1 million, mostly from individual donations. The conflict was accompanied by public demonstrations and received extensive media coverage.
Events of this single month in Gdańsk exhibited a number of themes emblematic of “memory wars” in Central and Eastern (CE) Europe:
- A cultural institution was associated with one political option.
- Another political party attempted a takeover.
- “Ordinary people” sacrificed their time and money to support one side of the conflict.
- The Internet was used as a battleground over history.
A project I am embarking on—an analysis of online and offline museums in CE Europe—explores these four phenomena. The Internet, however, is at the center of my research. In the case of the European Solidarity Centre, the Internet was used for fundraising, discussion, and sharing news, but these are not the only functions it can serve. Websites, blogs, and social media groups can act as complete museums, with entrance halls, sightseeing routes, exhibits, labels, and even museum shops. Such technologically novel forms of commemoration, as Susan Crane (2000, 12) suggests, may force researchers to broaden the definition of a museum, from an institution that collects and displays objects to “any real or imaginary site where the conflict or interaction or simulation of or between personal and collective memory occurs.” At this stage, I cautiously adopt this rather broad definition. Ensuing research will show if the concept of a museum requires further re-definition.
This working paper serves as a starting point for a project that puts under scrutiny six museums from CE Europe: the Museum of the Second World War (Poland); the Centre against Expulsions (Germany); the Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation (Germany); the Documentation Centre and Museum of Migration (Germany); the Virtual Museum of Wrzeszcz (Poland); and the Virtual Museum of the Gulag (Russia). My exact selection criteria are not discussed here for space constraints. What connects these six diverse museums is their transnationality: each of them either deals with a twentieth-century topic in which the memory of several national communities is entangled, or is described as (and sometimes accused of being) transnational.
My project compares both “production” and “consumption” of museums in the physical sphere with that of museums on the Internet. It analyzes the actors behind online and offline commemoration, their motives, the narratives that they forge, and their choice of target groups. It also puts under scrutiny museum visitors, their expectations, their interpretation of the exhibitions, and their real and imagined agency as consumers of historical narratives. I seek to determine in what ways and to what extent commemoration can be influenced by the “medium” through which it is performed. My working hypothesis is that the physical sphere is dominated by government-run museums that disseminate primarily national narratives. The online sphere also boasts some governmental presence, but in addition opens the field of commemoration to individuals and non-governmental actors, who add both local and transnational perspectives. Furthermore, while many traditional and virtual museums nowadays aim at being interactive, those active on the Internet give visitors greater agency in interpreting, contesting, and sometimes even shaping the historical narrative.
My project spans three key disciplines: politics of history, museum studies, and social science of the Internet. It also engages with transnational history. Each of these areas boasts a significant and ever-growing body of literature.
Politics of history
The term “politics of history” (German Geschichtspolitik, Polish polityka historyczna, Russian историческая политика) refers to the ways in which political actors—governments and political parties, but also NGOs and individuals—use history to further their own aims (Wolfrum 1999, 25-27). Such practices have come under scrutiny from historians and political scientists, primarily those working in CE Europe. Edgar Wolfrum (1999) and Jon Brendt Olsen (2015) analyzed the forging of collective memory in pre-1990 West and East Germany respectively. Włodzimierz Borodziej (2010) devised a periodization of politics of history in post-1989 Poland. More recently, Philipp Bürger (2018) examined Russian politics of history in the Putin era through the prism of patriotic events, education, and presidential speeches.
In addition to “national” studies, recent research has also focused on transnational projects that shape historical narratives at a regional level. Thomas Strobel (2015) analyzed pre-1990 history textbook negotiations between West Germany and Poland, Stefan Guth (2015) looked more broadly at the Polish-German dialogue of historians and its political implications in the twentieth century, and Andrzej de Lazari (2011) reviewed a publication of the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Matters in the context of Polish-Russian relations in the 2010s. In addition to books pertaining to CE Europe, there is a growing body of literature that focuses more generally on the relation between politics and history in the modern world; some of these works, such as Margaret Macmillan’s The Uses and Abuses of History (2010), are aimed at the broader public.
Museums, however, seem to be left out from most studies of politics of history or mentioned only in passing, sometimes—for instance in Rudy Koshar’s (1994, 230) article on historical preservation in Germany—as a possible case study for the future. This absence of museums may seem surprising, given that they have been politically contested at least since the nineteenth century (Greenhalgh 1989, 94), and probably stems from disciplinary boundaries in academia. Scholars dealing with politics of history are usually historians or political scientists, working in well-established faculties, while museum studies is a comparatively new discipline, often housed by separate departments or by faculties of archaeology.
Traditionally, research within museum studies focused on the technical aspects of museums’ operations, and sometimes on their reputation. Peter Vergo (1989, 3) criticized this pre-1990s approach: it was “too much about museum methods, and too little about the purposes of museums;” according to him, scholars focused on the museums’ form rather than on their place in society. Vergo then proposed an alternative approach, known as new museology (after the book’s title), new museum theory, or critical museum theory (Vergo 1989, Marstine 2006, 5-6). This approach stresses that even though museum curators think that they act according to a prescribed set of procedures, which they (as well as previous museum studies scholars) see as neutral and purely technical, the construction of an exhibition is in fact conditioned by the culture of a given institution and of society in which it functions. The choice and order of exhibits, Vergo (1989, 2) avers, derives both from “the system of values particular to the institution [museum] itself” and, more significantly, from “our education, our upbringing, our prejudices.” Similarly, Janet Marstine (2006, 5) claims that “the decisions these workers [curators] make reflect underlying value systems that are encoded in institutional narratives.”
Scholars subscribing to new museum theory analyze how society impacts museums, and how museums in turn influence society. Much of this research, therefore, automatically deals with the political frameworks in which museums function and with which they interact. Lianne McTavish (2006, 228) stresses that museums “participate in the way society is ordered, shaping politics, national identities, and distinctions between high and popular culture,” Robin Ostow (2008, 157-180) shows how one Central European museum stirred public opinion across the globe, and Paul Greenhalgh (1989) sheds light on the differences in socio-political engagement of museums in the UK and in France in a historical perspective. Some new museum theory scholarship is even designed as interventionist—published with the aim of changing the ways museums operate and of increasing their institutional self-awareness. One such book is Marstine’s New Museum Theory and Practice (2006). Therefore, while research on politics of history engages with museums only sporadically, museum studies scholars do not shy away from discussing politics of history. Their analyses, however, rarely venture beyond the topic of museums, perhaps due to the aforementioned disciplinary divisions in academia.
The potential of the Internet as a vehicle for commemoration has not escaped the attention of some new museum theory scholars. Crane (2000, 12) notes the challenge that online museums pose to the definition of a museum, Marstine (2006, 7) mentions that a website can “facilitate cooperation” between curators, and McTavish (2006) compares the experiences of visitors to traditional and to virtual art galleries. The first two cases, however, are brief side notes in a larger argument, and both Marstine and McTavish focus on art exhibitions. I am not aware of any publications specifically dealing with the social and political role of online history museums.
Social science of the Internet
Before social scientists developed specific methodologies to research the Internet, they had been analyzing online developments using offline methods. Denise Carter (2005, 150) used participant observation and semi-structured interviews to research a virtual community called Cybercity. Similarly, musical anthropologist Rene Lysloff’s (2003, 234-5) online “research tools were not all that different from those used in classical field research.”
Since the mid-2000s, digital sociology has been on the rise. One of the key early books was Qualitative Research and Hypermedia by Bella Dicks et al. (2005). The field was further developed by Deborah Lupton (2014) and Noortje Marres (2017). Even more relevant to the present project are similar developments in anthropology. In 2012, Heather Horst and Daniel Miller proposed the creation of a new sub-discipline: digital anthropology. They make two points of particular significance. First, they define the term “digital” as referring to “all that which can be ultimately reduced to binary code.” Second, they contest the idea that the Internet has a “homogenizing” effect on its users and stress that human-digital interactions are culturally conditioned and thus differ depending on the context (Horst and Miller 2012, 4-5).
In 2012, sociologists and anthropologists joined forces to develop a framework for ethnography of the cyberspace (Boellstorff, et al. 2012). A similarly interdisciplinary project led to the publication of Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice by Sarah Pink et al. (2016). The latter book proposes a “non-digital-centric approach to the digital”: the Internet is to be analyzed in the broader context in which it is used and experienced (Pink, et al. 2016, 7-9). Finally, in 2014, Mark Graham and William Dutton edited an introductory “guide” to an entirely new field: Internet Studies. Graham and Dutton (2014, 8) envisaged this field as a multidisciplinary one; scholars subscribing to it would adopt a problem-based approach, use diverse methodologies and employ multiple theoretical perspectives. The cross-disciplinarity underlying these recent works is also shared by my project.
Social scientific theories, both pre-digital and new ones, have also been employed by researchers exploring the links between the Internet and politics, primarily at the grassroot level. For instance, Fanar Haddad (2012) explored the potential and perils of using video sharing sites for analyzing daily life in conflict zones, while Zizi Papacharissi (2016) discussed the significance of Twitter for the emergence of “affective publics” during the “Arab Spring” in Egypt and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
In this scholarship, however, references to politics of history (or to history itself) are rare and usually tangential. This may stem from the fact that the Internet, a novel occurrence in itself, encourages research on processes concerned with the present rather than with the past. Furthermore, most researchers approach the Internet “as a medium for the distribution of sources and research results, and not as a historical source in its own right” (Schroeder and Brügger 2017, 14). It was only in 2017 that Ralph Schroeder and Niels Brügger published The Web as History, showing how historians can engage with online content as a primary source. Still, this volume makes no mention of politics of history or online museums.
While unrelated to history or museums, an article by Michael Hohl provides an important starting point for my analysis of human-computer interaction and of the real-virtual dichotomy. Websites, Hohl shows, are imagined as “real-life” spaces (linguistically, we speak about a “visit” to a website), even though Internet users do not sensually experience cyberspace (e.g. there is no draught when one opens a website, as opposed to opening the door). Hohl advocates for the creation of mechanisms which would enable users to sensually feel their online experiences – this would facilitate better human-computer and user-user interaction (Hohl 2009, 279-281). What is perhaps most surprising for present-day readers is that Hohl mentions no dangers associated with such “emotional design” (Hohl 2009, 283). His ideas, nevertheless, are applicable to my analysis of how Internet-based museums create (the illusion of) spatiality through (online) discourse. Hohl’s conclusions, as well as my preliminary findings, are in contrast with Schroeder and Brügger’s (2017, 17) claim that in the world of present-day Internet, “the geographical metaphor [becomes] increasingly outdated.”
Political scientists had been referring to transnationalism long before historians. According to the classical definition by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye (1972, xi-xii), transnational relations refer to “contacts, coalitions and interactions across state boundaries;” additionally, such relations involve at least one non-state actor. Historians started to adopt transnational perspectives in the 1990s, during the global turn, to study phenomena that escape the rigid confines of nation-states, such as trade, migration, or flow of ideas (Patel 2010, par. 2, Rodogno, Struck and Vogel 2015, 5). Researchers using a transnational approach have been producing primarily empirical studies, which led to the lack of a unified definition of transnationalism among historians (Patel 2010, par. 4-5). Some, like Ian Tyrrell (2007), subscribe broadly to Nye and Keohane’s framework; others, like Klaus Kiran Patel (2010, par. 4), write that only a negative definition—an opposition to the previously dominant national framework—can be agreed upon. There seems to be a general consensus, however, that transnational history, rather than providing strict methodological guidelines, constitutes a perspective or an approach—in Sven Beckert’s words: ‘a way of seeing’—that incorporates methodologies from various sub-disciplines, such as political, cultural or intellectual history (Bayly, et al. 2006, 1454-1459, Calvin 2005, 436, Patel 2010, par. 6-7).
A transnational approach, its proponents assert, enables historians to see a more complete picture of the phenomena they are studying. For instance, according to Patricia Seed, until recently, most historians of migration analyzed the impact that migrants have either on their host communities or on the societies they leave. A transnational perspective, Seed avers, can help historians understand more fully the mechanism of migration, its causes, and its effects at various locations (Bayly, et al. 2006, 1443). Transnational research benefits not only the study of inherently transnational processes—it also sheds new light on nations and nation-states, which, Tyrrell (2007) argues, emerged in the nineteenth century as a result of transnational developments. Moreover, according to Calvin (2005, 428-429), a transnational perspective crosses not just state borders—it also enables researchers to move beyond the not-necessarily-helpful periodisation of history, developed primarily by historians studying national and international history. Finally, transnational history yields organisational benefits: Patel (2010, par. 11) writes that it “provides an important alternative to the dominant principle of territoriality in the organisation of historical knowledge,” facilitating cooperation between historians that in a national framework would not have much in common.
Transnational history, however, does not come without challenges. Most commonly mentioned is the approach’s lack of formal definition—according to Tyrrell (2007), historians have been avoiding methodological and conceptual debates. As a result, the term “transnational” has become “a catch-all concept” (Calvin 2005, 434), which runs the risk of turning into “a fashionable, but empty phrase” (Patel 2010, par. 5). Another set of issues associated with transnational history stems, ironically, from national borders: the discipline, still relatively new, is more widely accepted in some countries, for instance in Germany, and less in others, such as Bulgaria or Italy. This is related to the difficulty with translating academic concepts across languages and cultures (Patel 2010, par. 2-4). Finally, a recent challenge was described by Lara Putnam, who—significantly for my project—explored the links between transnational history and the digital turn. Digital tools, such as online archives, make it more convenient to research two or more places (e.g. nation-states) and the links between them—not least because one can save on travel time. The downside, however, is that deep knowledge of the researched places’ history and historiography is no longer considered necessary. Such transnational research, Putnam warns, runs the risk of being based on anecdotal evidence and of focusing on “that which connects” at the expense of “that which is connected” (Putnam 2016, 377-399). Putnam does not, however, discredit the transnational approach—she merely advocates for transnationalists’ cooperation with local, regional and national historians, and encourages researchers to use digital tools in a cautious and informed manner (Putnam 2016, 400).
Academics rarely analyze how transnational history is linked with public history. Conversely, public history practitioners, journalists, and the non-academic public—particularly in CE Europe—widely discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the transnational approach (sometimes hidden behind apparently more approachable terms, such as “universalism” or “cosmopolitanism”). Examples include the debates surrounding the German Centre against Expulsions and the Polish Museum of the Second World War (both of which are my case studies). Some academic historians have also concerned themselves with this topic. In 2006, during the “conversation” on transnational history organized and published by the American Historical Review, Beckert raised the question of how transnational historians might engage their readers, who are used to national history; Connelly optimistically responded that such books “will challenge readers and not just pander to them,” and Bayly explained the benefits of teaching transnational history to schoolchildren (Bayly, et al. 2006, 1446, 1457, 1449). It is worthy of note that these important points were made in the less formal setting of a “conversation” rather than in an academic article and were not explored in great detail. For reasons unknown, many academics tend to shy away from analyzing the transnational-public history links in more formal scholarly settings.
My project’s contribution
My project falls primarily under three fields of research—politics of history, museum studies, and social science of the Internet—and seeks to make a contribution to each of these fields individually.
Scholarship on politics of history has traditionally been omitting non-governmental actors. This has recently started to change, especially in works written from a transnational perspective (see: Strobel 2015). My research follows this new approach: I explore the interactions, conflicts and dialogues—including cross-border ones—between governmental and non-governmental actors invested in shaping politics of history in CE Europe.
Over the past three decades, museum studies have been transformed by two developments: new museum theory and the turn towards the Internet as an area of research. The latter turn concerns almost exclusively art museums, which usually have an utterly different content, form and purpose than history museums. My research seeks to apply new museum theory—a critical examination of museums’ practices and policies in their social and political context—to history museums on the Internet, as well as to those in the offline sphere.
Social science of the Internet sometimes deals with materiality and spatiality. Hohl points at the spatially-oriented language that people use when referring to websites (e.g. a visit), hinting at the need of Internet users to imagine online spaces in offline terms. More recently, Schroeder and Brügger suggested that website developers and users had turned away from the “geographical metaphor.” My preliminary research shows that Schroeder and Brügger’s claim, made in relation to blogs and personal websites, does not necessarily apply to online museums. Building on Hohl’s work, I explore how curators of online museums create spatiality through discourse.
More importantly, my project links the three fields discussed above, which have hitherto been largely isolated from one another. I seek to: (1) include museums into the study of politics of history; (2) use museum studies’ methodology to research the Internet (here: online museums), and (3) add the study of politics of history to the existing research on the links between the Internet and politics. In this way, I want to gain a broader perspective on how historical narratives are “produced” and “consumed” by socially engaged publics in the digital age. My goal is to explore some of the mechanisms governing online and offline commemoration, and not to make generalizations about these mechanisms, as they are diverse and culturally conditioned. A researcher asking the same questions about commemoration in North America or Eastern Asia could reach entirely different conclusions.
Last but not least, this project focuses on museums that self-identify as transnational, or that have been described as (or accused of being) transnational. As such, it seeks to provide initial answers to the key questions in the long-overdue exploration of how non-academics of various political beliefs perceive transnational history. Do they see it as thought-provoking? Does the word “transnational” evoke any specific emotions? What political implications does it have? An answer to these questions can shed new light upon academia’s impact on society and upon the often unintended, but very concrete political implications of academic research.
Tadeusz Wojtych is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge (England). His research interests include politics of history, commemoration and education in Central and Eastern Europe. He holds a master’s degree from Cambridge and an undergraduate degree in Modern History and Russian from the University of St Andrews (Scotland). During his time in Scotland, he also worked as a research assistant at the Institute for Transnational and Spatial History and with the Universal Short Title Catalogue project.
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 This term has been in use since the 1990s to describe fierce conflicts over interpretations of the past (Koposov 2017, 12).
 Debates on the definition of transnationality and transnational history are discussed below.
 I am grateful to Rennan Lemos for our discussions on museums, archaeology and the creation of materiality through discourse.
 Michal Kopeček (2008) explains why the national paradigm continued to prevail in Central European historiographies up until the late 2010s (and – in some cases – still does).
Photo: Communist concentration camp GULAG | Shutterstock
Published on September 10, 2019.