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Genealogies of Memory: Reflections on the conference held in late 2011

Dr Anton Popov, University of Warwick MYPLACE team member and Work Package co-leader, and Warwick PhD student Daniel Hanu on the recent international conference ‘Genealogies of Memory in Central and Eastern Europe: Theories and Methods’, organized by the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity,  held in Warsaw , and it’s relevance to MYPLACE.

This was originally posted on the MYPLACE blog. Follow MYPLACE on Twitter hereFor more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website here.

The international conference ‘Genealogies of Memory in Central and Eastern Europe: Theories and Methods’, organized by the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity was held in Warsaw, Poland, between 22nd and 25th November 2011 ( It brought together scholars from diverse backgrounds studying memory across and within the former Communist bloc in an attempt to create a fruitful environment that would map the state of the art in memory studies in the region and pinpoint areas for further development. The papers that were presented during the three full days of the conference ranged from addressing theoretical issues – focusing on the question ‘why is Eastern Europe special?’ – to outlining the timeline of national sociological traditions in memory studies, from questioning the relevance of the ‘political generation’ concept to addressing second-hand memories, as they appear in Polish post-socialist fiction, and from focusing on emplacement to discussing the roles of films and museums in processes of memorialisation, from the role of historians to the uses of private and public discourses. However, topics such as nostalgia or the memories of the former nomenklatura did not find a place in this vast array of panels.

In fact, in his reflections on the papers presented at the conference, Jeffrey Olick, one of the leading scholars working in memory studies, pointed out that although the interest in the regionally particular approaches in researching memory is important and justifiable, it is important to keep in mind that the field of memory studies is much boarder than just politics of memory in the context of particular regional history or in connection to national identity. Thus among areas which were somehow neglected at the conference Olick noted health and memory, gerontological approaches to remembering, individual memories, and religion as a way of transmitting memories and, more generally, as a factor determining what and how we remember. The fact that very few papers were presented on the latter topic might itself reflect the particular conditions in the post-socialist Central and East European societies which are characterized by, on the one hand marginality of religion in the predominantly atheist secular societies, but on the other hand, this lack of attention to religion on the part of local researchers might be a lasting legacy of the Marxist-secularist tradition in social research in this region. Therefore, in the search for their unique approach in memory studies, researchers from Central and Eastern Europe have to be reflexive in terms of their social positioning towards the subject matter of their studies which is conditioned also by the past and present politics of knowledge.

The growing interest in collective memory as a subject area for social studies and humanities was noticed by several presenters at the conference. In her keynote speech, Aleida Assmann offered one possible interpretation of recent interest in collective memory. In the paper she argued about the ‘transformative power of memory’ in terms of both an ability of memory to transform the societies and transformations of the memory. From her point of view the development of approaches to society and history in the twentieth century can be presented as a transition from the ‘modernist frame’ (the 1940s-60s, forgetting as a way to resolve the negative past) to ‘memory frame’ (the last 30 years, remembering helps to overcome traumatic legacy of the past, e.g. ‘memory culture’ in Germany). The former is a ‘moralist perspective’, whereas the latter is the ‘ethical approach’. This transition implies the transformation of history into ‘national memory’ which has been understood in two ways: as ‘political myths’ and what Pierre Nora calls ‘lieux de memoire’ (in symbolic time and space). In terms of the impact this development has on policies, Assmann distinguishes ‘the old memory policy’ that has been built on pride and the ‘new’ one which emphasizes responsibility. This ethical approach to memory accounts for the EU as a result of the traumatic history. Thus ‘shareable memory’ (not shared memory) is the way to overcoming this trauma; by developing empathy with the experiences of others. This suggests an understanding of memory as a ‘dialogic’ process which brings together bilateral, entangled histories, thus accommodating several perspectives, including the one of victims who now ‘speak for themselves’. This dialogic understanding of memory underpins the human rights agenda. Assmann’s interpretation of the ‘memory turn’ strives to provide a universalistic explanation for the rejection of the ‘modernist frame’. However, in a way this approach remains within the same modernist (and to some extend Eurocentric) paradigm which prioritise the political function of memory.

In her presentation Aleida Assmann discussed memory within the same ‘national’ framework and at the ‘country level’. In a similar way, the majority of papers presented at the conference had their focus on ‘national memories’. To add to Olick’s list of themes that were absent from the conference, one might point out the memories of movement and mobility which would transcend the ‘national frame’ by connecting places and cultures bringing in memory narratives which are not embedded in national territory and history.

Even within the ‘national’ framework, the conference addressed issues related to memorialisation in just a few Central and Eastern Europe societies. Poland, Germany, Russia, Hungary and, possibly, Ukraine, could be considered the privileged case-studies. At the same time, however, former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Moldova etc were virtually absent. More generally, if the selection of papers presented at the conference is taken to be representative for the research undertaken in Central and Eastern Europe, then one would have the powerful feeling that the Holocaust is remembered to a greater extent, and in more various ways, than the Gulag, or, more generally, the Communist era. Undoubtedly, the preponderance of Holocaust studies could be justified by the fact that the conference was organised in Poland, which could be considered the centre of the Holocaust ‘narrative’, and that the majority of speakers did indeed come from Poland; including papers focusing on the societies which barely appeared in the research presented at the conference would have probably tipped the balance in favour of remembering Socialism, since the Communism/Socialism narrative is much more visible at public level in particular contexts, as one could argue.

The focus on the memories of Holocaust would partly explain the centrality of the concept of ‘trauma’ for many papers presented at the conference. At the same time several presenters, as well as commentators, raised the interesting and important point that the current Holocaust studies are dominated by the discourse which has been developed in the West and by the voices of the survivors who moved to the West (including Israel) after WWII. This discourse emphasizes the collective suffering and redefines the traumatic experience of individuals as part of the ‘collective trauma’. Whereas in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, due to initial stigma attached by the Stalinist regime to the victims of the Nazi concentration camps and later because of internationalist ideology which stresses the common suffering rather than a genocide of Jews and Roma, the memories of Holocaust survivors were constructed as more individual recollections which did not suppose any collective narrative of suffering or trauma. Perhaps, due to this difference the memories of Soviet prisoners of war and concentration camp survivals are sometimes structured by narrators, as it was shown by Martina Staats in her paper ‘Memories of Bergen-Belsen’, as stories of survival and the triumph of life over death, exemplified by the individual life trajectory rather than the part of the collective experience of trauma and victimhood. This is a very useful reminder that memory is part of the broader cultural and political processes which shaped the discourses within which individual recollections are produced, sometimes acting as ‘rules of the genre’ for such narratives.

Quite a few papers presented at the conference were on the topics and/or raised issues directly relevant to the MYPLACE research focus on memory, its intergenerational transmission, political activism and museums as ‘sites’ and ‘media’ of memory. For example the paper ‘Regimes of Memory in Communist and Post-Communist Romanian Museums’ by Simina Bădică presented an interesting observation about continuities and changes in the representation of socialism: pre-1989 representation of Communism has been rather mechanically amended after the change of the regime simply by changing the labels under the same objects, photographs and artefacts – that is, in temporary exhibitions, since there is still no large-scale exhibition dealing with the Communist era. At the same time the museums from two periods are organically linked demonstrating continuities in curatorial practices, staffing, and premises they have been occupying. Several presenters and commentators pointed out the deductive/educational style of labels in the Communist museums as if the correct understanding of the past by visitors was their main preoccupation. In the post-socialist media (e.g. museums and films) memories of Communism often presented in a politically loaded way by highlighting its ‘negative’/‘darker’ sides thought discourses of ‘collective trauma’, ‘occupation’, ‘prosecutions’,  ‘crimes of totalitarianism’, etc. without leaving space for other interpretations and ways of remembering this period. As Nicoletta Diasio commentated, these discursively constructed ‘anti-Soviet’ politics of remembering situated in a striking contrast with the nostalgic memories of socialism which museum visitors experience in a more sensorial and embodied way in Soviet/Communist theme cafés that are often present on the premises of such museums. Remembrance as embodiment, including a sensorial ordering of reminiscences constituted a topic of Diasio’s paper. She approached the intergenerational and family transmissions of memories from the anthropological perspective as bodily practices. Body here is understood as a medium of a subject’s experience which has corporal, emotional and sensorial aspects. Thus family resemblance, skills and body techniques are examples of such embodied memories which are passed within the family and sometimes form the core of family narratives. At the same time, the articulations – these seemingly physiological or biologically determined aspects are culturally and historically conditioned.

However, on a slightly more critical note, notwithstanding a few excellent contributions, some of which were mentioned earlier, memories and processes of remembrance were dealt with on an abstract, textual level. Most of the papers focused on the production and regulation of memories and their impact on, or reflection of, social/cultural identities, and very few speakers tried to address the way in which these representations of the past, mediated by, and transmitted through, museums, films, literature, and historical narratives were received and consumed by their audiences. Also apart from photographs included in some presentations, there was no use of sound, moving images or objects. And certainly, remembrance can be attained through sensorial and material means as well, as Nicoletta Diasio argued.

‘Genealogies of Memory’ certainly achieved at least one important goal: it made participants – whether presenters or simply people interested in the ongoing debates – aware that memory studies are still very actual, and, in fact, there is more to be remembered than it appears at a first glance, when surveying the scholarly literature published in widely spoken languages, such as English. All in all, without attempting to include a comprehensive presentation of the state of memory studies in all Eastern and Central Europe, ‘Genealogies of Memory’ did offer thought-provoking analyses of memorialisation processes in Europe, thus demonstrating that people who study memory in specific, geographically limited contexts are not alone and that the issues they encounter are not necessarily geographically and culturally specific. What is to be done next?  We strongly believe that debates around processes of remembrance should not be confined to ‘national’ frameworks, dealing with memories only – or mainly – at textual level. On the contrary, collective projects such as MYPLACE forward the idea that in an era of globalisation, processes of memorialisation go beyond boundaries, of whichever type.

Memories of a ‘Ghost Town’: the George Shaw exhibition in The Herbert Museum, Coventry, UK

Dr Anton Popov, University of Warwick MYPLACE team member, on the new exhibition by Turner Prize nominated local artist George Shaw at the Herbert Museum and Art Gallery in Coventry, and its particular relevance to the work of MYPLACE.

For more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website: HERE

This was originally posted on the MYPLACE blog. Follow MYPLACE on Twitter here

On 18 November, the George Shaw exhibition ‘I woz ere’ has been opened for the public in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. Among those invited to the exhibition launch event on 17 November were a number of VIPs (from different art councils, Coventry City Council, etc) but also many ‘ordinary’ people from Coventry and its Tile Hill aria in particular.  A Turner Prize nominated artist, George Shaw was born in 1966 and grew up in Tile Hill, a predominantly white, working class and rather poor area of the town. He left home in 1986 to do his formal art training in Sheffield, but he stayed in touch with the place through frequent visits to his parents who continued to live in Tile Hill. What was left behind is the place and time from which he grew out as an artist – something which is material and, therefore, perishable, but also social – being embedded in the fabric of everyday relationships between people in this neighbourhood in the late 1970s-erly 1980s. The exhibition is an attempt to come back to that time and place on the Tile Hill housing estate, to remember what is forgotten, or as George Shaw put it ‘to paint what you don’t remember’.

The key theme of the exhibition and George’s works presented there is memory. The visitors from Tile Hill many of whom were people in their 40s, 50s, or even 70s were looking at the paintings of pubs and social clubs which had been demolished for some years as a reminder of the time when they were young. I heard phrases like ‘I remember the stuff we were doing there…’. One man told me pointing on the painting of the pub ‘New Star’ with excitement as if he had just met an old friend, ‘It’s flat now there, know, this place’s gone.’ Two elderly ladies were talking to each other while looking at this painting and almost touching it with their fingers pointing on different part on the building depicted as if they were looking at the old photograph of a family home and remembering what flowers or trees used to grow in which corner of the yard.

In his speech before the opening of the gallery for visitors, George, however, warned an audience that his works were not photographic representation of the past but rather pictures from his imagination that represented the places to which he felt connected. In a way this was his way of saying ‘I was there’ (hence the title of the exhibition), to add his mark to the walls that are already heavily covered with graffiti in the places… which are not there anymore. Therefore, these paintings access the past and memory through emotional engagement with the special realm of the urban landscape. In our brief conversation, George said that for him memory is not textual but emotional, something which you can feel and painting is the way to do it. When he was painting these places the details that he did not remember (did he forget them, or were they there at all?) started emerging. These details are essential for his memories but before they materialised through the bodily work of painting they were not there. For me this captures perfectly the sense that social memory is a sensorial process which might be expressed through text, narrative, image, sound, etc – representing the past, the meanings of which are socially constructed. But it also has to be felt emotionally and therefore awaken physical responses of your body, becoming part of your bodily experience. It is this emotional and sensorial nature of memory that makes it possible to connect paintings representing George Shaw’s memories of growing up in Tile Hill in the 1970s-80s with other individual recollections of that place and time or even with recollections of other places and other times. Looking at George’s paintings of dilapidated garages on the town outskirts, I suddenly realised that I was familiarising this strange landmarks with my own memories (something which I was not aware, or remember, before) of hanging out around old sheds and garages in my ‘block’ in the 1980s in Krasnodar, Russia. As children we were attracted to these secluded places (in the rather busy centre of the big city) covered with strange graffiti, old domestic stuff and litter.

In their attention to details and implicit presence of the social context, the works presented in the exhibition are very ethnographic.  The paintings are devoid of any human presence in them, but yet one can feel that something is going on there, which makes sense in this particular place and time. George often depicts the ordinary places as if they were just left by people (residents, random passers-by, adolescents socialising there, children rushing to and from school). This interest in memories of ‘ordinary’ brings his paintings closer to ethnography with its preoccupation with building insightful interpretations of the everyday, mundane and ordinary. One of the paintings presented in the exhibitions ‘Details of untitled’ is particularly striking in this respect. It shows the part/corner of the red brick wall with a very violent splashes of paint on it. In his comments to this painting Shaw writes:

‘I used to see these paint incidents all the time when I was growing up. They always struck me as being very violent or the gesture of violence or a symbol or drawing of a violent thought. They appear in tucked away places or in the old places that buildings have appeared around. Such places hang on to their savage and brutal origins before time and drag half-innocents into a magical alliance involving ritual and transformation. Participants would no doubt have returned home with telltale signs of gloss paint on their clothing or hands – shame on a shirt sleeve or shoe – to be ignored most likely, excused, forgotten like the thousand tiny crimes of all our growing up. The getting caught was always the real blunder. How many of those tiny crimes grow up with us, becoming the tragic horrors we read about or have the misfortune to meet. Of course like most violence it has a beauty all of its own…’

This almost ethnographic contextualisation of landscape and its meanings with violence as part of it (broken-in garages, violent graffiti on the walls, secluded paths, and piled old furniture on the edge of the wood) sometimes is interpreted by observers as a reference to the particular period in the UK, and more precise Coventry, past. The 1970s-80s is the period which in British history is associated with the name of Margaret Thatcher and radical transformations in the social, political and economic life of the country. With economic recession at its background, the conservative government attempted a restructuring of industry that led to closure of many factories, plants and collieries. Driven by the individualist, neo-liberal in its core ideology, the government launched its attack on ‘society’ (Thatcher stated that ‘there is no such thing as society’). The state was withdrawing in different ways its support for the most vulnerable. The tenants of council houses were encouraged to buy their homes in pursuit of the ‘homeowners’ democracy’ ideal. The social tensions grew resulting in the deterioration of inter-racial relations and popularity of far-right groups and movements such as the National Front, and street violence (in which police took active part) manifested in racial riots and miners’ strike in the early 1980s. The Falkland War, to some extent was instrumental for the government to resurrect an ‘imperial nostalgia’ in response to the public discontent with the economic and political climate. Thus in his recent article Stuart Hall defines that period as an ‘authoritarian populism’ (Hall, S. (2011) ‘Neo-Liberal Revolution’,Cultural Studies, 25 (6)).

This atmosphere had been captured and expressed in the music of the Coventry Ska band The Specials. Perhaps their most famous 1980 song ‘Ghost Town’  (it is sometimes seen as a song about Coventry)

(Clip from EMI records official Youtube channel)

raises the issue of the growing violence in the fragmented society of the increasingly deindustrialised British cities. As a true Two Tone band, The Specials were driven by both white and black music heritage and British working class culture. They were essential for the revival of the traditional skinhead scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s (songs like ‘Skinhead Moonstomp’ (1979)) singing about the problems which British society faced including racial violence perpetrated by the National Front supporters and nazi-skins (‘Why?’ (1981)).

The cross-references to the George Shaw paintings and The Specials music are not surprising therefore. Growing up in the 1970s, George Shaw could directly relate his experience of living in working class housing estate on the outskirts of Coventry to The Specials’ songs. Some of his early paintings from that period (before he did any formal fine art training) presented at the exhibition in The Herbert depicted young skinheads and punks as well as scenes of street violence. One or two of these early paintings look as if they were snapshots from the film ‘This is England’, the film which was shot in 2009 but tells the story of a skinhead group in the early 1980s. (The soundtrack to this film includes The Specials’ songs). In fact George Shaw mentioned The Specials and the impact which this band had on people of his generation in some of his interviews (

At the same time, during his recent appearance on Radio 4 Loose Ends programme, Jerry Dammers (The Specials) talked about George Shaw and how his art (the paintings from 1990s-2000s rather than the earlier works) visually represents what the Specials expressed in their music. (

In his speech at the exhibition launch, George Shaw said that as a kid he saw The Herbert as an opportunity to encounter a ‘real culture’ beyond watching TV and listening to The Specials. Ironically, he has his first single exhibition in this museum on its first floor exactly above The Herbert’s history galleries where The Specials and Two Tone music are displayed on the permanent stands (see photo above). This brings me to my final point about the way in which memories and representation of the past and particular periods of history are transmitted and, at least partly, shaped by museums. In agreement with Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, Scott points out that the museum displays of culture require deliberate ‘fragmentation’ of ethnographic objects as they are detached from their larger context in order to be later ‘reconceptualised’ through the recreation of the absent context but within a theoretical frame of reference which provides viewers with explanations, comparisons and historical background (Scott, J. (2002) ‘Mapping the Past: Turkish Cypriot Narratives of Time and Place in the Canbulat Museum, Northern Cyprus’, History and Anthropology, 13: 226).

The Herbert is a museum of the people of Coventry and it represents a particular vision of these people and their city’s history and culture. Thus the current George Shaw exhibition can be interpreted as a celebration of something which people of Coventry are proud of. Together with The Specials and the Coventry City FC FA cup victory in 1987 (both stands are situated side by side in the history galleries, and the 35th anniversary of the Coventry City FA cup victory was mentioned by several VIPs in their speeches at the launch event), the work of a ‘Cov kid’, George Shaw, is something which put Coventry on ‘the map’. The Coventry accent, so to speak, here is particularly important. After all the exhibition is a collection of the paintings from the artist’s different series on which he was working during last 15 years, but it is framed by the above mentioned early works and a series of very recent watercolours commissioned by The Herbert especially for this exhibition, acquiring its historical context which links the artist’s biography with Coventry’s (in fact, rather, Tile Hill’s) history.

At the other level, ‘I woz ere’ represents a political position of The Herbert; that is to promote diversity and multiculturalism (something which current government is rather sceptical of, if not hostile to). Therefore, memories of Tile Hill, a marginal area, both in terms of the city’s geography and socio-economic demographics, are put forward and in the focus of this exhibition, and indeed of the museum as a whole. To draw a parallel with The Specials’ representation in the museum’s historical galleries, the extract from filmed interview with members of the band on the growing inter-racial violence in the UK in the early 1980s is demonstrated there on a monitor placed under a big “Coventry Colliery Miners’ Wives Group” banner together with other short clips about the people of Coventry in active political participation (see photo below). Interestingly politicians present at the launch event (in this case the representative of the city council) formulated the purpose of the George Shaw exhibition as to ‘bring the people of Coventry together at this difficult time’. Perhaps it is too naïve to expect that paintings representing personal memories of the vanishing places would fulfil such an ambitious political task. However, George Shaw paintings being contextualised within a particular historical and cultural perspective can be an invitation for reflections on why and how society has changed. To some extent it provides the space for ordinary people to voice their memories which might or might not resonate with the ones of George Shaw. I heard, for example, how en elderly man was saying to his much younger friend, looking at the drawings of skinheads, ‘At that time many kids were dropping out…’

The Herbert museum is Warwick University’s partner within the MYPLACE project’s ‘Interpreting the past’ work package. Our colleagues in the museum are very enthusiastic about the project and proactively search for possibilities to explore how historical memories influence the young people’s political participation and civic engagement. The George Shaw exhibition presents a great opportunity for us to address the issue of memories of the 1970s-80s as the ‘difficult past’ in both the local (Coventry) and national (Britain) context. The exhibition contains the watercolours which George painted during one of his most recent visits to the area. By his own admission, they represent the places which used to be familiar but now almost alien. Maybe because of this they are  more document-like than his more memory-based paintings. These watercolours, however, document the presence of the same anger and violence and frustration manifested through burned down signposts in the park, expressive graffiti, decaying furniture in the woods, etc. On one picture, an empty road corner can be identified as a site of the ‘New Star’ pub – one of four pubs in the area that have vanished since 1986. It would be interesting to see what young Coventry people would make of these memories of the ‘ghost town’ – memories of disappearing places, stories and ways of living.


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