Past Contemporary: The Politics of Memory in Social Museums and Public Spaces

An Introduction to Issue #7

The point of departure for Mezosfera’s thematic issue is the 30th anniversary of the 1989 regime change in Hungary and Eastern Europe. While it was already clear in Hungary in the mid-2000s that what was celebrated in the 1990s as a democratic political change—from socialism to capitalism, from totalitarianism to democracy—and Eastern Europe’s timely return to Europe (that is, Western Europe), was only a partial, failed regime change. Furthermore, coupled today with the three consecutive terms of Viktor Orbáns’s right-wing Fidesz government (since 2010) that has been building anew a centralized, authoritarian state, revisiting the past prior to 1989 emerged as a way of understanding the present, and perhaps also the future. The issue Past Contemporary. The Politics of Memory in Social Museums and Public Spaces endeavors, on a thematical level, to investigate how the past is and can be deployed in the present for future purposes; how access to the past is controlled by complex mechanisms of the present; how to go against these; and what this resistance entails. Today we can only speak about the memories of utopia, which projected the realization of a better world in the future. In Hungary, while recently left oriented people have started to search, critically, for alternative, utopian, and future idea(l)s in the socialist past, rightist-conservative groups are looking for heroic pasts, outside of the socialist era, in which nations were built and national values were set.

Heroes’ Square, Budapest, Hungary, June 16, 1989, the reburial of the martyrs of the 1956
anti-Soviet revolution in Hungary, which was one of the symbolic events of the 1989 regime
change in Hungary.
FOTO: FORTEPAN / Donor: Tamás Kovacsik

At the same time, the issue is also an endeavor in practice: to bring to a common, international platform case studies, describing various genres of initiatives, that are embedded in very diverse local contexts. The issue’s case studies foreground issues such as the theatricalization and the cementing of the right-wing interpretation of history in Hungary (Zsófia Frazon and Zsolt K.Horváth), remembrance as a community endeavor that museums are able to facilitate in Argentina (Cecilia Sosa and Philippa Page), a community commemorative, activist museum arising from a social-colonial conflict in the north of Ireland, (Sara Greavu), the foundation and the arduous afterlife of a Kenyan politician’s attempt at building a national collection in the colonial and post-independence period of Kenya (Rose Jepkorir Kiptum), attempts of de/memorializing colonialism in public monuments and artistic practices in mainly in Portugal (Marta Lança), and how art exhibitions put forth and maintain a specific interpretation of the past (Isel Arango Rodríguez). The attempt of the issue is not tokenism, not to have “representatives” from different parts of the world discussing the local manifestations of a “theoretical concept” (the politics of memory), but rather to create an interpretative context in which the local patterns are able to communicate with each other. While the case studies in the issue do not fall within the strictly understood category of contemporary art, the endeavor of Mezosfera, an art magazine, is precisely to contextualize these divergent cases in a contemporary art discourse. Besides authors in the issues who are social scientists, museulogists, and memory scholars, we thus also commissioned authors who work in the field of contemporary art to reflect on social museums: on the political, cultural, and art discourses around them rather than on their interpretation from a museological perspective. The starting point for us, within the Hungarian context, was the House of Terror in Budapest, an institution that was established in 2002 by the first right-wing government of Viktor Orbán (FIDESZ-MPP, 1998–2002) that wished to commemorate the victims of both the fascist and the communist regimes in Hungary. The historians, who created the narrative of the memorial site, chose not by chance the building of Andrássy Avenue 60 as a venue: previously it was the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazi Party, where they kept and tortured their detainees. Later the building was also used by the Communist Party’s secret police between 1945 and 1956 to detain, torture, and kill the enemies of the regime. The house created many controversies among historians, social scientists, and museologists already around its opening. Ethnographer and museologist Zsófia Frazon and historian Zsolt.K Horváth wrote a brilliant analysis already in 2002 also summarizing the scholarly and press reception of the newly founded institution. The authors emphasized that the FIDESZ-MPP government used the niche of missing ideologies and the lack of identity-forming symbolic political content already in 2002, on which they are still building their politics of memory today. They have created an anti-communist narrative that demonized the whole state socialist era, as a terrorist state, being far less adamant in unveiling the fascists period of the country. The anti-communist rhetoric was necessary to position the whole nation as a victim of the communist dictatorship, denying any responsibilities in the crimes that happened in the preceding era. The FIDESZ-MPP government used “self-interpretation through memory from an identity basis of the ‘victims’ to the envisioned and proclaimed ‘future’ and how this can be linked to the program of “national rehabilitation.”  This political memory includes a narrative based on victimology, being offended, and pointing to external enemies who carry the responsibilities for the nation’s victimhood. It is not surprising that the “foreign occupation” narrative also grew out from this chronicle: in 2014 a public monument was erected to commemorate the German occupation of Hungary in 1944, representing Hungary as a victim (the allegorical scene shows a figure being attacked by an eagle), denying Hungary’s long term alliance with Nazi Germany and its role in the Holocaust. These narratives that also lead to a xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric, which is the official standpoint of the Hungarian government today—as it is clearly visible 17 years after the foundation of the House of Terror—were first laid down, among others, precisely in the House of Terror.

The “victim” receives a very different position in the essay by Cecilia Sosa and Philippa Page, Performing Future Affiliations in Argentine Spaces of Memory. The authors foreground the revitalized memory sites of former detention centers in Argentina, where people were kept, tortured, and killed during the military dictatorship (1976–1983). These spaces of commemoration and collective mourning, according to the authors successfully combine the functions of the testimonial, the museological and the performative space. Commemorating, learning and experiencing of the difficult past is possible at the same site. In mediating the unspeakable, performativity gets an important role, and especially the victims (the survivors and their relatives) have a space to voice and share their horrific experiences with peers and new generations. An important consequence of this approach is that it is possible to overcome the simplifying opposition of perpetrators and victims. 

Sara Greavu’s essay, Activist Museology. The Museum of Free Derry discusses a museological-activist initiative in Derry, in the north of Ireland, that also centers on the perspective of a violent conflict’s victims, as a corrective and resistance to falsified history, as a vehicle in giving space to the people’s lived experiences, and also as a means to advocate a campaign for legal justice. Greavu traces the long conflict in the north of Ireland from the partition of Ireland, to the north’s the civil right movement of the 1960s-1970s, to the pivot point of the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, and the ensuing  hostilities, as well as the victims’ community’s efforts starting in the late 1980s to commemorate its victims, all of which led to opening of The Museum of Free Derry in 2007. Established deliberately as partisan, people’s museum, it houses objects donated by the community and the museum staff comprises people whose relatives had been killed on Bloody Sunday. While Greavu analyzes the strengths of the community initiative, she also asks questions about the status of a museum that seeks to honor and preserve a collective community history within a deeply divided political present.

In the essay, The Legacy of Joseph Murumbi: Making a Collection and Archive as Freedom Fighting, Rose Jepkorir Kiptum, examines the sheer difficulty of building a Kenyan national archive and collection that address the British colonial erasure of Kenya’s indigenous history. The collection of Joseph Murumbi, who was involved in the political process that brought about Kenya’s independence from British colonial rule in 1964, and then later, for a short period of time, served also political roles in the new administration, was also a collector of documents and objects from the African continent already from the 1950s. Murumb sold his personal collection to the Kenyan government in 1977 to set up a Murumbi Institute of African Studies, which has never materialized. Long after the death of Murumbi, his long-time business partner, the former USAID field worker Alan Donovan, has been spearheading the efforts to place the remaining parts of the Murumbi collection to state institutions, mostly through US funds, as well as opening them up to the public. Rose Jepkorir Kiptum likewise addresses the manifold paradoxes contained both in Murumbi’s attempts at building a national collection and archive as well as their afterlife that are still unfolding today.

Marta Lança, discusses in her text  De/Re-Memorization of Portuguese Colonialism and Dictatorship: Re-Reading the Colonial and the Salazar Era and Its Ramifications Todaythe colonial past from the perspective of a former colonizer country.  Colonial politics were kept alive in Portugal for long by the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, who was in power from 1932 and though a fascist system, it continued after World War II and was only ended by the so-called Carnation Revolution in 1974. Lanca describes the difficulties to overwrite this colonial history, as public spaces even today are marked by this past: streets still carry the names of war criminals and even public monuments erected for this false heroes are around. Despite the fact that people from the former Portuguese colonies, such as Angola and Mozambique, have been living in Portugal for decades or have been born there, the Afro-Portuguese community still has to fight for the visibility of their history. After giving a general overview about the relation of Portugal to its problematic past in public spaces and institutions, the author analyzes two art projects in detail suggesting the power of artistic approach for coming to terms with the past. One is the long term project in public space by the Luanda and Lisbon based artist Kiluanji Kia Henda, the other is the complex theatre piece Living Museum by theatre director Joana Craveiro, in which she through her personal story confronts the public both with the colonial past and the heritage of the dictatorship.

The case study by Isel Arango Rodríguez in her analysis Curating Memories and Shaping Minds, the Museum as a Commissar demonstrates that in autocratic systems, such Cuba, the artificially upheld state socialist  system, established exactly 60 years ago, the glorious past of Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959 is kept alive by official celebrations and not least by museums. The Museum of the Revolution in Central Havana is retelling the story of the Revolution with an outdated display from the 1970s and exhibits original objects that belong to revolutionary heroes. This building  is located very close to the Museum of Fine Arts, Cuban Art Collection that as a collection of 20th century Cuban art and also hosts temporary exhibitions. Isel Arango in her text analyzes and exhibition, which was organized as part of the 13th Havana Biennale in 2019, based on the museum’s collection. The Biennale, which is organized since 1983 was for a while an important meeting point of Latin America and the “Third World.” However, with recent editions of the Havana Biennale some local artists criticized the state financed event and the controversies of the system. The state turned against the revolting artists and started to limit and even arrest them, as it was the case with Tania Bruguera in 2015. This repeated attitude of artists criticizing the system finally led to the introduction of a new harsh censorship law in 2018, the infamous 349 decree. The author claims that the museum’s curators misuse art to  keep alive the revolutionary narrative, instead of questioning it, and make exhibitions for an international audience reinforcing the internationally known revolutionary image of Cuba. This is unbearable for the members of local art scene who have been experiencing the limitations and restrictions of the state for decades.


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