(Re)Visualizing national history: Museums and national identities in Europe in the new millennium
Robin Ostow (ed.), Toronto University Press, Toronto, 2008. 228 pp. ISBN 9780802092212

review by Ben Wellings
Visualizing history book cover

This collection of writings seeks to explore the effects of post-1989 social and political change on European museums and their exhibits. The volume is organised into four parts: the first is about new exhibits and new partnerships in exhibition curation; the second is focused on local and national strategies for reconfiguring national identities; the third examines international interventions in the creations of nationally-focused exhibits, museums and memorials; and the last part illustrates some of the political difficulties in displaying war and genocide.

The authors have differing hopes and expectations for museums and memorials as these institutions negotiate the politics of post-Cold War Europe. Mieke Bal — while reflecting on new ways of interpreting museum exhibits — is the most optimistic. Bal claims that 'this volume will offer fresh insights' and 'help museums serve their primary function in a post-national world', which for her is 'to encourage visitors to stop, suspend action, let affect invade us, and then quietly, in temporary respite, think' (p. 40). However, I was uncomfortable with these suggestions on two accounts. The first was that the rest of the contributions do not provide much evidence that we are living in a 'post-national' world — in fact quite the opposite. The recent spate of national museums and memorials to the victims of war contribute in no small part to the persistence and indeed revival of nationalism in the era of late modernity. István Rév's contribution makes this point most forcefully. As Rév demonstrates, the impetus behind the establishment of the House of Terror on Budapest's Andrassy Boulevard as an institution of edu-tainment was driven by political considerations concerned with the consolidation of Hungary's post-communist regime (p. 56). Secondly, and in the light of the above political considerations, I was sceptical about taking Bal's last recommendation to didactically-minded funding bodies, be they national governments, international organisations or expatriate and overseas funders, all with their own agenda. Elizabeth Crooke is most explicit in her chapter on Northern Ireland about the political nature of museums, referring to what she calls 'the museum as activist' (p. 95). Edin Hajdarpasic also demonstrates the political importance that can adhere to certain exhibits or objects — in this case the Sarajevo Haggadah — given the political needs of organisations outside the national community to reconfigure national narratives to legitimise new power structures.

And herein lies another tension between the role of museums and memorials as repositories of collective memory — or memories — in an age of nationalism. Museums are usually housed in single buildings and as such cannot help but convey in the minds of some visitors, critics and funders the sense that they are presenting a singular narrative, no matter how diverse the displays contained within. Robin Ostow's excellent essay on the proposed Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw shows how museums can be deliberately created in order to generate what Ostow evocatively calls 'cultural Maginot Lines' cohering a sense of singular identity rather than undermining it in any sense (p. 169). James E Young's piece, on the process of establishing the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, is similarly very interesting. In one sense, this memorial could only be placed in Germany since no other European nation has done so much to come to terms with its past. But even here I felt I could discern a tension locked into the desire of the architect and artists to create a disconcerting space designed to 'help visitors resist an impulse towards closure in the memorial act and heighten one's own role in anchoring memory in oneself' (p. 203): the tension here is that many people don't want to remember or anchor such disturbing memories in themselves. This leads us back to questions about the possibly contradictory role of museums and memorials which seek to entertain and educate at the same time.

But one of the most fundamental tensions relates to the role of the past in creating collective national memories. As far back as 1882, French polymath Ernst Renan perceived this contradictory tension, noting that it was vital to remember important yet disturbing events in the nation's past in order to 'forget' them in a routine and regular fashion. Renan referred to this sense of collective memory and forgetting as 'the reassurance of fratricide', whereby acts of war can be retrospectively presented as something akin to 'civil discords' between now united peoples. This is happening in Europe around the issues of war and genocide, both of which must be routinely remembered and memorialised in order to be consigned to the past and 'forgotten'. Reesa Greenburg's chapter shows how the internationalisation of the memory of the holocaust of Europe's Jews ended up in the creation of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa — a strange outcome on one level, but one that is quite logical given the politics surrounding the creation and maintenance of museums at the turn of the millennium.

Each contribution is well-written and some are very entertainingly expressed (I particularly liked Rév's). This being said, some of the conceptual language in Mieke Bal's essay on Partners (the Teddy Bear Project) escaped me and I would have liked Bernhard Purin to have expounded on some of the controversies surrounding his experiences in Jewish museums in Austria and Germany. My greatest overall complaint, which applies to some of the individual chapters as well as the volume as a whole, is the lack of conclusions. Being too didactic is something that some contributors to this collection seemed keen to avoid on principle, preferring to let the visitor draw their own conclusions. But some summing up is, I believe, necessary. I also don't think that the volume ever becomes greater than the sum of its parts — again, a conclusion drawing together some overall themes would have helped. This being said, the contributions provide thought-provoking material for curators and academics alike, and this book should easily find itself on the library shelves of museums and universities.

Ben Wellings is convenor of European Studies at The Australian National University.