Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

May 1, 2007

Museum of the Battle of Ideas

Filed under: Cuba, Memorials, Museums, Propaganda, Web resources — amyjaneb @ 9:33 pm

Cross-ref’d from The Attic:

For a little while now I’ve been meaning to do a round-up of interesting little snippets of information do to with museums and related issues which I’ve recently come across. Most are via Museum Anthropology.

First up is a review of the Museum of the Battle of Ideas in Cuba. As Michelle Tisdel Flikke reveals in her engaging essay, the Museum was set up by the Cuban government in the wake of the ideological battle with the US over the custody of Elian Gonzalez. What’s interesting about this particular institution, is that it appears to be, not only a manifestation of the mythologising of history as a necessary component of the development of national heritage, but also that it is dealing with a fairly recent event. As discussions on this blog in the past have revealed, there is usually a time-lag between events happening and and them becoming part of the master narrative of nation. Often, in the case of war or revolution or occupation, a period of reflection appears to be necessary in order for the wrangling between various interest groups and different voices to reach some sort of dominant view which becomes historical ‘fact’. However, here, it appears the Cuban government, unsurprisingly, pounced on the propaganda value of the incident almost immediately, immortalising their version of events in a museum (which as I’m sure we’re all aware by now, seems to have the effect – outwardly at least – of objectifying history). But, what perhaps transcends this museum’s most basic propagandist function, is the imaginative way in which the Gonzalez incident is tied to a much broader historical narrative of migration to and from Cuba from the nineteenth century. Not only that, the museum has become an epicentre for popular imaginings of nationhood, with thousands of artefacts donated from Cubans all around the world, many of which – according to Flikke – relate to the revolution and perceived acts of aggression on the Cuban people. The museum thus has become a site of remembrance, memorial (to Elian and his family) and a repository of ideas of Cuban identity and nationhood. Perhaps appropriately enough in this context, a museum of the people. Although as Flikke reveals, the absences and ‘silences’ in the overall narrative are profound.

Altogether the essay is, for me, a fascinating insight into the workings of museums and heritage in a communist state; an intriguing mix of stock socialist imagery (note the evocative sculpture of the boy casting away an imperialist doll), revolutionary propaganda versus what appears to be a genuine sense of ownership, identification and engagement with the museum and its themes by its audience.

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April 13, 2007

I’m back and ‘Stasiland’: a review

Filed under: Eastern Europe, GDR, Memorials, Museums, Publications, Reading — amyjaneb @ 10:52 pm

I got back to Leicester this afternoon and immediately set to work.  No, not really – my brain is still very much elsewhere.  This is where blogging comes in. I find it a really useful way of getting back in ‘the swing of things’. 

While I was away, I abandoned the other books I’d been reading and settled down with my second-hand copy of Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall, as recommended to me by Mary.  It was great – obviously it’s a personal account/reflection on post-1989 Berlin and the fall of communism, but – as it’s based around a series of personal testimonies recorded by Funder in interviews with Stasi victims and operatives alike – it offers a good introduction to the subject from a ‘human’ perspective.  Funder’s writing style is warm and engaging, and the stories she presents equally moving and disturbing.

I want to single out a few points which correspond with my research.  In particular Funder’s personal reflections on the various museums/memorials related to the Berlin Wall, communist Germany and the Stasi , and their visitors, are richly descriptive and considered, reflecting my thoughts that – to a large extent – the memorialising of locations, such as the Stasi HQ, serve to contain the memories, experiences and power associated with the old regime.  But they also lend an authenticity to the documents and artefacts to the objects housed within them, something which visitors clearly value.   In a particularly illuminating passage Funder contrasts the brand new, but soulness – and, more crucially – sparsely visited (at least in her telling) Contemporary History Forum in Leipzig, with the ‘real deal’, the Runde Ecke (the Stasi HQ in Leipzig). (Incidentally, in her comment on my post about communist relics, Mary picked out a telling passage from this section of the book.)  In addition, there is a suggestion that the museumfication process heralds the death-knell of the ideology of the regime.  Miriam, a correspondent of Funder’s who ‘haunts’ the narrative throughout, expresses great satisfaction at the conversion of the Runde Ecke into a museum.  For her it represents a triumph over the regime (p. 46).  The survival of such sites – though much contested, by various ‘interest groups’ in the former GDR – into post-communist Berlin and Germany are clearly vitally important to several committed ‘activists’,  whom are simply not prepared to allow the unified nation of Germany to forget what happened in the GDR. 

Finally, Funder documents the ostalgie for and tourist kitsch related to the Berlin Wall. She describes hawkers of spurious relics: ‘genuine’ pieces of the wall, communist memorabilia and cheap GDR-themed souvenirs, who continue to peddle their wares despite the increasing ‘sanitisation’ of communist Germany, represented most iconically by the Berlin Wall, of which very little now remains in situ.

Overall, the impression one gets from Funder is of a country – for many residents (or at least those interviewed by Funder) still appear to consider themselves as Other from the ‘Wessis’ – struggling to find the best way of dealing with the legacy of communism and negotiating Kapitalismus.  It’s a great read, which – I’m sure – will continue to resonate with me for some time.

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