In quest of academic identities: my participation in the ISCH conference in Tallinn

From 26 to 29 June 2019, I participated in a conference in Tallinn (Estonia) organised by the International Society for Cultural History (ISCH), where, in addition, I presented a paper on cultural policy in Luxembourg. This experience was part of a quest to better understand cultural history and my own research.

The topic of cultural policy has not been very high on the agenda of historians, with some exceptions, especially in France. In other countries, such as in the UK, cultural policy research has been mostly derived from other disciplines than history, such as cultural studies, political science, or sociology. Of course, disciplinary boundaries are never neat and cultural studies scholars have also adopted historiographic perspectives, for instance. However, reflections on historiographic approaches to cultural policy are still lacking.

Cultural history, cultural policy, cultural policy history

I carry out research on the history of cultural policy, but I do not have a background in cultural history. The first time that I thought of cultural policy history as being part of or related to cultural history occurred after some readings, which I did over the course of my research. Emanuelle Loyer dedicates a section to cultural policy in the book Une brève histoire culturelle de l’Europe (2017). Cultural historians such as Jean-François Sirinelli or Pascal Ory have also produced literature or offered lectures on the topic. Hence, I thought that there are ties between cultural policy history and cultural history, but I was not able to grasp them. I did not even reflect on whether I was doing cultural history. For me, this field merely meant doing history about anything related to culture, which is a vast research area. But my perspective on cultural history changed with my participation in the ISCH Conference in Tallinn.

Last year, I had the pleasure to participate in the International Conference of Public History in Brazil in August, where I could present a research poster on the links between cultural policy and public history with the example of the Centenary of Independence in Luxembourg in 1939. This was only one aspect of my PhD thesis and I focused on how history was presented to a large public. Yet, I have not been doing history ‘with the public’. A couple of months before that conference, I participated in a public history summer school in Wroclaw, where I was invited to a round table. I was very humbled by this opportunity, as I did not see myself as a public historian and had no experience in this field, except for disseminating my research to a large audience.

In a certain way, 2018 was my public history year. While it certainly helped me to better understand public history, I was still having issues to classify my own research under any specific field, even if, in the end, it might not really matter. Though I feel now a bit more reassured (or maybe I just care a bit less), undertainties still remain. In addition, my readings have been interdisciplinary, partly as I had no other choice, partly because historians need to look beyond their own discipline. One evening in Brazil, during a dinner with other conference participants, we were talking about the next conferences we were going to attend. When I was asked, I had no clue – I did not have any plans. I explained that I was having difficulties finding suitable events for my research. One peer replied something that stuck in my mind: sometimes, we need to be creative and adapt our paper to the topic of a conference. He was right, but until I would discover an event where I could, even creatively, adapt and present my research, time would pass.

In early 2019, I thought that cultural history was maybe the way to go. Hence, I was looking for a cultural history conference and found one in Tallinn in June 2019, organised by the International Society for Cultural History. The overall theme of the event was global cultural history. I remembered the advice of the colleague in Brazil and thought that I could give it a try. I submitted a paper entitled “A small country in a global context: the case of Luxembourg’s cultural policy”. It was accepted. In hindsight, I think that my abstract could have been better, especially as I included too many details which created certain constraints. Preparing my actual presentation of 20 minutes, I became aware that I had to be quite superficial to discuss everything I promised in my abstract.

I knew that a presentation about Luxembourg constituted a somewhat exotic topic, even at a big conference such as the one in Tallinn. But I hoped that cultural policy was not a completely ignored topic. Yet, my presentation was the only one to include cultural policy in its title. Cultural diplomacy, related to cultural history and cultural policy, was only explicitly mentioned once in a presentation title. Unsurprisingly, many more presentations included “global” or a derivation of the concept in their titles. Of course, I was happy to present and to experiment with a different viewpoint than the one of my thesis. However, the conference confirmed my impression that cultural policy is quite neglected among historians.

At the same time, though, I gained a better idea of cultural history and how it developed as an ‘opponent’ of social history. It appears that the opposition between social and cultural history is less strict nowadays and historians would not police the disciplinary boundaries. Indeed, during the roundtable discussion, a participant suggested that we should integrate other tools and approaches, and not exclude something because we think it is not ‘good’ history. In my opinion, this is what historians should do anyway, when useful and leading to new insights and viewpoints.

As a historian with no specific background neither in cultural history nor in social history, I barely had any idea how cultural historians consider their own field and how it evolved. The four days in Tallinn taught me something new. According to some speakers at the conference, cultural policy is about analysing agency, symbols, and meaning. I was not aware of this before. What remains, though, is the impression that cultural history is a really vast field, which begs the question about the cohesion and exchange within the community of cultural historians. The topics of the conference presentations were very eclectic, from media history over trade routes to migration. Some panels were in themselves only loosely coherent. Nevertheless, the conference helped me in reflecting on how my thesis relates to cultural history. If cultural history is about meaning, symbols, and agency, then I have been practicing cultural history all along, at least partly. However, even cultural historians, or participants at the conference, would not necessarily call themselves cultural historians.

Tallinn, between medieval heritage (Viru Gate) and modern architecture (hotel in the background). The focus on the medieval aspect for touristic purposes cannot be overseen. At the same time, outside of the old city centre, new buildings have been erected alongside those witnessing the Soviet past.

Global history, world history, transnational history

Of course, many other issues and aspects were discussed at the conference. As the overarching theme was global cultural history, the concept of ‘global’ and the field of ‘global history’ were also debated, particularly during the roundtable discussion. I am still not sure how it should be defined and whether any definition exists – I would need to do some further reading to find out. The label can also change: at the University of Cambridge, as I was explained, historians prefer using ‘world history’, as ‘global’ is considered to designate a process. When the roundtable discussion turned to the question of global history, some participants agreed that global history was actually used to overcome the difference between social and cultural history.

Besides global history, and maybe not surprisingly, transnational history was discussed, too. In this context, I do not agree with the criticism of ‘transnational’ during a keynote by Matthias Middell (University of Leipzig). Of course, transnational history bears the risk of focusing on national borders and nation states, despite being mere constructions and appearing only more recently in human history. However this should not hinder us from using ‘transnational’ as a concept, as long as we are aware of potential risks and clearly voice them. I had the impression that Middell’s criticism aimed to promote the concept of ‘transregional’ he developed together with other researchers. While it might be better adapted to  a history which is not focusing on the period from 19th century onwards, simply replacing ‘nation’ with ‘region’ does not solve some key problems, especially the constructive character. The concept of region needs to be historicised and a region can change in scope. During his lecture, Middell said that “transnational history is global history for the poor”. Unfortunately, I do not remember whether he quoted someone else or it was his genuine claim. Yet, can both fields (or approaches) be compared? How would they be defined in relation to each other? Is global history for the rich, then, who have the necessary economic and cultural capital for research in different places and understanding different cultures and languages?

One topic that I missed at the conference was public history, or at least reflections on how to share cultural history with non-historians. How to share or do history with people who belong to the cultures that are analysed? And where can public history be fruitful? After all, cultural history is not only limited to contemporary history, which would allow collecting interviews (oral history), for instance, but potentially covers the entire human history.


Disciplines, fields and concepts more often than not elude clear definitions and do not have fixed boundaries. When I was writing my abstract, I was not consciously thinking about ‘meaning’, ‘symbols’ or even ‘agency’. I was simply trying to offer a perspective that fitted within the general topic of the conference, to improve the chances of acceptance, of course, but also to take a different perspective on my own research. It might be a proof that theoretical debates about the essence of a field are less important in practice. Yet, it also makes me wonder whether cultural history is really a field, or rather a set of versatile and flexible approaches and tools. I cannot provide an answer and it is not my place to do so. The large variety of topics at the conference, from Renaissance Jesuits over TV commercials in communist countries to archaeology in Finland, should at least provoke reflections.

This blog post was originally published on the webpage of the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH).

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