On the International Public History Conference in Berlin in August 2022

Initially planned to be held in Berlin in 2020, the conference of the International Federation for Public History (IFPH) could only be organised in 2022. But it was worth the wait. I still have great memories of the IFPH conference in São Paulo in August 2018, when I participated in a poster session and met great and committed people and colleagues from all over the world.

The experience in Brazil only reinforced my conviction of the importance of public history (a field that I had barely known two years before). It was not a question of whether I would participate – if only as a mere spectator – in the next conference, but how. The choice of Berlin was maybe not an additional selling point for me initially. Yet during a research trip in 2019, Berlin became one of my favourite cities in Europe.

As a short disclaimer, I should say that the impressions I share in this blog post are not based on detailed notes; this blog post cannot go into the details and mention every panel and presentation. Especially at conferences with so many different topics, I learned that my notes tend to be quite eclectic and messy. So this time, I decided to mostly listen and limit myself to noting projects and ideas I find interesting.

The importance of public history

The IFPH 2022 has shown, once again, how crucial public history is in society for education and dissemination of critical historical perspectives, strengthening citizenship, promoting multiperspectivity, engaging audiences, and giving a voice to the silenced. The variety of the topics covered at the conference illustrates this inclusivity and societal dimension. Of course, as the conference took place in Berlin, colleagues and researchers from other parts of the world might not have had the necessary funding to participate.

Because of the many engaging parallel sessions during the conference, it was challenging to choose. I think this might be why participants switched panels during the sessions more frequently than in other conferences, at least from my observation. From history on social media over transmedia storytelling to cultural institutions, the panels covered many issues and initiatives related to public history. One aspect I particularly like about public history is its inclusiveness. For example, panels about video games (and video game history) were as welcome as papers on colonial history, slavery and racism (with links to present issues).

The Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH), where I am currently a postdoc, was well represented, either with individual papers (like my own) or whole panels and workshops: from the transmedia storytelling project A Colônia Luxemburguesa over the project Remixing Industrial Pasts in the Digital Age in the framework of the European Capital of Culture Esch2022 to the project Public History as Citizen Science (PHACS).

Public history and the uses of the past

When the initial call for the conference in 2020 was published, I wanted to organise a panel on the political uses of history. This idea was partly derived from my research on cultural policy. History also played a role in cultural policy through state-commissioned exhibitions or campaigns to improve a country’s image. I also became more interested in the topic, possibly due to the news and debates at the time. For example, in Brazil, the far-right government under Jail Bolsonaro did not hide its nostalgia for the military dictatorship. Around the same time, I read the German translation of Pawel Machcewicz’s The War that Never Ends about the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk. In 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution about the “importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe”, which I criticised for its biased and uncritical view of the past. The example of the museum in Gdansk also made it into the panel proposal. I thought there could be potential for a broader discussion, comparing various uses under different regimes.

As the conference could only take place this year, we resubmitted our proposal in January 2022. The panel’s final composition at the conference was different than in 2019. Sylvia Bailey talked about the Jewish Museum in Berlin: its founding and construction process, the debates about its architecture, and the museum’s links to national identity in post-war Germany. Vera Dubina discussed the “polka dot history” and the works by Anatoly Fomenko, a mathematician spreading false historical narratives and contributing to a distrust of professional historians in Russia. I analysed the uses of history in Luxembourg since the late 1980s and the two main objectives pursued by the government: protection of national identity and promotion of the country abroad. Serge Noiret chaired the panel. In hindsight, I am pleased about how the panel played out, and I am grateful to my colleagues who presented and to the chair. It was great to see the realisation of a panel planned since 2019, and I am sure others had the same feeling for their panels or presentations.

Rediscovering Berlin

In a blog post on my first visit to Germany’s capital, I wrote that Berlin is a “patchwork city” as various influences and styles shape it due to its past. Maybe thinking of Berlin as a multi-layered city would be more accurate. At the conference’s opening reception in the Asisi Panorama, one of the speakers said that Berlin is the “Rome of contemporary history” (maybe quoting another historian). There are indeed so many traces of 20th-century history all around Berlin. The presence of the 20th century, of course, does not exclude the fact that there are traces of other periods, such as the colonial past.

On the reception evening, participants could listen to presentations at chosen locations in the vicinity. There was, for instance, a witness sharing her memories of the wall’s construction. She lived in an apartment next to Checkpoint Charlie and told how she was suddenly separated from classmates who happened to live in East Berlin. In fact, before the wall, people could freely move between sectors. She witnessed the tank confrontation in October 1961, not long after the beginning of the wall construction. Only a couple of hundred meters away, a small monument remembers Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old construction worker who was shot by the GDR border police during his attempt to cross the wall and bled to death. The website Chronik der Mauer about the history of the wall includes biographies of people who crossed the wall or died trying.

On Saturday, I participated in a visit to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, a vast area that is partly used for other purposes today. The site of the memorial encompasses the camp itself. Some of the barracks and buildings have been conserved. Visiting such a place of death, violence, and misery is a humbling experience. In the building with the entrance gate (adorned with the infamous and cynical phrase “Arbeit macht frei”), an exhibition is dedicated to the perpetrators and their victims. I appreciated this approach, as it added an individual layer to the crimes, removing the anonymity.

On Sunday, the last day of my stay in Berlin, I decided to visit the spy museum. This visit was by my initiative, and I was positively surprised. The museum at the Leipziger Platz (to the east of the Potsdamer Platz) is very family-friendly and offers a certain degree of interactivity. I have never been to a museum covering the topic of espionage, so for me, it was interesting to learn more about the history, the spies, and the tools used. The exhibition was chronologically structured; the most prominent part was probably the section on the Cold War. In one corridor, panels were dedicated to double agents in the Cold War, each side of the panel showing one of the two “roles” of these spies. As the visitor learns, one spy became a double agent to earn enough money for his children’s education. The last part was dedicated to spies in popular culture: James Bond, of course, could not lack in such an exhibition.

Some final thoughts

What are my personal takeaways from the IFPH 2022? The conference has shown several dimensions of public history: memory politics and the struggles about giving a voice to the silenced; connected to this aspect is the confrontation with difficult pasts and the question of justice; the ethical dimension of historical practice and the tensions between historians and stakeholders; the possibilities (and challenges) of collaborating with (local) communities; the various channels via which historical knowledge (or fake historical information) is disseminated. Furthermore, public history is certainly not limited to academic historians; people from various fields and backgrounds participated in the event. These takeaways might not be surprising, but the conference was at least a good reminder. Of course, I am looking forward to the next edition!

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