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Mediating memory in the museum

Researcher: Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine

Funding: AHRC Fellowship and Network

In recent decades, there has been a significant shift in the way many museums and heritage sites define their role in and for communities and hence their approach to exhibitions and object display. In order to foster inclusivity they present themselves not so much as places of history but of memory, catering for different memory communities. The key feature of these sites is that they deploy a variety of strategies revolving around theories of memory to invite emotional responses from visitors in an attempt to make them identify and empathize with individuals and their narratives. Dr Arnold-de Simine’s research is situated at the interface of museum and memory studies where she adapts and re-works a wide range of memory theories. She engages critically with how collective memory reflects emotional and ideological investments in the past and investigates how museum practitioners have used different theories around memory, trauma and empathy within the museum context.

Her research examines how very different types of museums use the prism of memory to provide access to the past. She has pointed to problematic ethical implications of these practices which have to do with who is represented and how. She questions if the mediations of traumatic memories necessarily foster empathy and/or an increasingly ethically responsible behaviour outside the museum environment. She completed her monograph with the support of a grant under the AHRC Fellowship scheme: Mediating Memory in the Museum, published with Palgrave Macmillan in their prestigious Memory Studies Series in October 2013.

She has been an active member of two AHRC funded networks, ‘After the Wall: Representing and Remembering the GDR’ (2009-10) and ‘Silence, Memory and Empathy in Museums and at Historic Sites’ (2012-2013), bringing together academics, museum directors, curators and guides from Germany and the UK. She convened the first workshop of the ‘After the Wall’ network to foster a comparative approach to theoretical paradigms of collective memory.

Dr Arnold-de Simine’s research is increasingly widely recognised within the museums and heritage sectors in the UK, Germany and elsewhere. She has contributed to the development of new exhibitions in three German museums, the Imperial War Museum and elsewhere by providing advice on how to connect in nuanced ways with visitor responses to complex issues raised by exhibitions.

For example, the head of research at the GDR Museum, Berlin, informally consulted her in March 2009 while the museum was in the process of major refurbishment and extension. Following her advice on the need to embed the exhibition’s focus on everyday life in the context of political oppression in the GDR, he increased the amount of background information on the political structures and the economy of the GDR as well as the oppression by the state and opposition to it, doubling the size of the exhibition when it reopened in October 2010.

Dokumentationszentrum Alltagskultur der DDR, Eisenhüttenstadt, (Documentation Centre of Everyday Culture of the GDR) opened new exhibition in March 2012 which reflected Dr Arnold-de Simine’s suggestions to its director for addressing unresolved tensions in GDR remembrance culture by making communicative memory more accessible to younger audiences. The exhibition now includes recordings of eyewitness accounts and their object stories, personal stories representing different memory communities and portraying the different effects of historical forces on individuals.

The Bernauer Strasse Wall Memorial in Berlin has to serve memory communities with different interests and investment in the past and combine different forms of remembrance. Dr Arnold-de Simine analysed in great detail the problems which arise when a memorial museum has to serve memory communities with different interests and investment in the past and combine different forms of remembrance. She facilitated a discussion which allowed the memorial to both reflect its position in the field of commemorative landscapes as an historic and authentic “Berlin Wall-Site” and introduce a completely innovative language of design for commemorative cityscapes.

Within the UK, Dr Arnold-de Simine has encouraged dialogue between museum practitioners, educators and academics in memory studies and museum studies and has advised several agencies on issues relating to memory and heritage. She co-organised the Empathy and Memory Studies Conference (Birkbeck, 23 June 2012) and subsequently worked with the Digital Learning Officer at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) who leads a project to develop online resources for schools linked to the Centenary of the First World War, which will be available via IWMs website. This involved exploring the impact of digital media on the presentation of sensitive material and their findings were presented at the conference ‘Challenging Memories: Silence and Empathy in Heritage Interpretation’ (July 2013).

Dr Arnold-de Simine also has also advised on an HLF funded project to turn the last remaining steam coaster SS Robin into a heritage site as part of the regeneration of the Royal Docks in East London.