Conference paper Open Access

Dealing with Difficult history: the 'Ledra Palace' project

Antigone Heraclidou; Theopisti Stylianou-Lambert

During the last couple of decades, discussions among museum professionals regarding the role of museums and the form these should take in the future have multiplied and taken various directions. One of them focused on the rise of the post-modernist or the re-invented museum, as opposed to the modernist or traditional museum. According to Eilean Ηooper-Greenhill, a main difference between the modernist and the post-modernist museum is that ‘the great collecting phase of museums is over, and the museum concentrates more on the use of the objects rather than on further accumulation, while it is additionally interested in intangible heritage. Furthermore, rather than focusing on display as the major form of communication, the post-museum choses the exhibition and events instead which enable it to incorporate many voices and many perspectives’ (2000, p.152). As a result, she argues, ‘where the modernist museum was (and is) imagined as a building, the museum in the future may be imagined as a process or an experience’ (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000, π.152).
Although this was written almost twenty years ago and the discussion regarding the future museum has advanced and evolved since then, this stance has influenced museology and contributed to the transition to the post-museum, the museum as an experience. In the last 50 years or so we witnessed a paradigm shift in museum related theory. According to Gail Anderson (2012)1, the traditional museum is a collection-driven institution, an information provider that constitutes the voice of authority and focuses on the past. It is a stable institution that provides a re-assuring, usually ethnocentric narrative. On the other hand, the reinvented museum is an audience-focused institution that includes multiple viewpoints, facilitates knowledge and strives to be relevant and forward-looking. Recently, Janes and Sandell (2019) talked about museum activism, in the sense of museum practice, shaped out of ethically informed values, that is intended to bring about political, social and environmental change. An activist museum is, as they argue, a mindful museum. They underline that museums as social institutions have the opportunity and the obligation to question the way in which society is manipulated and governed as well as to resist and critically re-imagine the status quo (Janes & Sandell, 2019, p.6).
Most museums dealing with difficult heritage adopt a seemingly neutral, authoritarian, and thus more traditional and ‘safer’ approach. However, more recently, certain museums are increasingly eager to include multiple narratives and voices, acknowledge the social and political construction of knowledge, take a stance towards a difficult subject matter, and thus embrace uncertainty and become ‘unsafe’ spaces of exploration, critical analysis, and social responsibility (Stylianou-Lambert& Bounia, 20018).
We are interested how the post-modern, re-invented - and now activist - museum can deal with issues of ‘difficult history’ or ‘difficult heritage’. According to literature, ‘difficult heritage’ is a past that is recognised as meaningful in the present but that is also contested and awkward for public reconciliation with a positive, self-affirming contemporary identity (Macdonald, 2009, p.1). We might say that ‘difficult heritage’ is another term for dissonant, negative, or contested heritage but, as Joshua Samuel explains, all terms refer more or less to the same thing, namely the challenge of what to do with the material remains of an historical period, site, or event that is today generally perceived as problematic for one reason or another (Samuels, 2015, p.113).

This work has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement No 739578 and the Government of the Republic of Cyprus through the Directorate General for European Programmes, Coordination and Development.
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