Workshop at the European University Institute

On 14 March 2019, ECHOES scholars (WP3 and WP4) participated in the workshop ‘Cities, Heritages, and Colonial Pasts: Perspectives and Practices’ organized by the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, the Public History Working Group of the Department of History and Civilization of the European University Institute, and the ECHOES H2020 Project. This was a precious opportunity to bring together practitioners and scholars working on the decolonization of heritage in different cities across the globe.

In recent years, decolonizing heritage has become a global trend among practitioners and scholars. The ECHOES project is one of the initiatives in this growing movement, and we are constantly looking to create connections with colleagues working on similar issues and topics. During this workshop, which took place at the Department of History and Civilization of the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, Italy, fifteen international scholars and practitioners had the opportunity to share and compare their work experiences with heritage and decolonizing practices. Through a variety of case-studies, participants discussed what it means to decolonize heritage, and what the challenges and possible solutions are in regards to this process. Particular attention was given to the decolonization of heritage in cities and the representation of colonial past in city museums.

Fig. 1: The poster of the workshop ’Cities, Heritages, and Colonial Pasts: Perspectives and Practices’.

The workshop was divided into four sessions (see the full programme). After a brief introduction by Joanna Wawrzyniak (University of Warsaw/EUI) and Jasper Chalcraft (EUI/Jean Monnet Fellow), the workshop opened with a panel chaired by Lucy Riall (EUI) on the employment of colonial heritage in cultural diplomacy. Anastasia Remes (EUI) analysed how the exhibtion of the “Palace of International Cooperation” in the World Expo ‘58 in Brussel promoted a vision of global order in which Europe played a leading role in the process of decolonization of its ex-colonies. According to Remes, this international event served the dissemination of a Eurocentric vision of the post-colonial future. In the second presentation, Bastiaan Nugteren (EUI) showed how the attempt to develop the World Heritage List nomination of Kota Tua, the old colonial city of Jakarta, opened the doors to debates among different actors for the definition and representation of the city’s colonial past.

Fig. 2: The first session of the workshop about diplomacy and heritage. The workshop took place in Sala degli Stemmi in Villa Salviati, Department of History and Civilization of the European University Institute. Photo by Matteo Zennaro.

The speakers of the second session on ‘Creativities,’ chaired by Angelica Pesarini (NYU), dealt with museum exhibitions and with the significance of artistic interventions in public space. Rosa Anna di Lella (The Luigi Pigorini National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography) and Elena Cadamuro (Università Ca’ Foscari, Museo MP9) based their presentations on their experiences as museum curators of exhibitions in Italy. As a curator of the collections of the former Italian Colonial Museum, Di Lella’s paper analysed the challenges faced by institutions when trying to integrate colonial history into the museum narrative by developing more horizontal and pluralistic ways to represent cultures and to connect the past with the present. Elena Cadamuro touched upon similar topics showing how the exhibition ‘Ascari e Schiavoni’ (curated by students of Ca’ Foscari University) and the newly opened M9 Museum try to relate the Italian colonial project to present-day immigration issues and Italians’ understandings of their identities. While the first two presentations dealt with the making of exhibitions, the third focused on artistic interventions. Jasper Chalcraft discussed the making of the film ‘Tabuluja’ which he co-produced together with Congolese artist Shambuyi Wetu and Brazilian anthropologist Rose Satiko Gitirana Hikiji. Chalcraft used the film – a reconstruction of Shambuyi’s artistic interventions at the Museum of Afro-Brazil in Sao Paulo – to reflect on the practice of engaging in a creative critique of Brazil’s postcolonial politics.

Fig. 3: Museums and artistic intervention were at the centre of the second session of the workshop. Photo by Matteo Zennaro.

The third session on ‘Diversities,’ chaired by Serge Noiret (EUI), was dedicated to comparisons of decolonial practices employed in different city museums. After Joanna Wawrzyniak’s introduction of ECHOES’ approach to European colonial heritage, Csilla E. Ariese (University of Amsterdam/ECHOES) analysed how the decolonial practices of two museums based in Amsterdam – namely the Tropenmuseum and the Amsterdam Museum – are differently shaped by their histories, collections, and mission. Similarly, Laura Pozzi (University of Warsaw/ECHOES) compared how the Shanghai History Museum and the Hong Kong Museum of History reframe the colonial heritage of their cities to fit the political agenda of the Chinese Communist Party. Finally, Łukasz Bukowiecki (University of Warsaw/ECHOES) discussed how postcolonial theories are applied in the curatorial practices and other activities of some of the newly opened museums in Warsaw.

The last session on ‘Entanglements,’ chaired by Daphné Budasz (EUI), dealt with cities and entanglements. In his presentation, Jeremy Molho (EUI) analysed the complex setting of Singaporean cultural institutions led by different ethnic communities (Chinese, Malay, and Indian). These institutions all contribute to the understanding of the intricate nature of the colonial system in the city by showing how colonial oppression was experienced by different communities. Finally, Cristiano Gianolla (CES, Coimbra, ECHOES) reflected on the role of heritage in defining borders between two cultural fronts – the colonial and the de/postcolonial – by focusing on the case of the project to construct a Memorial to the Victims of Slavery in Lisbon.

The workshop ended with an extensive discussion about the present and the future role of heritage in the representation of colonial pasts around the world. Several issues were raised in this final roundtable, among which the importance to reframe tangible colonial heritage in cities, such as Fascist monuments and buildings in Rome, to improve the visibility and awareness of the historical links that connect these cities to far away countries. The importance of funding and the support of governments in the making and remaking of exhibitions in museums was also raised to explain why some institutions are not able to engage in decolonial practices. Participants noted that schools and universities should take a more active role in promoting critical views of colonial pasts and its present-day implications at national and global levels. At the same time, participants discussed how museums are changing (from a focus on exhibitions to more programs and activities) and how this also impacts visitors and visitor studies. The final roundtable was an occasion for the participants to confront the different challenges we encounter in our research and work, and to propose possible future collaborations among research projects and institutions. The examples of decolonial processes and actions from around the world which the participants shared were particularly inspiring. Ultimately, although the discussion noted that there is reason to be pessimistic about the challenges of decolonizing the museum – or even the impossibility of such – it was also noted that there are reasons to be optimistic about the powerful steps which have already been taken and the potential for more changes in the future.

Author: Dr Laura Pozzi