Skip to main content

Unsettling Remembering and Social Cohesion in Transnational Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - UNREST (Unsettling Remembering and Social Cohesion in Transnational Europe)

Reporting period: 2017-04-01 to 2019-03-31

The foundational myth of the EU is based on a cosmopolitan approach to traumatic memory, reaching from the two World Wars to post war peace and prosperity. But all across Europe, populist and nationalist movements use the heritage of war antagonistically to push confrontational notions of belonging while the EU is rendered impotent by a sympathetic but unengaging cultural memory. UNREST has proposed a third memory way. We employed a theoretical framework developed by Cento Bull and Hansen who, drawing on political philosopher Chantal Mouffe’s concept of agonism, distinguish between 3 different modes of remembering: antagonistic, cosmopolitan and agonistic. Agonistic memory acknowledges conflict as an inevitable element of society, and tries to combine a passionate defense of democracy and equality with a contextualized understanding of the social and political conditions that produce mass perpetration. In its empirical work, aimed at testing the prevalent memory regimes in two contrasting comparative case studies, the project focused on war museums in different countries. Furthermore it examined the memory cultures surrounding war-related exhumations of human remains in Spain (related to the civil war in the 1930s), Poland (related to the Second World War) and Bosnia (related to the Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s). In our results we emphasize that the antagonistic memory discourse of nationalism is resident in memorial practices that we find in contemporary war museums and around mass exhumations today and can be utilized by populist nationalism across Europe. Our initial assumption that the dominant memory frame in contemporary Europe would be cosmopolitan could therefore not be fully endorsed by the results of the project. That said, most of the museums we analysed had important cosmopolitan elements, and in some cosmopolitan memory was absolutely dominant. With the exhumations of human bodies, we also found, in particular in Spain(less so in Poland and least so in the former Yugoslavia), a move to develop cosmopolitan forms of memory in order to arrive at forms of reconciliation and the healing of wounds created by war. The cosmopolitan memory discourse, championed by the EU, is stronger than the antagonistic one in memorial practices in war museums and around mass exhumations, but it fails to engage the nationalist vernacular memory frame and its agents. We found only few instances of agonistic memory discourses and practices, but they were far more able of pointing a way forward. We therefore have come to the conclusion that agents of social and cultural memory, such as museums and civil society organizations involved in the mass exhumation of bodies killed in war, can benefit enormously from agonistic modes of memory. We found art in particular a very potent agent of agonistic interventions in cultural heritage debates, especially if it is combined suitably with narrative. It is used quite widely in war museums today and is usually a good way of politicizing the memory of war in an agonistic way, as it allows for the depiction of radically subjectivist positions that can be brought into an open-ended dialogue. The empirical findings from the museums and mass grave exhumations in turn informed the refinement of the theoretical model of memory cultures of war in Europe. The contrasts between agonistic and antagonistic modes of remembering were sharpened further. Both the empirical findings and the theoretical framework informed the production and staging of a theatre play in Madrid, Spain and an exhibition in Essen, Germany. Both the play and the exhibition have been analyzed, and visitor reception studies have been produced to gauge the effects of agonistic representations upon audiences. Another objective was to instigate communication between different memory agents in Europe to share experiences of heritage practices in the field of war heritage. The workshops we held with stakeholders, have been extremely successful in engendering interest in agonistic memory frames. An online toolkit for pedagogical and training purposes that draws on the results of the theoretical and empirical findings of the project was developed
UNREST has fulfilled all of its aims and objectives outlined above. The theoretical framework has been considerably sharpened and refined and it can now be used by other scholars for the analysis of war museums and war-related exhumations. Rich data has been produced and analysed in a set of articles in high-profile journals that will have considerable impact on the field of memory studies. All scheduled academic workshops and the final conference in Rome have been held and each event has been a landmark event bringing important results and moving the project along towards its projected end. Workshops with stakeholders have been successfully concluded and a number of curators promised to seek to introduce more agonistic perspectives in their curatorial practices in future. We have significantly refined the theory of agonism in war-related memory in Europe and formulated a major challenge for future research, namely to explore how cosmopolitan and agonistic forms of memory can be brought into a fruitful dialogue with each other. Both the empirical findings of the museum and exhumation analyses as well as the further development of a theoretical frame for war-related memory in Europe have impacted in a major way on the production of a theatre play in Madrid ( and the staging of an exhibition in Essen (
The project has successfully engaged stakeholders, esp. practitioners in the museum field and in peacekeeping and post-conflict transformation, with the theory practices of agonistic remembering, which they can now apply in their respective fields. It has successfully engaged the public, via the theatre play and the museum exhibition, in agonistic memory practices which promote reflection and self-reflection on the role of conflict in both sustaining democratic societies and engendering irreconcilable divisions leading to war. Through our analysis of war museums and mass exhumations as well as through our curating of an agonistic exhibition and the commissioning of an agonistic theatre play, the UNREST project has facilitated sustainable contacts between the world of academia and the world of museums and civil society associations that deal with the cultural heritage of war and violent conflict. Several academics involved in UNREST will continue collaborating with diverse museums beyond the endpoint of this project and feed their experience from UNREST into follow-on projects that involve again both academic analysis and cooperation with heritage practitioners. Finally we have drawn up a range of policy recommendations that are informed by the results of the empirical work packages, the development of the theory of agonistic memory and the cultural events that have been produced and analysed. UNREST highlighted the importance of research and scholarship in the humanities in understanding the heritage of war. Its results underline the need for more critical assessment and professional preservation of cultural heritage. UNREST welcomes the introduction of an EU-level funding programme for exchanges between museum professionals and researchers in different institutions and countries