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Marking stone on the Piskaryov cemetery.

‘No-one is forgotten and nothing is forgotten’ (Olga Berggolz): marking stone on the Piskaryov cemetery. Courtesy of author.

 

Visiting researcher, Dr Yvonne Pörzgen, writes about uncovering stories of the Siege of Leningrad in IWM’s collections.

Where do you go to research the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944)? As it turns out, IWM London and the University of Bristol are excellent places for such a project. The Goethe Institut’s programme “Scholars in Residence” brings young scholars from different countries in touch with each other to work on related projects. I was happy to support Alys Cundy in conducting her project on the representation of twentieth-century conflict in museums in Germany in 2013. In spring 2014, Alys introduced me to the scholars at the Research Department of IWM and at the History and Russian Departments at the University of Bristol who supported me with my research.

It was just the right time. On January 27 2014, St. Petersburg celebrated the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the Siege that  killed over a million inhabitants of the city. How do you commemorate such an event that  changed the city forever and whose traces are still to be found all over Saint Petersburg?

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The Military History Museum, Dresden. Visible is architect Daniel Libeskind’s shard-like ‘intervention’. Image courtesy of Alys Cundy.

From October to November last year I took time out from my research at IWM to undertake a residency in the German town of Bremen. I was selected to take part in the Goethe Institut ‘Scholars in Residence’ programme, which pairs German scholars with international early career researchers to work jointly on a project. My project explored the ways in which a number of German museums represent twentieth-century conflict. I was paired with Dr Yvonne Pörzgen of the University of Bremen, whose own research looks at the way in which Germany is represented within Russian museums of the Second World War in St Petersburg.

The residency was a fantastic opportunity to meet German scholars and to look at my own research in a different light. My CDA focuses on the history of display at IWM since 1917 and explores themes of cultural memory and conflict and the way museums and memorials represent difficult pasts. In light of my interest in these subjects, Germany was a fascinating place to be. German museums of conflict face the balancing act of representing traumatic past events without sensationalizing or offending. At the same time their displays must acknowledge both German responsibility for wartime actions and the suffering of German soldiers and civilians. During the six weeks of my stay I was able to visit Dresden, Berlin, Munster and Munich and see how museums in these very different German cities meet these challenges.

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Leanne Green, James Wallis and Alys Cundy at the Memory, Conflict and Space Conference at Liverpool Hope University. Photograph courtesy of The Archbishop Desmond Tutu Centre for War and Peace Studies.

Sunny Liverpool played host to the Memory, Conflict and Space conference that gave three of the Collaborative Doctoral Award students at IWM the chance to present together as part of a panel on aspects of representation and memory in the museum’s  collections.The conference addressed the real, virtual, imaginary and lived spaces in which conflict unfolds and the role memorialisation has played in interpreting conflict. Papers were diverse, with subjects that ranged from Lee Miller’s haunting photographs of concentration camp inmates in Dachau, to sites of memory in post-conflict Belfast, to the varied ways in which football fans remember disasters such as Heysel and Hillsborough.

On the IWM panel, Alys Cundy was up first with a paper on the memorial spaces that existed in the museum between 1920 and 1960. From bays laden with symbolism at Crystal Palace, to a ‘Hall of Honour’ at South Kensington, to enclaves of remembrance at Lambeth Road, in three different London buildings the IWM created commemorative spaces.  In these spaces the display of exhibits such as the top section of the original Cenotaph and wild flowers picked from the battlefields of the First World War meant that as well as collecting the historical records of conflict the museum also represented the urge to remember. The spaces chosen for these memorial exhibits were significant. Entrances, corridors and stairways were used as these areas framed the principal galleries, ensuring that visitors would have to pass through spaces of memory in order to learn more about the historical narrative of the war.

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Image of one of the disinterred soldiers from the Pheasant Wood mass grave being carried for burial in the new CWGC Cemetery at Fromelles, 22nd February 2010' - IWM: Damon Cleary

One of the disinterred soldiers from the Pheasant Wood mass grave being carried for burial in the new CWGC Cemetery at Fromelles, 22 February 2010' IWM: Damon Cleary

As a Collaborative Doctoral Award student working on IWM’s depiction of the First World War, I had the opportunity to attend a one-off collaborative research symposium, hosted by the IWM, on 10 February 2012.  Titled ‘Fromelles and Beyond: History, Heritage, Archaeology and Memory of the Great War’, it was organised by Dr Keir Reeves (Monash University, Australia & Kings College, London) and Professor Carl Bridge (Director of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, KCL).  It brought together some of Australia’s leading First World War historians with leading academics and historians from France and the UK – a thought-provoking  forum for new research on current understanding of the War.

Opening papers from Dr Jenny Macleod (Hull), reappraising the iconic Gallipoli battle from an international perspective, and IWM’s Nigel Steel, who shared the ‘Regeneration’ plans for the new First World War galleries, set up a forward-looking approach to the day.

Professor Bruce Scates (National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash) told everyone about the international project ‘Anzac Day at Home and Abroad – The Centenary History’. This ground-breaking project will investigate the history of Anzac Day, within both Australia and New Zealand, as well as its largely undocumented role within Turkey, France and the UK. Dr Catherine Moriarty (Brighton) expanded on this theme, looking at the Australian War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, and how this ties in with our respective national understandings of the conflict. Peter Francis (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) then explained recent changes in the CWGC’s mission, brought about principally by the Fromelles project.

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Image of the discovery of a new mass grave at Perucac Lake

Excavations of a new mass grave discovered at Perucac Lake. Muhamed Mujkic.

Back in Sarajevo. I call in on Muhamed Mujkic, who co-directed the Memorial Room film with the British documentary maker Leslie Woodhead, at his office at the Federation for Missing Persons.  His job is to document the excavations of mass graves found in Bosnia – something he has now done for 15 years.   Last year a new mass grave was found–when a damming project at Perucac Lake caused a river bed to yield up its terrible secret – their work is far from over.   

Image of excavations of a mass grave discovered at Perucac Lake

Excavations of a new mass grave discovered at Perucac Lake. Muhamed Mujkic.

The walls of their office are covered with photos of the team at work – including one of their chief wearing a miner’s lamp as he examines human remains discovered in a deep cave.  And there’s one of Bill Clinton – deep in thought during an official visit to Potocari. 

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Image of the Srebrenica Memorial Room

The Srebrenica Memorial Room, Potocari, Bosnia Hercegovina: two black towers sit in the former UN headquarters. In one a film explains the course of the genocide, in another showcases tell the stories of twenty of those killed. Jasmin Agovic.

Wood-smoke curls through the darkness as I make my way to Sarajevo’s bus station for the 7am daily bus to Srebrenica.  It’s my first visit to Bosnia since 2007 when the Srebrenica Memorial Room opened, a project initiated by Lord Ashdown, then High Representative in Bosnia Hercegovina, and supported by the IWM.

Once on the road, it’s good to see the familiar landscape – even if it is through a haze of rain.  Substantial brick houses dot the fields – they’re usually shared between families with one on each floor.  Each has a pile of logs outside – ready for the winter.

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