Historical Awareness vs. Historical Oblivion
In Europe and North America in particular, but also in Africa, Asia and Oceania – despite all the accusations of rampant forgetting of history – we are experiencing a particularly historically aware culture. Without interruption, daily newspapers and television news, but even more intensively in social media, discuss how we want to understand and remember our common history. For example, how do we deal with racism and anti-Semitism? What do we want / should / must remember?
This applies not only to history that has already been, but also to history that is still being written. Of course, for thousands of years the ruling classes have always been aware of a future posterity and tried to guide its perception by means of statues, magnificent buildings and official chronicles. But these were naturally very one-sided representations and today’s historians face the challenge of breaking through such official self-portrayals. In democratic post-war societies, an ever-increasing awareness of the archival preservation of our everyday life has therefore grown. This does not mean an arbitrary and complete preservation, but rather a conscious historical concept, a historical design.
This has just become very clear with the corona pandemic. In order to prevent the historical peculiarity of the moment from being forgotten, as our ancestors’ experiences during the Spanish flu had been, various museums and academic stakeholders – especially from the field of public history – have called on the internet to collect personal memories, everyday experiences and findings about the “coronacrisis” and upload them to their databases.
One of the first of these actions is the “coronarchiv”, an initiative of the universities of Hamburg, Bochum and Giessen in Germany (https://coronarchiv.geschichte.uni-hamburg.de/): “Sharing is caring – become a part of history” can be read under the logo. More than 2388 objects can currently be found on the site: personal reports, photos of abandoned beer gardens, children’s drawings and warning signs. The individual objects are geo-tagged on a map. A curatorial design behind the collection is not yet apparent. It is still mainly about collecting itself. The site is simple and reminds more of a blog. In the menu you can easily share a “corona experience” in a simple mask. The only access to the inventory is via “browse objects”. Here you can access a simple list of all previous “objects”. There are no categories or filters yet. But you can search for concrete objects via advanced search. From the design you can see that the site had to be created quickly and must function purposively. It’s clearly about collecting, which should be possible without barriers. It’s not yet a matter of processing and curating. What will happen with to collection is still to be decided. In cooperation with the site, the Museum of Medical History Hamburg (Medizinhistorisches Museum Hamburg), the Museum of Hamburg History (Museum für Hamburger Geschichte) and the District Archive of the Heilbronn (Kreisarchiv des Landeskreis Heilbronn) are also calling for the collection of “analogue” objects.
Soon other local and national museums called for collecting: Since April 6, the Historical Museum of Lucerne (Historisches Museum Luzern) has been collecting under the title “Lucerne collects corona” (https://historischesmuseum.lu.ch/ausstellungen/Luzern_sammelt_Corona):
“Normally, historical museums look back into the past. The Historical Museum of Lucerne, on the other hand, is currently looking ahead to the time after the corona crisis and asks: What will people in the Canton of Lucerne remember later? How do we want to tell the story of the coronacrisis to our children and grandchildren? And specifically: what would each and every one of us keep from that time?” For the time being, the call is limited to a blog entry on the museum’s website in the “exhibitions” section. Photos can be sent to an email address and, according to the announcement, will later be shown in a digital exhibition on the museum’s website. However, the call seems to be no longer the main focus of the museum. It can only be found from the start page by switching to the “news” section in the fourth position and probably slides further back with every new entry.
Within a very short time, such collection initiatives have multiplied worldwide. In Vienna, the House of History (Haus der Geschichte) (https://www.hdgoe.at/corona_sammeln) collects. Here, too, there is only an email address and an announcement of a web exhibition. Here, too, the call may have slipped down the museum’s agenda and can only be found if you want to find out more about the topic “Heute im HdGÖ” on the homepage. This is different in the Wien Museum, where the call can be found on the start page: https://www.wienmuseum.at/de/corona-sammlungsprojekt. Here you can also view a first selection of photos directly on the project’s page. In contrast to the inconspicuous list of the coronarchive, the presentation of the objects also appears to be designed according to aesthetic points of view. However, a curation and order cannot yet be discerned. In Berlin, the Museum of European Cultures (Museum Europäischer Kulturen) is currently collecting at https://blog.smb.museum/collectingcorona-ein-sammlungsaufruf-des-museums-europaeischer-kulturen/. For the first time, a small selection of photographic material is being curated and commented on in the form of a blog entry, thus placing it in a context of meaning.
The City Museum (Stadtmuseum) and the Jewish Museum (Jüdisches Museum). The International Federation for Public History has decided to link all projects on one page (https://ifph.hypotheses.org/3225). The list is far from being complete.
But not only museums and public history institutes are involved in this active historicization of a current event. The Literaturhaus in Graz has been publishing a weekly corona diary since March, in which Austrian writers record their experiences (http://www.literaturhaus-graz.at/die-corona-tagebuecher/). In Switzerland, the website of the Swiss Social Archive (Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv) contains a – simple and practical – collection of all proposals, demands and position papers of Swiss parties, interest groups and think tanks on the coronacrisis (https://www.sachdokumentation.ch/bestand/dossier/943). And the Aargauer Zeitung has been collecting reports from “everyday life in corona” in a dossier since March (https://www.aargauerzeitung.ch/dossier/Corona-Alltag%20im%20Aargau).
A Swiss “Catastrophic Archive”
Another initiative from Switzerland is of particular interest: The University of Bern, the history portal Infoclio.ch, the Università della Svizzera italiana, the Swiss Social Archive (Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv) and the Swiss Federal Archive (Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv) have recently started collecting data in a joint digital archive called corona-memory.ch. The project also stands out from comparable ones because its self-image is not only to collect and preserve but also to support the “sense of community” and the “post-traumatic healing process” (https://www.corona-memory.ch/s/corona-memory/page/about).
“Digital memory databases are participatory archives set up during or immediately after collective traumatic events. Here digital media are collected in various forms, e.g. text and audio messages, videos, images and social media content. Such ‘disaster archives”’ have proven to be effective in empowering people after traumatic situations to rebuild a sense of community and thus support the post-traumatic healing process. The exchange of memories and the telling of momentous experiences are essential for communities and their collective recovery, they support social resilience.”
This is where the circle between past and present closes (corona-memory.ch). History does not exist outside of our present. History also fulfils a function; it functions as the basis for our collective identities. And just as our collective identities are constantly changing, history is also constantly changing.