Re-Imagining Challenging History conference

Posted by Dr Jenny Kidd

Challenginf History written as text

  • 29 June – Cardiff University University, Glamorgan Building
  • 30 June – Amgueddfa Cymru / National Museum Wales
  • Follow conference discussions and activities on #challhist
  • Register or find out more Re-Imagining Challenging History

Since 2009 the Challenging History network has been working with and alongside cultural  institutions in order to support their work with difficult and sensitive subject matters.

The work of the network arises from a very real – and justifiable – anguish on the part of museum workers and visitors about how best to navigate this difficult terrain.  This anxiety has been a recurrent finding of the network over the years, even as the volume of work in this arena carried out by museums has grown staggeringly.

Some heritages are understood as challenging by virtue of their content; they might make visible such themes as war and conflict, genocide, human rights violations, struggles for meaning and for representation. They are heritages that – not least within the museum context itself – have complex legacies and links to politics and memory.  They raise serious questions: If heritage is a construction, who has constructed it? Whose voices are heard? And whose are consigned to silence?

But the Challenging History network has always been interested in a broader understandings of difficult heritage, as important as it is to reflect ethically on that. As such, the network is interested in approaches and methodologies that can be challenging also, not least the digital turn and growth of participatory discourses within museums’ practice in recent years. We recognize that museum visitors and users might wish to challenge institutions also; they might disagree with the narratives they are presented with, the roles they are cast in, or the business models that support heritage organisations.

This brings us to another way in which we (in the network) are now understanding the challenge of history; it is apparent that museums are operating in difficult contexts worldwide. This is a time of unprecedented change, pressure and evolution for museums and their continued investment of resources in this area is not assured. Indeed, the very definition of the museum has been opened up for negotiation and challenge in recent years.

Against this backdrop we will be holding our third Challenging History conference this year. This conference, jointly hosted by Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales and Cardiff University, will explore how cultural practitioners are continuing to work in innovative and responsive ways with difficult and sensitive heritages/themes. The conference will directly address the afore-mentioned contexts, and suggest imaginative responses to them, helping delegates to explore why and how challenging histories maintain their relevance.

Questions we will be exploring include…

  • Is it appropriate to re-imagine the role of museums and museum professionals as activists or as civil society mediators?
  • How does our understanding of ‘impact’ in museums (and Universities also) frame what kind of work with challenging history is deemed viable?
  • Do museums’ current methodologies need re-imagining?
  • How are online-only museums free to imagine their work with challenging histories differently?
  • Is there a role for gaming, play and mischief-making in work with difficult and sensitive subject matters?
  • What is the role of academic research in re-imagining well-known challenging topics?
  • How does all of this link into wider discussions about museums’ survival in 2016 and beyond?

The conference is sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council World War One Engagement Centre: Voices of War and Peace.

Debates about Challenging History are currently being framed against the backdrop of this very high profile and ongoing commemoration. A strand of the conference will therefore be dedicated to papers that focus on the lessons that can be learned from dealing with this topic, including on the ways in which it informs, challenges or intersects with other histories.

To register or find out more visit the Re-Imagining Challenging History website, and note that you can follow our discussions and activities on #challhist.