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Changing how museums approach the memorialisation of conflict

Our researchers have developed new theories that question our thinking of conflict. We’ve collaborated with museums to improve exhibits for war and violence.

Some adults with a group of children in a museum. The children are leaning over and pointing at a large map.
Our research has informed how museums present conflict as part of their exhibitions.

How we remember history

Throughout the history of a nation, there are often stories of significant conflict and war. Once these conclude and peace treaties are signed the memory of those conflicts remain between nations and individuals.

Memories are often shaped by the stories that we tell about the past. These stories can be told through various means, such as:

  • exhibitions in museums
  • monuments and statues
  • films
  • rituals and festivals

These stories look to the past to shape our sense of who we are in the present. The wars in the 20th century meant that European societies have had to find ways of leaving these conflicts behind them.

Telling stories

Being able to preserve those memories and tell the story of the people involved can be challenging when values and politics may have changed. Each society has managed their national memory differently. Various roles have been adopted to tell these stories framed around the:

  • victorious and the defeated
  • victims and the perpetrators
  • guilty and the innocent

One of the ways that Europe sought to overcome division and conflict after the Second World War was through European integration and honouring the victims. However, across Europe nowadays populist and nationalist movements are using the heritage of war and violence to push confrontational notions of collective belonging.

Some of the traditional approaches to preserving the memories of past conflicts fall short in countering such antagonistic memory cultures and new innovative approaches are needed.

A new way of thinking

Professor Anna Bull from our Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies along with colleagues Dr David Clarke and Dr Nina Parish have been involved in research examining this area further.

Professor Anna Bull along with Professor Hans Lauge Hansen wrote a research paper that suggested a new approach, known as agonistic memory. This approach promotes a broader perspective and strengthens historical and political understandings. This way of remembering seeks to preserve the voices and understand the perspectives of former enemies, but also those of bystanders, traitors, and objectors rather than promoting one side’s triumph over another (as in antagonistic memory) or simply honouring the victims from all sides (as in cosmopolitan memory).

The Unsettling Remembering and Social Cohesion in Transnational Europe (UNREST) project generated an in-depth analysis of modes of representation in European war museums and furthered collaboration with museum practitioners.

Traditionally museums and heritage sites focused on promoting national heroic tales or compassionate victims’ stories, rather than adopting an approach based on agonistic memory. Promoting new ways of thinking about war memory can assist museum practitioners present visitors with complex and controversial views, so that they can develop their own informed interpretations.

Working with museums

Professor Anna Bull and Dr Nina Parish collaborated with museum curators in the UK, Belgium, France and Slovenia, through specific workshops. In these sessions, they demonstrated how the theory of agonistic memory could be applied to museum exhibitions. These exchanges led curators to rethink their approaches to the heritage of war and to exhibition practices.

Together with the UNREST team and staff from the museum, a new war exhibition opened at the Ruhr Museum in Essen, Germany, on 11 November 2018 and ran until Summer 2019. The exhibition was extended by two months due to popular demand.

The exhibition was directly informed by the research around agonistic memory theory and the concept of radical multi-perspectivism. The experience created a change in approach and practices for the museum and enabled the curatorial team to translate a theoretical concept into new ways of displaying objects, telling multiple and contrasting stories, reflecting critically on conflicting views and devising innovative solutions. This included a purpose-made new agonistic computer game.

Launching an online course

Building on this research, in 2018 a new interactive course, How we remember war and violence: theory and practice was launched by Dr David Clarke and Dr Nina Parish. It encouraged learners to consider how we recall conflict and discover a different way of remembering violence and wars in the 20th century.

Well over 90% of learners reported that they had gained new knowledge or skills by undertaking the course. Almost 80% of participants also indicated that they had shared what they had learned.

Participants have said how useful the content was for their understanding of conflict and war memory, not least in their own country. Through evaluation of the course it was found that agonistic memory helped learners to:

  • see a new perspective and gain new insight
  • improve their understanding
  • think critically
  • put theory into practice

Related groupings

Explore the associated departments and research groupings for this research.


Politics of Culture and Memory

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Our research focuses on different forms of identity, cultural difference and expression in order to understand what makes a fair society and how to build one.