* Cold War Museology conference reflections

From Monday 12 June to Wednesday 14 June, the Materialising the Cold War team brought together international experts from across historical, museological, heritage and memory studies backgrounds to discuss Cold War Museology at a conference held at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

What questions are raised by collecting and exhibiting Cold War material in global museums? What contributes to accessible, meaningful and authentic public display on this challenging and complex era of history? Participants addressed how the Cold War is materialised in museum collection objects, how time and periodisation contribute to its narrative, and they considered the challenges associated with interpreting a secret, imagined and frequently intangible conflict.

On day one of the conference, after an introductory tour of galleries at the National Museum of Scotland, silence and absence were established as a central premise for thinking about the Cold War within museums. Often, this period, and particularly its social and cultural experience and national ramifications, are hard to find – both behind the scenes and on display in museums. Keynote speaker Rhiannon Mason gave a riveting talk on the museological silences surrounding cultural trauma. Fittingly, the eight theoretical causes for silence described by Mason (and explored with co-author Joanne Sayner), were recognisable in the Cold War museology context.i

I was struck by the need to simultaneously localise and globalise the historiographies and materialities of Cold War experience. From the work needed to situate the Norwegian Aviation Museum’s most infamous object – the U-2 spy plane – in the city of Bodø (Karl Kleve) to the reminder that just because western European historiographies appear more coherent it does not mean they are any more settled than those of eastern Europe (Adam Seipp). Indeed, the provocation that representations of the Cold War must deal with a ‘history of entanglement’ (Seipp) proved a compelling precursor to Professor Arne Westad’s keynote on Wednesday. Westad cautioned against making assumptions based in the present about how people lived, thought and felt in the past and encouraged museums to view the Cold War as a conflict rooted in and dependent on materiality.

The material remnants of the Cold War may not perfectly reflect the materiality engendered during the event itself. Indeed, presentations on bunkers, military hardware, secret operations and everyday life evoked the tensions created by architecture and objects that can and cannot fully describe the historical moment in which they were produced (Sam Alberti, Holger Nehring, Rosanna Farbøl, Sarah Harper, Peter Johnston, Charlotte Yelamos). It can often feel like there are more questions to ask in response to these tensions, as opposed to practical solutions to act on in the museum setting. It was great to see the enthusiasm from conference participants to grapple with these conceptual questions in the daily and operational task of managing Cold War collections and exhibition.

Indeed, the question of interpretation and re-interpretation in museums arose in response to an acknowledgement that contemporary events and evolving institutional priorities direct the policies and procedures governing Cold War museology. This has important repercussions for how we periodise the Cold War, create timelines, profile anniversaries and account for temporality – to bring the past in line with the present (Westad). The shared experiences of conference participants and its provocative, discursive atmosphere will influence our own reflection on what our present wants to say about our Cold War past(s) within the museum.

[1] Rhiannon Mason & Joanne Sayner (2019) ‘Bringing museal silence into focus: eight ways of thinking about silence in museums’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 25:1, 5-20, DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2017.1413678

Theme by the University of Stirling