Serge Noiret have presented at research seminars of IGITI
On December 8th 2017, Serge Noiret, a Professor at the European University Institute and founding President of the International Federation of Public History (IFPH), delivered two lectures at IGITI. The first lecture "International Public History" was devoted to the current problems and trends in the field of Public History, and the second "The Museum for the History of Fascism in Predappio" focused on the arguments for and against and on the development of the concept of museum which is to be opened in a town where Benito Mussolini was born, in 2019.
International Public History
The first lecture sought to historicize the field of public history. It began with an overview of the discipline’s institutionalization, which culminated in 2014 in the founding of IFPH, which seeks to forge connections among public historians worldwide and support pedagogical and scholarly programs. IFPH has already held four major annual conferences: in Amsterdam (2014), Jinan (2015), Bogota (2016), and Ravenna (2017). Its fifth one is set to take place in Sao Paolo, Brazil. From 2018, IFPH will be also start publishing its own journal International Public History.
The mission of public history is to make history accessible and useful to the wider public. As a subfield of history, it is practiced by professional historians conducting research for different types of audiences worldwide. It is generally thought that public history as a discipline emerged in the 1960s-70s in the USA as a result of the shortage of tradition academic positions, which forced young specialists to seek professional realization outside of university campuses. Serge Noiret, however, argued that this is not the only genealogy of the field, offering the example of Raphael Samuel's history workshops in Ruskin College (Oxford), which were similarly aimed at taking history outside of the university. Samuel's work of collecting popular memories culminated in 1976 in the founding of the journal History Workshop, which exists to this day. Using a wide array of sources—photography, cinema, theater, literature, and oral history,—he sought to democratize the field of history, making ordinary people aware of the larger history they are a part of. This strand of public history continues today with projects such as the archive of photographs and videomaterial about what individuals were doing on September 11, 2001, which is housed in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
Serge Noiret also spoke about the seemingly opposing forces experienced by people today, of belonging, on the one hand, to a global world, and becoming increasingly invested in the history of their own family, nation, race, birthplace, or life experience, on the other. In this spirit, Professor Noiret consideres the popular genre of photomontage with images of the same place (for example, of the Berlin Center and the Berlin Wall) taken in different decades a wonderful example of public history.
The rise of digital humanities influenced public history as historians made use of the expanded possibilities of new media. Web sites could simultaneously show documents, photographs, video and audio recordings, allowing connections between the past, the present, and the future. Thus, in Europe today, there are vast digital libraries dedicated, for example, to the memories of the participants of the First and Second World Wars, where they or their relatives retell those events.
Towards the end of the lecture, Professor Noiret spoke about the important books and journals dedicated to public history. Among the journals, he distinguished The Public Historian and Public History Review. Important books published recently include Hilda Kin and Paul Martin's Public History: a Reader, James B. Gardener's The Oxford Handbook of Public History, Komas Kovin's Public History: a Textbook of Practice and a few other forthcoming works.
Report by IGITI Research Assistant Vladislav Staf
Translated by IGITI Research Fellow Rossen Djagalov
The Museum for the History of Fascism in Predappio
The second of Serge Noiret's lectures illustrated the conceptual questions faced by public historians using the case study of Predappio's History of Fascism museum. He contextualized this study by contrasting Italy with Germany: whereas after WWII Germany went through a lustration and a public admission of collective guilt, Italy continues to have parallel histories about fascism.
In part, their existence is due to Italy switching sides during WWII, when in 1943 Mussolini's regime was toppled. However, the transition from fascism to post-fascism wasn't marked by a clean break. In the Italian public sphere today, one can witness both various forms of preservation of toponyms and monuments from the fascist period and simultaneously calls for the criminalization of the fascist regime. There are cases of highly debated monuments such as General Graziani's, who was at the time sentenced as a war criminal. In general, despite the abundance of monuments dedicated to the resistence against Mussulini, the Italian war participation on Germany's side is rarely mentioned.
In this situation, public historians can help create a narrative to confront the nostalgia for fascism in contemporary Italy. One of the forms this task will take is the planned Museum of Fascism in the town of Predappio. Serge Noiret was a member of the commission conceptualizing such a museum and curating its exhibits. It is due to open doors in 2019.
Predappio is a small town with several thousand inhabitants where Mussolini was born and buried. It had started attracting fascists already during Mussolini's rein and still is a pilgrimage site for fascist sympathizers. Three times every year (during Mussolini's birthday, the day of his execution, and the anniversary of his March on Rome) neofascists descend onto the town and organize a march with their own images, symbolism, and songs. In the town itself, there are souvenir stores selling images of Il Duche and objects with fascist symbols. Thus, Predappio's public memory is dominated by the commercialized and simplified "nostalgic" past.
In his talk, Serge Noiret examined the main arguments brought up by the opponents of the Museum of Fascism. Some of them are concerned with the potential audience of such a museum. Predappio's inconvenient location, they say, would not bring enough tourists; alternatively, if the museum does attract visitors to Predappio, the "tourist mode" in which they'll operate would not really open them up to learning anything. Local public figures even opposed the "unnecessary" attention Predappio would get, which would more firmly fix the relation between the town and fascism. Some argue that such a museum must be situated not in the dictator's hometown but at a site of suffering caused by fascists, possibly in Rome or Milan. There are questions about the contents of the museum: its opponents assert that fascism must be mentioned only negatively and solely in connection with atrocities, violence, and crimes. There is also the view that creation of just one museum is insufficient: what is needed are museums of colonialism, fascism, etc.
In these debates, Serge Noiret argued that the museum is necessary to challenge the monopoly of the souvenir sellers and neofascists on public memory and to offer Predappio's citizens the possibility of creating an alternative identity for their town. Rather than avoiding the past, he insists, we should confront it, contextualize it, criticize it. The lecture outlined several principles on which the Predappio museum will be based. Most important, this must be a critical, fact-based view on Italy's twentieth-century history. It is also crucial to place Italian fascism in the international context. (Hence, the necessity to partner this Italian documentary center with other European ones.) From the point of view of communicating with the viewer, the museum should provoke emotional reactions and provide multisensory experience: visitors will be able to listen, feel, interact, and not merely observe. The museum should be able to engage audiences of different age. An important decision to be made was Mussolini's presence in the exhibition. Curators concluded that objects belonging to or images of him would only distract visitors from the main idea, and Mussolini's figure must not be emphasized. As a result, the museum will feature only one object: a chair used during interrogations would be place at the center of one of exhibition halls.
The discussion following the lecture dealt with potential audience of the future museum, the expected effects of visiting, its online activities, and museum's possible collaborations with sociologists and anthropologists, who would be able to study the audience reception as well as the local community’s attitudes.
Report by IGITI Research Assistant Alisa Maximova
Translated by IGITI Research Fellow Rossen Djagalov