’Freedom is not a thing of the past. Freedom is here and now’ – European Remembrance Symposium has ended in Warsaw

’Freedom is not a thing of the past. Freedom is here and now’ – European Remembrance Symposium has ended in Warsaw

’Freedom is not a thing of the past. Freedom is here and now’ – European Remembrance Symposium has ended in Warsaw

The 12th European Remembrance Symposium ‘Commemorating and narrating freedom’ has ended in Warsaw. Representatives of nearly 200 institutions and organisations dealing with the culture of remembrance from all over the world discussed the commemoration and narratives of freedom, its symbols and its presence in civic education and intergenerational dialogue. Not coincidentally, the Polish History Museum at the Warsaw Citadel was chosen as the venue for the meeting.

What did freedom mean in the last century and what does it mean today? Can freedom be expressed in words and deeds, and its memory perpetuated in objects and spaces? What is the role of new technologies and artificial intelligence in building memory and intergenerational dialogue about freedom? These were just some of the questions raised by the most prominent representatives of museums and memorial sites, employees of scientific and educational institutions, as well as NGOs active in the field of 20th-century history. As an annual project of European Network Remembrance and Solidarity (ENRS), the Symposium aimed at facilitating the exchange of contacts, experiences, and ideas between institutions dealing with historical education and memory politics across Europe. This year's edition took place on 21–24 May in Warsaw, with the Polish History Museum as a co-organiser of the event.
 
The four-day event included panel discussions and a series of networking events. During Q&A sessions, speakers shared their experience of undertaking projects, while those taking part in ‘turbo presentations’ had 90 seconds to present their institutions or encourage new partners. The debates were accompanied by visits to museums and memorials in Warsaw, and cultural events.
 
‘The symposium is an opportunity to share experiences, successes and difficulties. The idea of the symposium is to promote our opportunities for cooperation across borders and for participants in our subsequent projects to bring different perspectives to the history of 20th century Europe, to help our better understanding of each other,' said Rafal Rogulski, Director of ENRS.
 
‘Each year, we invite you to discuss a topic that is important to all of us. This year's theme is freedom in national and museum narratives, and in civic education, which is otherwise closely linked to responsibility. A responsible dialogue on freedom, multinational and multi-generational, should include space for both a narrative based on historical knowledge and different perspectives on the past. Awareness of the difficult and sometimes bumpy way to freedom allow us to build a responsible future, free from conflicts and violations of immanent human values, of which freedom is undoubtedly one,’ Rogulski added.
 
Why should we talk about freedom? This question came up frequently during the symposium. The topic of freedom and the quest for it seems particularly relevant in a year of many important anniversaries, such as the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising, the 35th anniversary of the fall of communism or the 20th anniversary of the enlargement of the European Union. The events of several decades ago remind us that freedom has to be fought for and, once won, maintained. Today's armed conflicts show that, in times of constant change, even freedom, an unquestionable value, can sometimes be appropriated.
 
‘Authoritarianism takes away freedom in all areas of life: artistic, social, scientific and economic. But in Poland we can fight for it. We know that freedom is not given once and for all, but we also know that it is attainable and that we must strive for it, which we express as a society,' said Hanna Wróblewska, Polish Minister of Culture and National Heritage, at the opening of the symposium.
 
‘Freedom is and should remain a key concept for most institutions dealing with memory. In Polish history, and especially in the history of Warsaw, it remains of paramount importance. Therefore, in order to defend freedom, sometimes we have to pay the highest price. Though, we believe that this meeting is of great value, because a free and honest debate about history is not only a question of knowledge or even ethics, but also a contribution to stopping aggression and restoring peace in Europe' – said dr Robert Kostro, Director of the Polish Historic Museum.
 
In addition to the main theme of this year's event, according to the head of the ENRS, the venue is no less important. After the fall of the November Uprising, the Citadel was a point of control and pacification for the whole of Warsaw, which was then the centre of the Polish independence movement. It also served as an investigative prison (the 10th Pavilion) and a place of execution for Polish national activists. Members of the Polish underground government were executed here.
 
‘Freedom is one of those aspects that has played a special role in Polish history, and the Polish History Museum in statu nascendi is the perfect place for such a meeting. It has a symbolic meaning. Firstly, it is located on the Citadel – a symbol of Russian enslavement, and secondly, it was created through mutual understanding and dialogue. The Polish History Museum is also a museum of the struggle for freedom and its preservation,’ Rogulski said.
 
‘Moreover, the fact that the museum's permanent exhibition is still under construction provides an opportunity to see in real time the process of creating an exhibition in one of the largest institutions of its kind, both in terms of organisation and technology, and in terms of content and narrative. All the more so as freedom remains a constant challenge for general history and civic education,’ added the head of the ENRS.
 
In addition to the historical determinants of freedom, participants at the symposium examined the phenomenon from the perspectives of civic education, museum narratives and contemporary cultural discourses, to which individual debates and workshops were devoted.
 
During the opening debate of the event, entitled ‘Freedom as a current challenge for public history and civic education’, Gueorgui Kassianov (Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin), María Luz Martínez Seijo (Congress of Deputies of Spain) and Barbara Walsche (Dialogue and Restorative Justice Facilitator) considered the impact of tragic events, including armed conflicts, on the understanding of history and its commemoration, as well as on the historical policies of states. They also sought to answer the question of what new policy priorities can be implemented to promote more informed civic education, especially in the context of challenges to freedom in European and global societies.
 
Educational institutions and organisations, as well as museums and memorials, seem to play a key role in this respect. For decades, they have played a special role in the creation of a historical and cultural memory of various generations, both as sites that shape this memory and as institutions that engage visitors in the co-creation of narratives about the past. According to Wojciech Soczewica of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, it is an obligation of the educational institutions to provide counterbalance to propaganda.
 
The speakers also attributed such a mission to cultural institutions. It is thanks to them that societies come to terms with the difficult legacy of the heritage of dictatorships and totalitarian rule, and that memory becomes an imperative of the 21st century, as María Luz Martínez Seijo and Barbara Walsche pointed out. ‘We remember through culture. Museums are places of engagement where dialogue happens,' said Walsche.
 
The issue of evoking freedom in museum narratives of the past resonated more than once during the debate entitled 'Participation in museums: shaping museum narratives' and the case study session 'Symbols of regained/lost freedom’ on the second day of the event. In the discussion, both Martin Klimza (Museum of Victims of Communism, Košice) and Paolo Pezzino (National Museum of Resistance, Milan) pointed out, among other things, that one way of evoking the history of freedom is to commemorate it in material form, including in public spaces.
 
‘The sites and even individual museum exhibits conceal stories of the striving for freedom, the hope for freedom, the power to survive," said dr Barbara Glück of the Mauthausen Memorial (Austria) during the debate. For Maria Axinte of the Pitesti Prison Memorial Foundation (Romania), these sites become symbols of freedom regained or lost, but also traces of a memory once repressed. Their evocation requires both caution and sensitivity.
 
Experts agreed that changing technologies and increasingly sophisticated tools for visualising the past, including immersive media and VR, now offer many opportunities to tell stories of freedom. As a result, the symposium programme included workshops and mentoring sessions on topics such as data monsters in contested heritage records by Pille Pruulman-Vengerfeldt (Malmö University, Sweden) or the use of artificial intelligence in cultural and educational projects by David Sypniewski (University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Warsaw).
 
In the symposium's closing roundtable debate, entitled ‘Freedom an remembrance in international dialogue’, Łukasz Kamiński (National Ossoliński Institute, Wrocław) and Laura Kolbe (University of Helsinki) warned that the free use of different types of tools must not distort the past or encourage false interpretations of it. Instead, it should take into account different historical and cultural perspectives and, above all, serve to build responsible dialogue between generations. ‘Freedom seems to be a universal value, which is used in all regimes – democratic as well as totalitarian. Freedom must be contextualised,' said Miloš Ȓezník of the German Historical Institute in Warsaw. ‘You can’t put freedom in a museum. It is not thing of the past. Freedom is here and now,' added Martin Andreller of the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory, concluding his reflections on the consciousness of being a free person and thus the discussion on the evolution of the concept of freedom.
 
The idea of the symposium came from the conviction that a dialogue relating to the events of the last century is imperative, and needs to take into account different sensibilities, experiences and existing interpretations. The annual meeting aims to initiate and deepen cooperation between institutions and organisations dealing with the history and remembrance of 20th-century Europe, as well as with historical education.
 
This has been the aim of every edition of the European Remembrance Symposium since 2012, when it was held at the European Solidarity Centre in Gdansk. That was the first time that the question of whether a common European culture of remembrance is possible was raised in an international forum. Subsequent meetings were held in Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Brussels, Bucharest, Paris, Tallinn, Dublin and Barcelona. The main themes have been: the culture of remembrance in the face of different historical perspectives; the common European experience of dictatorships and wars, including the Second World War; the conditions and consequences of the so-called turning points in European history in 1919 (the end of the First World War), 1945 (the end of the Second World War) and 1989 (the collapse of communism); solidarity; the role of memory and history in the creation of contemporary European identity.
 
Each year, representatives of cultural, historical and commemorative institutions from all over the world confirm their participation in the symposium. In addition to those mentioned above, this year's panellists included Simina Badica from the House of European History in Brussels, Audrey Whitty from the Irish National Library in Dublin, Anna Benrhardt from Culture Paris, Maison-Laffitte, Elias Stouraitis from the Ionian University in Corfu, as well as guests from the Berlin-Karlshorst Museum, the Institute for International Relations at the Taras Shevchenko University in Kiev, the Gaon Museum of Jewish History in Vilnius, the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II, the Katyn Museum and others.
 
The twelfth edition of the event shows that the need for dialogue remains. It also reinforces the conviction that both freedom and dialogue about it are values to which we should continue to aspire.
 
We wish to thank everyone who contributed to this year’s edition of the event! Thank you to all distinguished panellists and participants for sharing experiences, exchanging ideas and creating an atmosphere of cooperation and understanding.
 
We’re looking forward to meeting you all again in 2025 in Helsinki!
 
We invite you to visit the photo gallery of three-day discussion in Warsaw!
 
Watch the recordings of the Symposium here.

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