A Museum, World War II, and Entangled Politics. A view from Gdańsk

Should state-funded museums focus on the past of one nation, or should they open up their exhibitions to incorporate history of an entire region or even the whole world? Should borders of nation states converge with the borders of a museum’s exhibition? Who is the target audience of a state-funded museum: that state’s citizens or foreign tourists? Or maybe both groups?

These questions probably give headaches to all museum curators – especially in the century of Skype, Ryanair, the EU and electronic visas, when both historical research and museum audiences are increasingly less constrained by borders. These issues became of particular importance to the scholars and staff at the recently opened Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, Poland (incidentally, as a middle school student I interned in the very same museum). The staff not only had to tackle issues related to the exhibition, which opened to the public in March 2017, but also found themselves in the middle of a political struggle.

Museum of the Second World War, Gdańsk

On the surface, the conflict was between the liberals, who set up the museum in 2008, and the conservatives, who after an electoral victory in 2015 attempted to change the museum’s leadership and vision. However, the key questions, even if no-one framed them in such terms, were: Can a transnational and global approach to history deepen one’s understanding of the past and the present? And how do historians communicate such a new approach to a non-academic audience?

Up until the 1990s, history was studied almost exclusively from a “national” perspective. Borders of states defined the parameters of scholarship. Even those areas of history that by their nature called for a transnational approach – such as migration, colonialism or national minorities – were approached primarily through the prism of nation-states. Similarly, comparative history focused on phenomena happening in various nation-states, and boundaries were still treated as given.[1] This started to change in the 1990s,[2] when some historians (mainly) in America and Western Europe turned to investigating cross-border relations involving both state actors and non-state individuals (e.g. scientists), groups (e.g. migrants), and organisations (e.g. NGOs). Such an approach has been termed “transnational history” (although the concept still awaits a precise definition).[3]

Unsurprisingly, this new approach is primarily used to study phenomena which in an obvious way cross borders; these include trade, migration, or transfers of ideas and scholarship.[4] It is worthy of note that transnational history, a novel approach in itself, can be more easily applied to (relatively) new areas of historical research – such as those listed above – than to well-established fields – such as political history – which still tend to be analysed from a national perspective.[5]

In Poland, a transnational approach to history is an even greater novelty than in the West. As part of the undergraduate research assistantship programme I looked into the current status of transnational history in Polish academia and discovered that this approach appeared in Polish journals and research projects only recently: it was “imported” from the West. My survey of articles published in the past five years in major Polish historical journals [6] shows that works which mention transnational history or utilising a transnational approach are, with a few notable exceptions, authored by either foreign scholars publishing in Poland or Polish scholars educated and / or working abroad.

The latter are mostly younger scholars, such as Kornelia Kończal and Lidia Jurek (both educated as PhD candidates at EUI in Florence, an institute which has strong ties to the ITSH at St Andrews). Just like in “Western” academia, a transnational approach (even though not always labelled as such) tends to be more acceptable when applied to newer areas of historical research, such as environmental history,[7] than when used by political or military historians. Interestingly, the first written mention of transnational history that I managed to find is not in an academic journal, but on the popular Polish news and blogging website onet.pl. In the 2009 article ‘National history in a supranational perspective’ Marcin Kula, a historian based in Warsaw, shows how one’s understanding of Polish history can be expanded through studying it in a comparative and transnational perspective. Interestingly, Kula mentions that this is precisely what the general public will be able to learn in the (then-under-construction) Museum of the Second World War.[8]

This brings me back to the much debated Museum. When Kula published his article, a liberal government was sponsoring a museum that strove to present a comparative and transnational interpretation of the war to the broader public, from both Poland and abroad. After a change of government in 2015, a shift in the museum’s strategy was supposed to follow. This is because history, patriotism and identity in Poland are very strongly tied to one another. As a result, history is of considerable importance to people, both in their political choices and private lives. National history’s natural allies are the conservatives, who subscribe to a “national” (Polish) identity.

Transnational history, in contrast, tends to find supporters among liberals who generally identify not only with the Polish nation, but also with the broader European or world community, forging a “transnational” identity which crosses borders of nation states. This is not to simplify the Polish political stage to “conservatives” and “liberals” – every politician and every voter has his or her own perspective on politics, history and identity. I also do not believe the struggle between Poland’s two main political parties can be brought down to their support of or opposition towards “transnational” history (even though historians are, admittedly, overrepresented in Polish parliament). However, it is one of the factors worth remembering when analysing the “politics of history” in Central and Eastern Europe.

Should the Museum of Second World War in Gdańsk be “national” or “transnational”? Opinions on this matter vastly differ. It is worthy of note, however, that for legal reasons the new conservative government did not manage to introduce changes to the exhibition. Since the Museum – perhaps the first “transnational” museum in Poland – opened its doors in March 2017, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Surprisingly this includes the enthusiasm of some conservatives, such as senator Anna Maria Anders, which may be interpreted as a hint that the exhibition will not change much in the foreseeable future.[9] Does the museum’s “transnational” approach work? Well, see for yourselves: Gdańsk is easily accessible by plane, and the entrance fee is approx. 5 pounds. I’m going there this Saturday.

by Tadek Wojtych, University of St Andrews

tadek.wojtych@gmail.com

 

[1] Ian Tyrrell, What is transnational history?, January 2007, <https://iantyrrell.wordpress.com/what-is-transnational-history/> [2 March 2017].

[2] Klaus Kiran Patel, Transnational History, 3 March 2010, <http://ieg-ego.eu/en/threads/theories-and-methods/transnational-history> [13 May 2017], par. 2.

[3] Ibid., par. 4.

[4] Davide Rodogno, Struck, Bernhard and Vogel, Jakob, ‘Introduction’ in Davide Rodogno, Bernhard Struck and Jakob Vogel (eds), Shaping the Transnational Sphere: Experts, Networks and Issues from the 1840s to the 1930s (New York and Oxford, 2015), p. 5.

[5] Patel, Transnational History, par. 2.

[6] I surveyed Acta Poloniae Historica (2012-2016), Kwartalnik Historyczny (2010-2014), Klio Polska (2012-2016) and Przegląd Nauk Historycznych (2011-2016). I also looked at Biuletyn Historii Pogranicza (2008-2013) because of its focus on borderlands.

[7] Edmund Kizik, ‘Review of Kommunikation der Pest. Seestädte des Ostseeraums und die Bedrohung durch die Seuche 1708–1713 by Carl Christian Wahrmann‘, Acta Poloniae Historica 107 (2013), pp. 225-31.

[8] Marcin Kula, Historia narodowa w ponadnarodowej perspektywie, 5 October 2009, <http://wiadomosci.onet.pl/kiosk/historia-narodowa-w-ponadnarodowej-perspektywie/9l5hl> [2 March 2017].

[9] ‘Córka gen. Andersa o Muzeum II Wojny Światowej: „Fascynujące, świetnie zrobione”’, wyborcza.pl, 23 April 2017 <https://goo.gl/QdyUGz> [17 May 2017].

Qing China – between walls and the maritime world

Professor Yang-wen Zheng (University of Manchester) 
Wind of the West Ocean [西洋风]: How the Maritime World Shaped Modern China 
ITSH and Modern History Seminar Series
Time and Venue:
Monday, 30 January 2017, room 1.10, School of History, St Andrews (St Katherine’s Lodge, The Scores)
Generations of Chinese scholars have made China’s frontiers synonymous with the Great Wall and presented its civilization as fundamentally land-bound. I have challenged this perspective, demonstrating that China was not a “Walled Kingdom”, certainly not since the Yongjia Disturbance in 311.  China reached out to the maritime world far more actively than historians have acknowledged, while the seas and what came from the seas-from Islam, fragrances and Jesuits to maize, opium and clocks—significantly changed the course of history, and have been of inestimable importance to China since the Ming. 
It is time we integrate the maritime history of China, a subject which has hitherto languished on the periphery of Chinese studies, into the mainstream of current historical narrative. This talk focuses on the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) when China’s maritime trade pattern changed as its imports shifted from luxuries catering to the court and elite, as they had done since the Han-Tang era, to mundane consumer items.  This change began in the latter half of the Ming and became obvious during the Qing.  What led to this change and what can we learn from it?  From what the Chinese wear to what they eat, chew, drink and smoke, from how they live to the ways in which they move themselves, and even to the manner in which they think and re-invent the country, foreign goods, inventions and ideas that came from the maritime world have fundamentally changed Chinese economy, culture, society and even politics. 

Talking Transnational History – 4 Questions for…Jordan Girardin

Coming from Sciences Po, Jordan Girardin joined St Andrews in 2012 for an MLitt in

Jordan Girardin - presenting on The Alps and Alpine travel, Sep 2016

Jordan Girardin – presenting on The Alps and Alpine travel, Sep 2016

Modern History (including a good dash of transnational history exposure – since 2015 the ITHS  offers a free-standing postgraduate Master in Transnational History) and went on to stay for a PhD. He has recently, in just under three years, submitted his thesis entitled Travel in the Alps: the construction of a transnational space through digital and mental mapping (1750 – 1830). So, let us ask a few questions – and of course, warm congratulations on this great leap forward.

  • How did your project on the Alps around 1800 evolve and develop?

I started my PhD in 2013 and my main objective back then was to show how the Alps became a transnational space between the 1750s and 1830s. I was convinced that I would find enough sources to state that the Alps went from being a huge obstacle to a very interconnected space. The reality was of course not so clear, and more importantly I realised that the terms I used applied to the twenty-first century but were not always so adequate for the period I studied. It was very hard to argue that local Alpine populations saw themselves as ‘transnational actors’ interacting with different valleys across political borders, even though their action could be described as such. However, I was still fascinated by the creation of a consistent Alpine space across national territories and therefore decided to focus on travellers’ perception of that region. As they were not familiar with the Alps, their interpretation of space certainly was going to be more subjective – even ‘wrong’ or exaggerated at times – and therefore allowed me to focus on mental mapping and representations of space. Travel became the main aspect of my topic in the end and this is something I wish to continue doing in my future research!

  • What are the major trends and arguments of your work?

My thesis is an investigation of how the Alps rose as a clear concept in the minds of European elites from the 1750s to the 1830s. Up until the 1750s, the term ‘alps’

Eighteenth-century view of the Alps

Eighteenth-century view of the Alps

was hardly capitalised and mostly referred to the peaks themselves. The works of the Enlightenment and the growing number of travellers made the Alps more popular and more clearly defined in travel literature. My thesis attempts to break down that process between the facts – travel itineraries changing, scientific and socio-economic networks evolving – and their impact on mental representations of that space, using travel accounts, political discourse, and maps. My final chapter explained how the Alps even became a myth, a mountainous space par excellence. It addresses that not all the Alps were seen as quintessentially Alpine in the eyes of travellers: instead, the north-western region of the Alps (around Lake Geneva) featured all elements that eventually made up the Alpine myth and their reputation then applied on behalf of the entire Alpine space. The end of the period I studied (around the 1830s) sees the end of that transition: at that point, all conditions made it possible for the Alps to become a cultural object clearly defined in public representations, and for tourism to genuinely flourish in the shape of a proper economic market.

  • What did you learn about the practice of transnational and / or spatial history? 

I very much looked forward to apply transnational/spatial theories and practices in my PhD, after having chosen transnational history as my main specialisation at MLitt level. Over these three years I learned how to moderately use these theories and their terminology. Indeed, there is always a risk to over-conceptualise a rather empirical example; my first drafts did so, and at times I ended up losing track of my own narrative. Transnational history is a subtler mix of key concepts and terms (space, networks, hubs, interactions) in order to better serve a concrete example (through everyday life history, small scale analysis, or prosopographical approaches for instance). I believe my topic allowed me to find the right balance; through it I realised that spatial approaches can enhance anyone’s research and open doors to new research perspectives. Over the course of this PhD I spent some time building a database of travellers and trying to render their itineraries through digital mapping: this practice – which I believe is part of spatial and transnational history – also allowed me to find out results that words and concepts simply could not materialise. I am convinced transnational/spatial history still has a lot of potential and I look forward to exploring it even more in my future research.

  • Having finished a PhD thesis in three years, what secret would you share with other PhDs?

It may sound quite paradoxical, but I would say ‘keep busy!’. Having more projects to look forward to will force you to be organised, to structure your day, and to get your PhD work done once you have properly allocated some time for it. My least productive moments happened when my PhD was my only daily task. Once I started teaching, presenting conference papers, taking up small internships or taking part in the life of the School and Institute, I became better at planning my work and getting it done. Leave some free time for yourself, keep healthy, keep moving, and your thesis will become a pleasant part of your daily life. Although life can sometimes get in the way, I would also recommend that you establish early on an approximate date of submission, and try to stick to it. The run-up to submission may be exciting, but do not forget that it is not over until you have actually submitted it: I spent a few weeks believing I was done, but my Word document was sitting comfortably on my hard drive. If you and your supervisor have established that your thesis can be submitted, then do everything to actually submit it: the moment you bring your copies to Registry is the real finish line, and it will feel amazing!

Afterwords of “Thanks”: And lastly, on behalf of the ITSH, we would like to thank the University of St Andrews for generously funding Jordan’s work with a 600th Anniversary PhD Scholarship. We would also like to thank the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Forschungszentrum Gotha as well as our GRAINES friends and colleagues in Basel for hosting Jordan for a semester (a bit closer to the Alpine space than St Andrews). Thank you everyone.

 

 

 

In Practice: Bernhard Struck

What is transnational history (to me)? The Q Factor OR Transnational History as a Hearing Aid

The following post is part of a series of postings in which our institute members ask themselves “What does transnational and global history mean for me and my research?”. Read the take by Kelsey Jackson Williams, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow based at St Andrews. The new post is by Bernhard Struck, currently co-director of the Institute for Transnational & Spatial History. 

Another semester has just come to a close. That makes four years of teaching and co-teaching transnational and global history on our two modules that feed into our general Modern History MLitt / Masters programme at St Andrews: Crossing Borders and Global Histories. End of semester is always a good to moment to step back (breathe, think what have we done and taught, how and why) and start thinking ahead. Next term will see the launch of a new undergraduate module Doing and Practicing Transnational History.

Next academic year, 2015-16, the Institute for Transnational & Spatial History will be launching its new Masters programme (MLitt) in Transnational and Spatial History – an exciting step for us as a team. So, time to breathe. Time to look back and ahead. And as we are at the end of term, my personal spin on the question “What is transnational history? (for me)” goes through the lens of teaching. In a nutshell: teaching – that comes with doing and practicing – transnational history for me is:

  • starting with & from curiosity
  • having exciting and unexpected conversations with a great mix of different people from various corners (and borders) of the world
  • seeing things differently and from different angles and perspectives
  • being pushed outside the comfort zone (including mine)
  • (re)mixing expertise & ignorance
  • being a better listener
  • give & take
  • finding flow & inspiration
  • thinking outside the box

These aspects and certainly others do not come in a particular order, though I have tried to put them in a order as I see them fit and interact. They correlate and reinforce one another. They may be more circular rather than linear or listed and ranked. But the circle has to start somewhere and, to me, transnational history starts with working with great, open-minded people in the first place. In 2011 we started teaching “Crossing Borders. European History in Transnational Perspectives”. Last year, in 2013, we added “Global Histories, Globalisation and its Histories”. Over the years we have taught groups of students that were small in size (which is part of the fun and quality, normally 4-6), but global in scale.

Discussing Spatial History and C. Withers "Placing the Enlightenment", Nov 2014

Discussing Spatial History and C. Withers “Placing the Enlightenment”, Nov 2014

In our little teaching and research village (that is St Andrews) on the east coast of Scotland we had students from the UK (perhaps obvious – but a minority), from the US, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, France, Austria, Greece doing and practicing transnational history. And I am sure this is incomplete.

In return the modules have been taught by a Scot working on France and colonial Algeria (Stephen Tyre), by a (well) Scott-Kiwi or Kiwi-Scott working on interwar Europe (Conan Fischer), a Brit working on the transfer of seeds and botanist networks (Sarah Easterly-Smith), a Norwegian-Scot-US breed with the (embarrassing – for me as I only know some European) capacity of speaking three Asian languages (and Norwegian, Spanish, English) (that is Konrad Lawson), a German with an interest in border regions and travel (myself), a Pole or should we say a “truly-speaking” Central-European who masters God knows how many languages and works on even more languages (Tomek Kamusella) and a colleague with an Indian and Empire background working on French imperial histories (Akhila Yechury).

With normally two of us in the room we try to teach and discuss aspects such as “comparative and transnational history”, “transnational and global history”, “the question of scales in global history”, “networks and ANTs” (Actor-Network-Theory), “border regions”, “transfers and circulation of knowledge”, the role of “global cities” or the relevance of space in transnational & global history. (Take a look: Handbook Global History 2014)

Back to the students: the national labels used above as shorthand are somewhat misleading. We have had social anthropologists joining in from the Californian-Mexican borderlands. We have had students from, historically speaking, places from the former Habsburg lands that cannot be easily labelled under one national banner. We have had takers from the Bavarian-Austrian border or the French Jura with a view of the Swiss Alps.

What do these people (students and tutors alike), put into a single room once a week, share? What do we have in common? Not much apparently. In particular not if one starts with the national label. The national label and background apart, however, this constantly varying group that comes from different institutions (yes, they matter and we discuss that in the modules as part of the role of institutions, places of science and the circulation of knowledge) shares a lot, despite or rather because of different (national) traditions of doing history.

What these groups share leads back to my list above: taking curiosity as a starting point (not the safe or assumed safer ground of starting from the nation as spatial entity), mixing different expertise, pushing one’s comfort zones – all these contribute to the joy of teaching in such an environment (transnational in itself). These are elements that, to me, tease out the extra edge in teaching history, often simply by bringing in an otherwise unexpected perspective, and feed back into my own research. I would not like to compare teaching transnational & global history to other ways of teaching and practicing histories. There are too many exiting ways of doing it. However, what I have enjoyed over the years teaching these modules and the type of student is that they come with a certain openness and curiosity to step onto new grounds and unexplored territory.

Morenish House, Loch Tay - Transnational Away Weekend, January 2014

Morenish House, Loch Tay – Transnational Away Weekend, January 2014

Students come prepared for methodological discussions and are receptive to the open (and puzzling) questions: Where is transnational history (when history is not set in a – national – container)? How to enter global history – from the global (daunting) or the local? They come prepared to run the extra mile – learning another language. (If I did not miscount: there were six different native languages around the table at the last reading and hiking away weekend.)

This leads to a level of openness, receptiveness and alertness. It brings together different and unexpected fields of expertise. It makes people talk to one another across time and space that otherwise may not sit around the same table. It opens up confessing ignorance. It is easy to listen to an expert in field X. But experts are not always the best listeners – or explainers, for that matter. The transnational mix in class makes for better explainers and speakers. If you do not share too much of the same common ground, expertise, historiographical background, you have to explain more carefully and nuanced. You share more, but take more. This is where the unashamedly selfish researcher inside me comes in: I take a lot of ideas away from our classes as I learn so much from students and colleagues. (Do not worry, I like experts and expertise. Achtung! If you click on this, be aware of unashamed self-advertising and something on experts.)

Perhaps in a nutshell: Doing and teaching transnational & global history feels a bit like the famous Q factor that helps explaining the success of Broadway musicals. The mix makes the music. And I find myself often being a better listener to the transnational or global music in class, when I am ignorant of something others can teach me. To sum up: transnational history for me is a hearing aid. Happy to put it back in next term and start from scratch – and curiosity.

Reading Group Meeting

The first meeting of the Transnational & Spatial History reading group will be held on 23 October. The theme for our reading group this year will be Spatial history and we will be looking at a number of texts from history and other disciplines that have helped shape emerging approaches in this area. Each meeting will open with a presentation on a text with a summary of the main arguments, additional comments and discussion questions raised by a second participant, followed by a discussion with all participants.

23 October, 2014
5-6:30pm in St Katharine’s Lodge 1.10

Text:
Moretti, Franco. Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900. Verso, 1999.

Presentation: Konrad M. Lawson
Comments and Questions: Bernhard Struck

We will have additional reading group meetings on the following dates:

November 20 – 5-6:30pm St Katharine’s 1.10
February 12 – TBD
March 5 – TBD
April 9 – TBD

Away Days in the Highlands

The location was carefully selected: Morenish House, near Killin right on the northern shore of Loch Tay. A nineteenth-century laird’s house, very Scottish and surrounded by snow-covered Highland peaks and stunning views. This was the chosen location for the joint Centre for Transnational History, GRAINES  and Heirs to the Throne AHRC project away days between 22 to 24 January 2014 discussing themes in global and transnational history as well as planning activities ahead for 2014 and 2015.

Loch Tay seen from Morenish House

Loch Tay seen from Morenish House

The away days brought together 23 historians from the UK and the continent. The trip was joined by MLitt Student from MO5710 Crossing Borders, members from both the Centre for Transnational History and the GRAINES steering committee as well as a number of PhD students from St Andrews, Vienna, Basel and Cologne as part of GRAINES.

Morenish House provided not only a beautiful location but also a very inspiring environment including cosy fire places that allowed for in-depth discussion of topics, themes and texts related to transnational and global history. The reading groups focused on themes including the global circulation of goods and commodities based on texts by Kapil Raj or Maxim Berg, time in a global context by Vanessa Ogle or the question of decentred history by Natalie Zemon Davis.

Reading groups at Morenish House

Reading groups at Morenish House

Dr Struck did not only take the lead in one of the reading groups, but  introduced the guests to the art of whisky making and tasting – with elegant twists back to the question of global whisky trade or the problem of scale in transnational history between the local and global. This was followed by a visit to the Aberfeldy whisky distillery the following day and a hike in the hills near Kenmore with stunning views over Loch Tay and the snow-covered peaks towards Ben Nevis.

The GRAINES Haggis Feast

The GRAINES Haggis Feast

Apart from the lively and broad text discussions, the Away Days provided the opportunity to discuss the upcoming GRAINES summer school in Vienna on urban history and further activities to foster the GRAINES network. The call for papers for the Summer School on Urban History in Vienna (10-14 June 2014) will be released shortly.

Bringing Space into Transnational History

Reading Group

Over the coming academic year (2013-14) a number of members of staff and PhD researcher will be meeting for a series of reading group sessions on the theme of space in transnational history. Transnational history has been broadly defined as being interested in connections across borders as well as in flows of goods, people, ideas across, through and above nations. As a perspective or way of seeing transnational history has been characterised as being primarily concerned with people as actors that create webs of connections as well as circulations, honeycombs and nodes of interaction across borders.

Such a definition raises questions of space and scale that we seek to discuss in a series of reading sessions and ultimately in a form of a workshop. What a number of colleagues are interested in is the question of how to spatialise and, consequently, how to map and visualise transnational histories and the flows and connections it is interested in. With these challenges and problems on space and scale in mind, what we seek to discuss in the coming year(s) is the combination and interrelation of transnational and global history on the one hand with the simultaneous (re)emergence of space and spatial issues since the early 1990s on the other.

While individual members of the reading groups work on rather diverse topics (travel, science, cities), we seek to explore ways of visualising and mapping flows and connections by collaborating with disciplines including geography and computer science.

Dates for meetings and readings will be posted shortly under Readings. For further questions or signalling interest in participating in any of the meetings, please feel free to contact Bernhard Struck (bs50@st-andrews.ac.uk).