Identity on the Line
Identity on the Line

“Secrets are always more dangerous than stories” Or: How to shed light on the hidden?

By Kathrin Pabst, Ph.D., project leader

Introduction

“Secrets are always more dangerous than stories,” said a psychologist to us partners in Identity on the Line, when we were afraid of re-traumatizing our informants while asking about their memories of a troubled past. Some of us reacted strongly to the narratives we had heard and the feelings our informants had expressed during the interviews. And we were even more afraid of harming the people who showed us their trust by sharing, sometimes for the very first time, their personal stories.

Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@hasanalmasi?utm_source=unsplash&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_content=creditCopyText">Hasan Almasi</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/s/photos/hidden?utm_source=unsplash&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_content=creditCopyText">Unsplash</a>

The seven migration processes we were working on simultaneously in seven European countries cover experiences of soldiers and children of war, indigenous people, Greenlanders within Danish society, peoples internally displaced due to war, multi-ethnic inhabitants emigrating and their descendants searching for roots, and a mixed group of migrants collectively deprived of their identities and basic human rights. This involves touching upon many potentially traumatising experiences, which demands a continuous attempt to balance museum employees’ ethical obligations towards informants, visitors, and the wider public. Museums are, we believe, institutions responsible for presenting as many facets of historical events as possible, and this includes a diversity of voices and points of view. This also includes those parts of our joint history that are difficult, painful and not generally accepted by the majority or political authorities.

Vital parts of our shared history will remain deficient when first-hand witnesses fail to talk about what they have experienced, particularly when their experiences are not fully compatible with the overall historical record. In such cases, the delicate subtleties in our shared understanding of history will not have the chance to rise to the surface, and the diversity will not be as comprehensive as it, in fact, is. This, in turn, may lead to visitors feeling that they are not seen or understood in the cultural institutions’ representation of history, as their views and understanding of the past are not presented. It is for this reason imperative to bring forth the stories that so far have not been told, as they are small but important pieces in the massive puzzle which constitutes our common understanding of the past, pieces that will contribute to a more eloquent and diversified historical narrative.

This online publication, with its eight articles, is written for those who would like to know more about the processes and reflections behind the scenes of the six museums and one university participating in Identity on the Line. They are not academic articles but an attempt to provide an easy-to-approach overview of what we did and learned. The results of our work – seven separate exhibitions about the seven migration processes, seven short films, a joint exhibition, a joint movie, school packages and several scientific articles analysing the findings – can be found in other places, including on our webpage www.i-on.museum. The project started in September 2019 and lasts until August 2023.

This introduction explains the starting point for our work and why we have chosen certain methods and approaches. It offers more information about how we collaborated, what we jointly discovered, the lessons we learned along the way and what we regard as so important that it will influence us in all new projects of this kind. This is not, however, a best-practice presentation that might function as a toolkit for our colleagues who want to work with similar topics or methods, but rather a sharing of heartfelt experiences. Based on what we have learned, these would be our recommendations make the work easier.

The starting point

Migration as physical movement is, as mentioned in our joint exhibition, “embedded in human nature. The search for food or hope for a better future has been leading people to move since the earliest times. Wars and expulsions force people to leave their homes. Many of these movements demand a lot from migrants. Their lives and health are threatened, their right to self-determination is challenged, and their individual identities become objects of other people’s prejudices and actions. (…)

Europe is continuously transforming. All migration processes, even the painful ones, lead to new cultural diversity, which can be seen as a positive force in today’s societies. Shared experiences empower the citizens of Europe and help create our joint European identity, one based on the values of all of its people: respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, equality, and democracy.[1]The joint exhibition is the result of shared input and discussions among all partners in I-ON, summed up and finalised by the Slovenian partner, the National Museum of Contemporary History. The … Continue reading

This starting point was based, among other things, on the understanding of a clear connection between individual and collective identities: one’s personal identity has several components, and among them are an individual and a collective component. The latter is not necessarily geographically determined but rather depends on different factors, which, when combined, create a context where a certain identification takes place. While the individual component is characterised to a large degree by the collective identity of the individual’s physical and mental surroundings, the collective identity itself is shaped by a multitude of individual identities.[2]See e.g., EU (2012) ‘The Development of European Identity/Identities: Unfinished Business’, pp.7-14. Retrieved from http://www.mela-project.polimi.it/upl/cms/attach/20120906/175214213_9680.pdf

Thereafter, our starting point was that we, as representatives for cultural history museums and research institutions, have a unique opportunity to collect and display stories and items which shed light on the variety of experiences and living conditions related to historical events. Museums are widely recognised as institutions restoring the past in order to understand the present, and as institutions aiming at presenting as accurate a picture as possible of historical events. They are trusted to present facts and objective truths, and to show a sufficiently broad perspective of links between historical events.[3]Pabst, K. (2019). Museum Ethics in Practice, Vest-Agder Museum, pp. 5-41. Retrieved from: https://www.vestagdermuseet.no/english-translation-available-museum-ethics-in-practice/ The publication is … Continue reading Furthermore, the I-ON partners support an approach that more and more museums worldwide publicly proclaim: museums have to work closely together with the communities they represent. They must be agents of change towards more open, inclusive and sustainable societies.[4]Murawski, M. (2021). Museums as Agents of Change. A Guide to Becoming a Changemaker. American Alliance of Museums, 2021; Marstine, Bauer & Haines (eds.), New Directions in Museum Ethics, … Continue reading

In these processes, it is crucial also to work with parts of the past that were troubled and caused individual and collective pain or even trauma. Here, personal narratives from witnesses can be an effective way to point out the many shades of historical events by presenting a wide variety of experiences and opinions to visitors and a broader public. Personal narratives display feelings that can be recognised, and the recognition of feelings leads to more learning.[5] Pabst, K. (2015). Med fokus på de besøkendes følelser. Jo mer disponering, jo mer læring? Nytt Blikk. Årsskrift fra Stiftelsen Arkivet, pp. 60-73. We believe that it is beneficial for the informants to speak out and to be heard, respected and acknowledged for their personal experiences and feelings. We also believe that it is essential and helpful for the visitors to understand, by reading the personal narratives of the informants, that there are others with similar experiences to what they themselves might have had. And we believe that by sharing untold stories in the right way, museums can contribute to more mutual understanding within local society.[6] Pabst, K. (2019). Museum Ethics in Practice, Vest-Agder Museum, pp. 5-17. Retrieved from: https://www.vestagdermuseet.no/english-translation-available-museum-ethics-in-practice/

The process of collaborating with informants who share sensitive stories, sometimes for the very first time, and of transforming and after that presenting their narratives for a broader public, involves many ethical considerations. These relate to several factors, the most important being the informants themselves, the museum visitors, and the museum employees. Museum employees are the ones functioning as connecting links between the informants and the public, and in this role, they are both professionals and fellow human beings. The more the content of the personal narratives is sensitive, taboo-related and even traumatic, the more the museum professionals’ own feelings might be triggered – and the more these feelings can, in return, affect their professional work. For this reason, working closely together with colleagues and asking for professional help if needed is highly recommended.[7]Pabst, K. (2019). Museum Ethics in Practice, Vest-Agder Museum. Retrieved from: https://www.vestagdermuseet.no/english-translation-available-museum-ethics-in-practice/

Working together & joint approaches

In general, the migration processes the partners work with differ in time, scope and content. The Vest-Agder Museum in Norway takes a closer look at the long-term consequences of the German occupation during World War II. Here, the German occupation of Norway 1940-1945 is regarded as a contemporary migration of approximately 500,000 German soldiers. The Knud Rasmussens Hus in Denmark is studying the long-term consequences of the migration from Greenland to Denmark after 1945 and until today. The Ájtte principal museum of Sami culture and special museum for the mountain region in Sweden focuses on the forced migration of Sámi from the North to the South of Sweden. In Poland, the Museum of Middle Pomerania works with the population exchange in former German Pomerania after 1945, exemplified by Slupsk. Our partner in Lithuania, the University of Vilnius, concentrates on the long-term consequences of the Holocaust for Lithuanian women. The National Museum of Contemporary History in Slovenia looks at the migration from the former Yugoslav republics to Slovenia after World War II, and the impact of the country’s independence in 1991 on the migrants. And last but not least, the Ethnographic Museum of Istria in Croatia focuses on the complex political history of the Istrian peninsula and its multi-ethnic population related to 200,000 emigrants after World War II.

With these differences in mind, we wanted to concentrate on the similarities within experiences of migration, which we expected would be found in all countries, and we were trying to find the best ways to collaborate effectively over time. Early on in the project, the partners decided upon some ground rules for cooperation. We wanted to meet monthly via Zoom, to update each other about individual progress, as well as to discuss joint activities. In addition, we had planned to meet every six months at one of the partner institutions and, thereby, to travel consecutively to all seven countries involved. The latter plan had to be changed due to the pandemic that hit in March 2020, but we managed to change the plans in a way that led to the same outcome: visiting all partner institutions and getting first-hand insights into the surroundings and atmosphere. In the digital and physical meetings, we discussed the content and form of our joint activities, such as lectures, the joint exhibition, films or school packages. Each joint activity was in the hands of a particular partner, while all of us prepared their own local exhibition. Also, we learned from lectures and webinars that were addressing the needs all partners at particular times during the work process, starting with a webinar about how to conduct interviews about traumatic experiences in an ethical and professional manner, and ending with a webinar about exhibition spaces and design.

But perhaps most important of all, we continuously shared experiences from the interviews and findings within the material, without mentioning the names of the informants. Several of our partners were personally attached to the work by being the descendant of migrants themselves. These personal attachments led to feelings that were not always easy to handle. The feelings that were expressed by the informants resonated in those of us who are descendants themselves, differently than in others. We took a lot of time to digest what we heard, as it triggered something familiar in us. Some of us started to dream about the concentration camps and wars, and some felt how much they themselves, as descendants of minorities, still were treated differently than others.

To sort out these personal reactions and to make sure that they would not interfere with the contact we had with our informants – the well-being of our informants had to be ensured at any cost – we hired psychologists for several sessions of group counselling. Most of the partners attended all meetings, well aware of the challenges that followed work as ours:

“The nature of sensitive interviewing alone incurs the risk of team member burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, or other mental health challenges that occur in addition to regular workload – even outside of the context of the continuous stressors involved with a worldwide pandemic.”[8] Meyer, D. (2020). Project Report: Identity on the Line, unpublished, p. 1.

To be able to compare the results of all the seven interview processes afterwards, we developed and used a semi-structured interview guide that all of us used when talking to the informants, and we carefully designed the order of topics and questions. Not only did we want to know what had happened and how the events had affected the migrants themselves, their children and grandchildren, but we also wanted to find out more about how the relationships between the generations were affected. Which striking behaviours and feelings would each generation report about, transferred behaviours and feelings that one would relate directly to the migration process? Last but not least, it was important for us to empower our informants. That meant ending the interviews with questions about the ultimately positive outcomes of the struggles, including increased strength, resilience, and a better life. All informants were asked to fill out a detailed Letter of Consent, allowing us to use the material collected in digital and physical formats, and all informants were informed about their rights to withdraw the consent at any given time.

The partners approached the informants in different ways, and the interviews varied in duration from 90 minutes to 15 hours. Some partner institutions chose to talk with the informants only once and continue the contact thereafter through E-mail contact, while other partners went back to the informants several times to collect even more information or invited them to help create the exhibition. All partners were aiming at collecting objects or photos related to the stories, and some were more successful than others. In some countries, most of the informants wanted to remain anonymous, while others were able to collect and display video recordings showing the informants’ faces and names. Also, the results could vary. Norway, for example, chose to summarise the interviews in short articles written in the first person, many of them signed only with “son/daughter” and the age, while Poland was able to use video recordings of the informants in the exhibition. Sweden had problems finding informants who were willing to contribute, while Slovenia developed workshops for several of their many informants in the aftermath of the interviews. Despite these differences mentioned, the joint methods left us with comprehensive and rich material that allows analysis on several levels.

In total, 164 interviews with three generations were conducted. We collected a vast number of video- and audio recordings, written memories, personal objects, family photos and historical pictures. We produced, in close collaboration with our informants, texts and films that sum up complex personal narratives and place them in relation to historical events. We found visible proof of how even second and third generation migrants are treated today, in the form of pictures of today’s graffiti or public documents. Also, we were able to use the information provided to show new layers and aspects of what seven important migration processes in Europe have led to: for individuals, for their descendants, for family relations and for local societies.

Main findings

The experiences and main findings gathered by each of the partners are summed up in the separate exhibitions in each country, a joint film, and the joint physical and digital exhibitions, with the latter being available here: www.identityontheline.eu. To provide information about the work behind the scenes – in the articles to come – some partners have used the same keywords to structure their articles; some preferred to work without headings. Some partners explain in depth the challenges they have encountered, some focus instead on their findings.
If one makes a step back and takes an overall view of the interviews collected, similarities quickly emerge, and it becomes obvious what unites all our 164 informants, regardless of the country they come from, their family background or the specific migration process they have undergone. What is mentioned again and again, first and foremost, are feelings related to the experiences, and these feelings are the same, even if the experiences differ in scope, content, time and place.

These feelings express personal attempts to find one’s own identity, both in relation to and regardless of the experiences of one’s parents and grandparents. They show clearly how one can struggle, even two or three generations further down the line, with adapting to living conditions and local societies, the influence of which has proved to be immense. And these factors can all be found somewhere between five sets of polarities: home and away, belonging and alienation, resilience and vulnerability, silence and openness, injustice and reconciliation. The importance of each of these polarities may differ from one migration process to another, but to some degree they are valid for all.

Each of the polarities was accompanied by the same questions many asked themselves, questions we also display in our joint exhibition. The questions have relevance on a very personal level and implications on a societal level:

  • Home and away: What does “home” mean to you? Is it a place or a state of mind? What do you need to feel at home, and how does it feel to be away?
  • Belonging and alienation: Who are you, and what makes you, you? Who has the power to define your identity, to make you feel like you belong – or, in turn, like you don’t?
  • Resilience and vulnerability: What happens if expressing your identity puts you in danger? If the freedom to be who you want to be is taken away? Where do you find the strength to push back?
  • Silence and openness: Can silence keep us safe? Suppress shame, fear, pain? Do secrets have long-term consequences? Can openness help us reconnect and accept all the bits and pieces of who we are?
  • Injustice and reconciliation: What does injustice mean to you? Have you ever experienced it? How did it feel? Where do you find forgiveness, and how do you build reconciliation?

To summarise, we found that “we are all constantly moving, voluntarily or unwillingly, physically and emotionally.” And that “finding one’s identity somewhere between these poles is demanding and requires the ability to constantly change and adjust.”[9]Text from the joint exhibition, which can be found in digital format here: www.identityontheline.eu.Each aspect and its implications for individuals, families and local societies can be analysed in depth, and several will be in the academic articles to come.

As for the implications of these findings, local societies and political rulers have huge power and thus also the responsibility to welcome migrants in a proper manner. Many of the challenges our informants told us about are directly related to responses and reactions they received from other members of local societies, both at the places they left and places they came to. Political orders and frames obviously had a large impact on their lives, and they often led to harmful reactions from members of local societies. In most cases, good family relations and support within groups or communities were crucial for our informants, and these relations and support could literally increase health and even save lives. This aspect will also be analysed in depth in an academic article.

Some lessons learned along the way – from us to you

This work is important, and it takes time. We touch upon the core of people’s being, and the processes can be tough for all involved. Always set aside more time than originally planned for, since you do not know what you will hear and find. That also means that you have to be flexible and able to adjust at short notice. To share a very personal story can be painful and is often accompanied by an increased understanding of how influential a certain experience has been for oneself. This means that one can react in an unexpected way, for example, by withdrawing from the project. That should always be expected, and it should be clearly communicated in advance which information can or will be used and how.

Our work should be centred around the needs of the informants, and – when possible – we should aim to include those who want to be included in our work. This depends, though, on the degree of anonymity. Migrants are not a homogenous group where members know each other and are open with each other about the challenges they have encountered, but rather individuals who often feel that they are the only ones who have experienced certain challenges. The more personal a story and the more one feels alone with it, the greater the need to remain totally anonymous. This, in turn, means that the museum will not be able to gather a group of informants to collaborate regarding the outcomes of the project. But also here we have found that there might be more possibilities to open up together than one initially considers, as, for example, our Slovenian partner discovered when inviting the informants to workshops.

The responsibility for clear communication and for following ethical and statutory procedures lies with the museum institutions and, by extension, with us museum professionals. Here, we should also have in mind that it is important who we are and what our personal story is. In all cases, trust, respect and acknowledgement are crucial prerequisites for every contact with informants and visitors, but also our gender, age, personality and former experiences will affect the outcome of the project.

Sensitive and taboo topics have long-term effects and repercussions, of which until now we have been insufficiently aware. On such projects, one should always consider if a psychologist should be a member of the team for the whole duration – or at least available at short notice as backup. It is important to have the possibility to ask for advice and guidance in challenging interview situations that may occur in the course of the process. And it is helpful also for us museum employees, who may need someone to talk to if the interviews turn out to trigger something in ourselves that we did not know was there.

Summing up: “Secrets are always more dangerous than stories”

Vital parts of our common history will remain deficient when first-hand witnesses do not describe what they have experienced, particularly when their experiences are not fully compatible with the prevailing historical record. In such cases, the delicate subtleties in our common understanding of history will not be able to rise to the surface, and diversity will not be what it ought to be. This, in turn, may have the effect that visitors feel they are not seen or understood in the representation of history offered by cultural institutions, as their views and understanding of the past are not presented. It is therefore urgent to bring forth the stories that so far have not been told; small but important pieces in the giant puzzle which constitutes our common understanding of the past; pieces that will contribute to a more eloquent and diversified historical narrative.

In this work, it is essential to remember that some stories are almost too sensitive, too personal and too private to be shared with others. They touch a person’s innermost feelings and affect relations with kith and kin. If they are linked to negative feelings like shame, guilt or anger, it is even more difficult to talk about them. Such stories require a transformation which makes it possible to share them with others, and that transformation has several steps, all of which have to be taken with care. In this context, museums as institutions that have credibility in our society and a focus on our common cultural heritage play an important role. When proceeding correctly, a museum may be able to operate as an adaptor and transformer of stories which otherwise, if they remain secret, can reverberate from one generation to another.

Secrets are always more dangerous than stories. Not-daring-to-talk, not-being-able-to-talk or – in the end – placing difficult experiences in the past and putting them to rest is a constant struggle that demands continuous attention and effort. Out in the open, articulated as challenges some members of the societies struggle with, experiences and feelings can be looked at, thought about and understood for what they are: parts of our joint history and reactions to those by our fellow human beings. Even if no two people have exactly the same reactions to specific experiences, we can always connect with others through the recognition of feelings.

References

References
1 The joint exhibition is the result of shared input and discussions among all partners in I-ON, summed up and finalised by the Slovenian partner, the National Museum of Contemporary History. The exhibition was opened in Ljubljana, Slovenia 21st of January 2022 and travels through Europe until 2023. The digital exhibition can be found here: www.identityontheline.eu. All material can be found here, free to download and use: www.i-on.museum.
2 See e.g., EU (2012) ‘The Development of European Identity/Identities: Unfinished Business’, pp.7-14. Retrieved from http://www.mela-project.polimi.it/upl/cms/attach/20120906/175214213_9680.pdf
3 Pabst, K. (2019). Museum Ethics in Practice, Vest-Agder Museum, pp. 5-41. Retrieved from: https://www.vestagdermuseet.no/english-translation-available-museum-ethics-in-practice/ The publication is the translation of the Norwegian book Museumsetikk i praksis, published by Museumforlaget in 2016.
4 Murawski, M. (2021). Museums as Agents of Change. A Guide to Becoming a Changemaker. American Alliance of Museums, 2021; Marstine, Bauer & Haines (eds.), New Directions in Museum Ethics, Routledge 2013. See also: White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue “Living Together As Equals in Dignity” Launched by the Council of Europe Ministers of Foreign Affairs in 2008, retrieved from https://www.coe.int/t/dg4/intercultural/source/white%20paper_final_revised_en.pdf and EU (2018) ‘Participatory governance of cultural heritage’, retrieved from https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/b8837a15-437c-11e8-a9f4-01aa75ed71a1
5  Pabst, K. (2015). Med fokus på de besøkendes følelser. Jo mer disponering, jo mer læring? Nytt Blikk. Årsskrift fra Stiftelsen Arkivet, pp. 60-73.
6  Pabst, K. (2019). Museum Ethics in Practice, Vest-Agder Museum, pp. 5-17. Retrieved from: https://www.vestagdermuseet.no/english-translation-available-museum-ethics-in-practice/
7 Pabst, K. (2019). Museum Ethics in Practice, Vest-Agder Museum. Retrieved from: https://www.vestagdermuseet.no/english-translation-available-museum-ethics-in-practice/
8  Meyer, D. (2020). Project Report: Identity on the Line, unpublished, p. 1.
9 Text from the joint exhibition, which can be found in digital format here: www.identityontheline.eu.