Workshop Report "Colonialism and Transgenerational Memory in Europe"

November 15, 2022

The workshop “Colonialism and Transgenerational Memory in Europe” was held at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology on 21–22 September 2022. The workshop convener was Markus Wurzer from the Max Planck Research Group “Alpine Histories of Global Change”.

The colonial past as a part of family history
This interdisciplinary event brought together an international group of anthropologists, historians, literary scholars and political scientists as well as museum curators and artists. In their case studies from Germany, France, Italy, the UK, and Belgium, the workshop participants examined what remnants of European colonial activities can still be found in families today.

Methodological challenges
A recurring theme in the contributions was the methodological challenges of trying to study colonial memories in family history. For example, the material basis for family memories is rarely collected and preserved in public archives. Photo albums, written correspondence, or mementos generally remain in the private possession of family members, making access difficult. Another challenge is the discrepancy between the expectations of the families and of the researchers. This was particularly evident in papers in which researchers studied their own family histories. Reflecting upon one’s own position proved to be absolutely crucial.

The myth of the “good colonist”
Ideas about the colonial past are not just conveyed through school textbooks but also transmitted within families. Here, family histories are a particularly effective form of collective memory that leaves an enduring mark on the historical consciousness of individuals across generations. A number of the contributions examined what is told – or not told – within families. They found that families are often a site in which colonial myths about history are preserved. For example, one’s own ancestors are often imagined as “decent” colonists who treated the colonial subjects in a benevolent manner, while exploitation and violence are omitted from this picture.

Restitution requires recognizing emotional significance
How to deal with the colonial legacy in museums and archives is an issue that has long concerned researchers. The workshop discussions indicated that the debates would benefit from taking the emotional aspects of this legacy into account. Only then can it become possible to recognize the full range of meanings that adhere to the objects that are subject to such controversies.

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