Reflecting on cultural opposition to communism
The EU-funded COURAGE project is compiling and analysing collections of cultural opposition in former socialist countries, making the collections more accessible for educational and research purposes and highlighting their importance as a testimony to anti-communist opposition in Europe.
© Anna Jurkovska - fotolia.com
Updated: 13 March 2018
The Cold War period in Eastern Europe is still largely understood solely in terms of political events. The culture of the region during those years is seen simply as a mix of propaganda and drab daily life. Such views neglect personal strategies of dissent that took the form of non-conformist cultural practices rather than political opposition.
The EU-funded COURAGE project aims to make the existence of a flourishing alternative culture behind the Iron Curtain more widely known by creating an online platform, available in 15 languages, for collections of counter-cultural materials. This should foster networking between those institutions holding such collections and draw the attention of researchers, educators, students and the public to the materials they house.
While examples of state-supported culture from the communist period can be easily found in archives and museums and remain a prominent feature of Eastern European cityscapes, collecting and documenting non-conformist art is a challenging task. By so doing, COURAGE is preserving something that is essential for understanding Europe’s past and present.
“We turned the traditional approach to cultural history upside down. Instead of studying the movements themselves, we turned our attention to how they were documented,” says dissemination manager Tamás Scheibner of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. “History is forged in archives. The decision to preserve objects and arrange them in a particular order affects how researchers interpret them. We aim to present how a collection was set up, who created and enriched it and why, and what social or political uses it had. Our platform is not a simple database but a complex research tool.”
New research skills
The platform is structured so as to help users see the subject in a new light and motivate researchers to develop new skills. Instead of being presented with a linear narrative, they have to imagine the collections as part of a network linked by people, organisations and events. This is a more appropriate model for sharing knowledge online and making it accessible to a broad audience, says Scheibner.
COURAGE also addresses the needs of a wider public via the organisation of a documentary film festival in several European cities. The festivals are accompanied by a travelling exhibition, as well as concerts and round-table discussions.
At the same time, the project targets secondary and higher education through its development of online teaching curricula and materials, and a handbook on cultural opposition.
The project runs a volunteer system for university students in several countries, which is attracting a lot of interest. The partners try to provide career opportunities, as well as training and supervision. Some volunteer doctoral students have found jobs through this route.
COURAGE’s approach is catching on. “We make efforts to bring stakeholders and policymakers together to solve the difficulties archiving institutions face in contemporary Europe,” explains project coordinator Sándor Horváth. “As a result of our interventions, several museums and institutions have started to reflect on their own collections as part of the wider framework of the culture of dissent, and public interest in the non-conformist scenes during Communism has grown.”
The registry, which was launched in autumn 2017, has hundreds of new visitors each week. COURAGE’s researchers are working with other EU-funded projects to develop a network of collaborators in the countries covered by the research.