home Overview Whose memory? New museums and (political) narratives in Slovenia

Whose memory? New museums and (political) narratives in Slovenia

New museums and (political) narratives in Slovenia

Kaja Širok
Historian. Assistant professor at the University of Nova Gorica

Cover image: Part of the permanent exhibition “Slovenians in the 20th century”, which tells the story of the independence and democratisation of the country; Jože Suhadolnik/DELO

In March 2021, on the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the independent state of Slovenia, Janez Janša’s government established the (national) Museum of Slovenian Independence. The official reason for its creation was due to criticism from a number right-wing politicians who argued that Slovenian museums neglected the topic of national independence and failed to cultivate the values on which the new country was founded. This was strongly opposed by the historical profession, as at least three Slovenian museums were already dealing with the subject of the twentieth century and created several exhibitions on the subject of independence. Unofficially, the new museum served the needs of the then-ruling Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) for the realisation of its own ideological vision of the Slovenian independence effort. According to their line, SDS President Janez Janša was at the forefront of the events of 1991 and chiefly responsible for the separation of Slovenia from Yugoslavia. In January 2023, the new government, led by Robert Golob, merged the newly created museum with the older National Museum of Contemporary History, establishing a new museum for the research and interpretation of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The decision was met with a fierce reaction from the Slovenian right – they threatened civil disobedience and claimed that the new government was pushing the country back towards the old totalitarian model.

Claiming that museums are apolitical is a lie. Museums are political entities and can never be neutral. Whatever we do, the relationships between institutions, the subjects we address and the collections we create reflect the subjective biases of the researchers and curators who are entrusted with a subject. In other words, no two curators would create identical exhibitions on the same themes and yet each interpretation can be valid and based on professional guidelines. According to the modern understanding of the mission of museums, the interpretation of individual museum collections is in constant interaction with the state of society and its needs. Today, museums are confronted with questions of restitution, answers to the traumatic legacies of colonialism and totalitarian systems, the discovery of atrocities against humanity and the question of responsibility for heritage in times of military conflict. All these issues reinforce the notion that museums do not exist and do not operate in a vacuum.

In recent years, museums have turned to working with their communities, giving voice to the vulnerable and the forgotten. New exhibition approaches are oriented towards more modern and democratic practices, creating spaces that foster diverse dialogue where we strive daily to overcome the stereotypical perception of museums as spaces for (only) political narratives. I am fascinated by the idea of getting to know the world through the testimonies of people, to search for (hi)stories around us. It is through individual family stories, their virtues and their traumas that we can understand the complexity of our everyday life and the intricacies of collective memory. The stories of individuals, their experiences, creativity, knowledge, doubts, views on society and personal values are an invaluable resource in the search for answers about ourselves, our society and anchors of collective memory. As the foundation of our social and cultural identity, memory is the key to understanding our environment, as well as our attitudes towards interpretations of the past and national belonging. The sacralisation of selected memories legitimises what we understand today as national interpretations of ourselves. We are inclined to perceive museums as relevant and ethically binding institutions that strive to tell broader, more complex stories and outline events through a range of interpretations and personal experiences. Unfortunately, in the last few decades, following the collapse or dissolution of the old forms of government,  we have also witnessed many museums fall into neglect or close down as they were no longer suitable for representing politically appropriate interpretations of their nation’s past. The creation of new museums or unannounced changes in museum administrations reflect the need of current governments to preserve suitable interpretations of their nation’s past.

When the government of Janez Janša appointed the new director of the Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia in February 2021, a sign bearing the
word “SHAME” (sramota) appeared in front of the museum; Jože Suhadolnik/DELO

During times of radical social change, the field of interpretation of the past is one of the first to require an overhaul. Political and social changes require a new understanding of the past and repressed memories are called upon to build a national collective memory. The removal of taboo topics of recent national history in the late 1980s and early 1990s triggered a wave of historical revision across Europe and influenced a new appreciation of museums in the following decade, especially those dedicated to the history of the Second World War, established to tell the story of victorious struggles of national liberation. New politics of remembrance demanded new national narratives and Slovenia was no exception.

The example of the Museum of National Liberation, founded in 1948, which lost its independence in the late 1950s, regained it in 1962 as the Museum of the People’s Revolution and was renamed the Museum of Contemporary History in 1993, confirms the efforts to politically construct socially suitable public institutions. Viewed more broadly, the phenomenon of the creation, rise and destruction of the red museums of Yugoslavia is a story of a collective “struggle of values” and the creation of new ones based on the rejection of the heritage that the museums of the revolution kept. The most successful transition from a politically established museum to an open and participatory national institution is represented by the Museum of Contemporary History. After the independence of Slovenia, the reformed museum began to systematically collect, preserve and present the history of Slovenians from the period before the First World War to the present day, with special emphasis on the period of independence and the democratisation of the country. The employees of the museum were already collecting objects and other material evidence of the birth of the new state during the period of the formation of the country and throughout the transition process. They met with actors and recorded their stories, collected the works of famous photojournalists and founded several collections. In the decade after the proclamation of the new country, they prepared a high-profile exhibition entitled “United in Victory – the Independence of Slovenia”, which presented the steps towards the independence of the new country on the fifteenth anniversary of independence. A year later, it was briefly displayed at Ljubljana Castle and after its closure in late 2007, it became a part of the museum’s permanent installation. Collections of objects and exhibitions on the theme of independence are now part of the regular programme not only of the Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia, but also of several museums throughout Slovenia. It is precisely because of the systematic data collection and research on this period, the exhibitions and publications, that the criticism of the government in 2021 resonated so much more in public, as state institutions did not deal with this period and these topics were socially neglected.

Home Guard building in Ljubljana, built in under restoration. The Archive of Slovenia will operate in the renovated building, expected in 2024

The project of the Museum of Independence was announced in November 2020. Despite the public’s reluctance, it was established by an Act of Government in March 2021. The mission of the new institution was based on acquiring collections from the process of the democratisation of the Republic of Slovenia and the national struggle for independence. The Ministry of Culture announced that the museum would operate in the previously approved new premises of the Archives of the Republic of Slovenia, which has not yet been built. The Ministry also stressed that the collection strategy of the new museum would be determined by qualified experts, appointing journalists, publicists, historians and a theologian to the museum board, all of whom were supporters of the government. In September, the newspaper Večer published an interview disclosing the name of the acting director of the new institute, who had never worked in a museum and, according to the regulations, did not meet the legal requirements to occupy the position.

Renovation of the old military building on Roška street (Domobranska vojašnica), where the Archives of the Republic of Slovenia will be located and where the government of Janez Janša wanted to set up the new Museum of Slovenian Independence. Photo: Nik Erik Neubauer, Dnevnik, 2023

The news about the opening of the new museum caused a stir among the public and professional circles, with several institutions and almost 200 experts publishing an open letter strongly opposing the clearly ideologically based museum that seemed like a vanity project of the ruling party. The government’s repeated criticisms and accusations that Slovenian museology and historiography did not do enough to preserve the narrative and memory of the events that led to the creation of the independent country were directed primarily at the management of the Museum of  Contemporary History. Public (and politically motivated) complaints about the lack of appropriate content appeared regularly, with information about the preparations for the thirtieth anniversary of independence. The latter, however, was in the domain of the government and its needs to consolidate the political and media discourse about who is responsible for the liberation of the country. Thirty years after the country achieved independence, the need to regulate the narrative about the Slovenian spring and the events during the war of independence became one of the government’s chief concerns. The fact that anti-corona measures prohibited gatherings and public protests at the same time was convenient. Although gatherings were banned, people came together every Friday to cycle through the cities, protesting against the government and its increasingly militant rhetoric of running the country.

The battle of merit over who led the country to freedom was nothing new, as there have already been controversial clashes in the interpretation and memories of the same events. New, polar opposite stories of the same participants in the events came to the fore, following the attempt to erase certain actors and highlight others. The tendency for new historical reinterpretations and the establishment of the cult of deserving heroes found its place in the new museum, where the right wing wanted to offer its vision of the events of thirty years ago. All the content and the location of the museum were only part of the authorities’ efforts at the time to recognise the European resolution on remembrance as the only possible interpretation of the past and to establish state-regulated, narrowly profiled views of the past both through the programmes of the school system and the commemoration of new days of remembrance. The rhetoric was based on glorification of the concept of patriotism as the highest love for the motherland, a negative attitude towards immigrants, contempt for life under the communist regime and the mythologisation of Slovenian independence. One of the historians commented that the creation of the new museum was an attempt by the regime to cement our hold on the past, its attempt to ideologically erase and forget events and people that were not relevant to the consolidation of the suitable narrative. It was also clear that the activities of the newly established museum took place without the involvement of experts from other museums, institutions or researchers working on the topic, excluding public discussions about the content of the museum collections and any announced participatory activities that would involve the public in creating the museum.

. Temporary premises of the Museum of Slovenian Independence. Photo: Luka Cjuha, Dnevnik, 2023

After the elections in May 2022, which were won by recently founded Svoboda (Freedom) party, the new government announced that all unreasonable decisions made by the previous government would be overturned. In October 2023, the new government announced that it would merge the Museum of Independence with the Museum of Contemporary History to once again form a national museum dedicated to researching and presenting the nation’s history in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It justified the creation of a new museum because both national museums had similar collection policies and both employed experts to perform the same public service tasks. In terms of transparency and the conflict over the collection of the same material, the new government argued that funding both institutions was an inappropriate use of public money.

The right wing reacted harshly by encouraging civil disobedience and declared that the new government was pushing the country back into the old totalitarian systems. The right-wing Association for the Values of Slovenian Independence (VSO) strongly opposed the idea and declared that it would “use all available democratic means” to preserve the museum as an independent entity. In January 2023, the two museums were merged and a new institution was established. This decision was supported by the largest veterans associations and most of the public. At the same time, Prime Minister Golob stressed that independence was the joint effort of the entire nation and not of any single political party, expressing the opinion that this topic should be left to historians. Two months after the hostile reactions of the right-wing parties and the announcement of the civil disobedience campaign, SDS filed a motion of interpellation against the government. The reason for the interpellation was the abolition of the independent Museum of Slovenian Independence and several actions that SDS deemed contrary to the provisions of the Slovenian Constitution.

. Temporary exhibition in the Museum of Slovenian Independence. Photo: Luka Cjuha, Dnevnik, 2023

We know that the frequency of government interpellations in any given country depends on its political context, but this was certainly the first time that the one government was interpellated for closing the museum, whose premises were still being built and collections had yet to be put together, with no networks and professional standards to follow.

Why, thirty years after the birth of the country, did right-wing political parties feel the urge to build a new museum and what had been missing from those that already existed? Did the longing for a new museum spring from the need to transform and interpret collections and memories in light of the events of the thirty years following independence or were the thirty-year-old memories no longer suitable to meet current political needs? 

The answer is of course subjective, as was the whole article about the establishment of the new museum and the dispute on how many museums a country needs. Moreover, I was not an outside observer in this story, but an active participant in media conversations. As the former director of the Museum of Contemporary History, I was also the person accused of insufficient patriotism and neglect of the theme of independence. I left the museum in January 2021 and over the next two years I was the frequent target of lies and criticism about the work that the museum did not fulfil. 

I know it sounds radical, but when it comes to museums, I believe the community knows more than a select few. I also believe that a curator’s work is subject to professionalism and ethics, which imposes on each of us the responsibility to respect legislative regulations and to take care of our heritage. Museums can potentially serve as agents of change rather than of political reckoning. I imagine the museum of the future as a place of shared memories and stories told about our (shared) past, which do not divide future generations, but connect them.

The mission of museums is to work for the benefit of society, to be accessible, to be inclusive and to think outside established social frameworks. This is also reflected in the new definition of the museum, which emphasises diversity, democracy and sustainable development. In the first point, the task of museums is to communicate ethically, professionally and cooperatively with all communities, from political elites to marginalised groups that have not yet found their place in permanent museum settings.

Outside the established frameworks of knowledge and curricular learning, there is a world of life experiences, untold stories, repressed memories, family tragedies and diverse emotions that reveal the extraordinary narrative potential of our social environment. Our job is to empower these stories and give them a voice.

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