Monday, September 14, 2009

In or Out of the Global Box?

I've done a whole group of posts about my trip to Germany--but not about the reason I went--which was to present a paper as part of a session called In or Out of the Global Box: Industrial Heritage from Different Perspectives at the TICCIH conference. My next post will be about Chernobyl and Bhopal, but here I wanted to share what my friend, colleague and session organizer, Gyorgyi Nemeth, shared so provocatively with our audience. Gyorgyi is an assistant professor at the University of Miskolc, Hungary, and has done work extensively on industrial history in eastern Hungary.

Although the conference theme was Industrial Heritage, Ecology and Economy, she reminded the group that in reality, this conference, like many others, was perhaps not as committed to multiple perspectives as they might be. Researchers might be interested, in theory, in global perspectives, but such research was usually conducted from a Western European framework.

To support her approach, she conducted an analysis of the industrial sites on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Fully 70% of the industrial/technical sites on the World Heritage List are from Europe--with only 4 sites from Eastern Europe. No sites are preserved on the list that relate to the modern industrial period.

In particular, Gyorgyi talked about a real reluctance to talk about the forced Soviet industrialization of the 20th century--which took place throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. These factories, and their accompanying communities, were planned and centralized structures, meant to reinforce socialism; to keep control of people, and to provide no separation between factory and home. In reality, of course, these places were places of social stress and repression--and with the end of the Soviet Union and the decline of controlled industry, these places have become a type of lost community. As I understand it, none of these communities are preserved, documented, or interpreted.

Gyorgyi's passionate presentation inspired a lively debate:
  • What stories do these communities tell? To whom? How can we collect these millions of individual stories?
  • Is it only the West who has the luxury of being post-industrial and thinking of all these structures as monuments?
  • Although historians have begun, with the end of the Soviet Union, to explore the history of these communities, what sorts of preservation might be undertaken?
  • What does this Soviet-style history mean to industrial historians who think of a western, relatively straight-line analysis of industrial history and technology?
  • Who will chose to tell these stories? From my experience in Ukraine, it's hard to imagine that country having the resources or the will to preserve such places.
  • How can conferences --of any type--welcome and support new participants?
  • And how, perhaps most importantly, do all of us open up our work to new perspectives, to new people?
And as a side note, my participation in this session was, many years on, the result of a long-ago, AAM-ICOM, International Partnership Among Museums Project, where Gyorgyi and I had the opportunity to work together. My special thanks to Gyorgyi for providing me with such a wonderful learning opportunity this fall (and my apologies for not figuring out how to get the accent marks in her name!) Any errors in the description of her presentation are entirely my own.

Magnitogorsk steel production facility, 1930s
Viktor Kalmikov, Magnitogorsk, 1930 by Max Alpert (Russian 1899-1980)

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