Whose memories and histories should European heritage sites such as Bergen-Belsen, Falstad or Westerbork represent?
Focusing on the prisoners and victims of war, European memorial centres have shared a widespread reluctance to integrate perpetrator histories in their narratives. Through different creative activities, using visual and audio media, the project “Houses of Darkness – Images of a Contested European Memory (HICE) explores how to deal with contested traces of history.
“Houses of darkness” is a small-scale cooperation project in which three WW2 memorial centres, together with a non-profit media organisation, invite a young audience to participate in exploring perpetrator spaces and the question of how to incorporate a legacy of brutality and ignorance in the larger narrative of European cultural heritage. The project is the result of a joint initiative by the former Nazi camps and now memorial centres Falstadsenteret (Norway), Herinneringscentrum Kamp Westerbork (Netherlands) and Gedenkstätte Bergen-Belsen (Germany). The project runs from December 2020 to December 2023, and is co-funded by Creative Europe.
Over the past few years, Falstadsenteret, Herinneringscentrum Kamp Westerbork and Gedenkstätte Bergen-Belsen have all met with challenges in trying to incorporate ‘perpetrator spaces’ – former camp headquarters and commander houses – in their teaching and curatorial practices. The project is motivated by these challenges. It is also motivated by an accompanying conviction that today, 75 years after WW2 and in a time where growing nationalism and violent extremism threatens European integration, it is crucial not to keep perpetrator history and memory in the dark, risking populist voices claiming their ownership to it.
HICE will develop three interrelated site-specific art works connected to digital context providers, which will function as the hub of audience activities: art workshops, summer schools and digital participation initiatives. All activities aim at engaging a young and diverse audience in dialogues on perpetrator history, as a means to raise awareness of common challenges and reinforce a sense of belonging to a shared European space.
In 2022, new art works have come to life in the exhibition Perpetrator Perspectives in the Commander’s house at Falstad, featuring the German artist Jakob Ganslmeier and the Norwegian author Simon Stranger (their works are also presented in online versions here), and in Eline Jongsma and Kel O’Neill’s already award winning Instagram documentary His Name is My Name.
In February we look forward to present yet another highlight: The opening of Ganslmeier and Onias Landveld’s exhibition in Bergen Belsen. Stay tuned!
In May 2022, the first art workshops took place at the Falstad Centre. The participants were groups of young refugees living in Trondheim, and Norwegian students from Sund folk high school. The Norwegian artist Anne Helga Henning was in charge of the two-day workshop programme, in collaboration with educators from the Falstad Centre. Through creative sessions and discussions, the participants approached and connected with the site’s history and shared their own experiences and reflections on histories of war, persecution and memory work.
Similar workshops, led by Dutch artist Primin Rengers, took place in Westerbork in October 2022. And the last, led by German artist Jens Genehr, are due to take place in Bergen-Belsen i February 2023.
Student thesis: Memory Sites and Multidirectional Memories
A bachelor student in Cultural Heritage Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Gulabuddin Sukhanwar, participated in the planning and implementation of the art workshop at Falstad, and wrote his bachelor’s thesis about the project in Spring 2022. His position was that of an observing participant, taking part both as a researching student and as an individual with a personal history of coming to Norway as a refugee from Afghanistan in 2013.
Sukhanwar argues that memorial sites like Falstad serve as valuable platforms, not only for learning about WWII history, but also for making connections between the memories of this history and memories of more recent wars and conflicts. He highlights the importance of creating spaces where refugees can share their experiences and connect with the memories of the communities they are becoming part of. Acting as such spaces, WWII memorial sites may serve as tools for integration and dialogue across cultural boundaries.
The project web site housesofdarkness.eu is under construction and will be officially launched on February 17, 2023. It provides access to digital versions of all art works as well as creative exercises and a discussion tool inviting you to participate. Stay tuned!