Aline Sierp: "The MSA hopes to be a true world gathering for excellent memory scholarship and exchange"
Aline Sierp is Assistant Professor (tenured) in European Studies at Maastricht University. She is the co-founder and co-president of the Memory Studies Association and the Council of European Studies’ Research Network on Transnational Memory and Identity in Europe. Aline Sierp holds a PhD in Comparative European Politics and History (cum laude) from the University of Siena (IT). Her MA in European History, Politics, Policy and Society (with distinction) was jointly awarded by the University of Bath (UK), Sciences Po Paris (FR) and the University of Siena (IT). Before joining Maastricht University, Aline Sierp worked as researcher at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site (DE) where she was responsible for human rights education in the international office. During her studies, she completed traineeships at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, the United Nations in Turin and the German Embassy in Rome. Aline Sierp's research interests cover collective memory after experiences of human rights violations, questions of identity and European integration. She has published widely on memory and identity issues and is the author of “History, Memory and Transeuropean Identity: Unifying Divisions” (Routledge, 2014, paperback 2017).
Why did you decide to be a researcher in the field of memory studies?
I think a part of the reason is connected to my background. I grew up in Germany, which as you know is a country where memory plays a very big role. I was socialized into that from an early age onwards. I have always been interested in the history of World War II and how it is commemorated. When I moved to Italy, I realized that people there look at this memory in a very different way. I perceived these differences between Italy and Germany, which triggered me to write my MA thesis on the question why World War II is commemorated differently in Italy and in Germany. When I started my PhD thesis I initially wanted to do something completely different. I was interested in Euroscepticism. The question why young people become more and more Eurosceptic. When I started doing the research came back to my MA thesis’ topic about commemorations and memory studies and I realised how much this topic still fascinated me. I then decided to change the topic of my thesis and I started writing a PhD thesis on memory studies. Since that time, I am continuing to work in that field. I have experience as a researcher not only in Academia but in the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site as well. So this topic has followed me for years now.
During my visit to Verona I was surprised by the approach towards the Italian memory of Second World War. There are only a few monuments, which are dedicated to the antifascist partisans and Holocaust victims. The majority of Verona's monuments which are built after the Second World War are dedicated to the representatives of different Italian combat arms: navy, aviation, tanks divisions and many others. Most of them have vague inscriptions, as an example: "To military drivers" and so on. But monuments design obviously points out Mussolini's fascist era. I have seen two more distinct monuments. The first one is a commemorative plaque dedicated to the "Our heroes of El-Alamein", and the second one is the monument dedicated to military sappers, with the inscription announcing that those brave soldiers managed to cross many rivers, including Dnieper and Don. It is well known that during the North African and Russian military campaigns fascist Italy was the German Nazis devoted ally. Can you say a few words about such Italian memory phenomena, which is not typical to other leading European countries?
This is a very big question and it would probably take me a couple of hours to answer in greater depth. In short what I can say is that Italy has had a very peculiar memory constellation due to the fact that the country changed sides in 1943 which allowed it to concentrate exclusively on the last two years of the war and to portray itself both as victim of Nazi Germany and as resistance fighters who liberated their country with their own hands. This together with a peculiar political situation in which Italy was governed by the same party for more than 60 years led to a ‘frozen’ memory framework.
Can you tell the history of the MSA?
The Memory Studies Association (MSA) began in discussions at the 2016 Council for European Studies’ “Research Network on Transnational Memory and Identity” meeting in Philadelphia led by me and Jenny Wüstenberg (and attended by Jeff Olick) — although the idea had much older roots in a friendly dinner Jeff Olick had with Astrid Erll and Anne Rigney in Giessen more than 10 years ago. The sense of these discussions, and others in between with a wide variety of others who have helped shape the project, was that there had in the previous 10–20 years been a proliferation of different yet often overlapping networks and organizations, most centered around regional and substantive foci. As much as these networks facilitate important dialogue, however, their separateness, and sometimes temporary nature, has also occasionally had the effect of fragmenting discussions. Moreover, with the advancement of memory studies as a body of work — with key debates, shared literatures, and overlapping concepts — there was a sense that a fair amount of duplication was taking place. On one hand, there has been a proliferation of different concepts and terms, on the other hand, often very different uses of the same terms, and there has been a fair amount of reinventing the wheel. Could we find a way to bring these many different conversations into a larger dialogue with each other, thus eliminating redundancy, though certainly not wishing to establish uniformity?
The Association’s aim is to reach out to already existing, often rather disparate, networks and smaller scholarly groups working on memory issues, as well as to provide a home to researchoriented practitioners and policymakers. Networking and exchange will be key during our annual conferences, workshops, and research gatherings. Our hope is that people who have previously not worked together may start to collaborate in the future. And, if not, at least there might be productive cross-fertilizations and intellectual friendships — across disciplines, regions, and purposes. The MSA thus hopes to be the central forum for scholars from around the world and across disciplines who are interested in memory studies. Its goal is to further establish and extend the status of memory studies as a field, institutionalizing memory studies in a way that is able to provide fundamental knowledge about the importance and function of memories in the public and private realm. To be sure, we are well aware that there are cognate enterprises, in many cases of much longer standing: there are already associations for the study of heritage, oral history, archives, museology, trauma, and the like (and let us not forget historiography!), to say nothing of the extensive work on memory within the biological and psychological sciences. Our goal is not to compete with or supplant such associations, just as it is not to compete with the many extant networks and centers for social and cultural memory studies that already exist. Rather, it is to multiply and synergize the very different approaches and networks that exist in them. One of our core convictions is that although these different enterprises address in some cases radically different forms, locations, and media of apprehending and representing our existence in time, there is something essential to be gained by asking when and where the varieties of mnemonic products and practices that constitute the broad umbrella of memory affect each other, and in what ways. We hope that the Association will discover many similarities and clarify important differences. In some cases, this will result in productive joining, and in others in judicious (though, we hope, always respectful) splitting. The Association was symbolically launched at its inaugural conference in Amsterdam in December 2016, which was attended by more than 200 scholars and practitioners. In the meantime, the association has registered as a scholarly association in the Netherlands, and its legal establishment was aided by the University of Maastricht, where I am a faculty member. We have established a website (www.memorystudiesassociation.org), which will be developed into the main hub for accessing information, resources, and opportunities for debate about and within the field. The Association has issued a call for general membership (which we make mindful of the many demands we all face for our time, attention, and financial support). And the second meeting of the full Association took place in Copenhagen from the 14–16 December 2017. In the future, we hope to be able to organize conferences that will be more accessible for colleagues beyond the European region; the MSA hopes to be a true world gathering for excellent memory scholarship and exchange.
Please can you name the main objectives of the MSA?
Our specific ambitions include the following (though we invite your contributions to revising and expanding this list):
To move beyond the Euro/Anglo centrism that has underwritten — though not exclusively, and that is the point! — the development of the field. We thus aim to bring scholars from different regions to the table. One concrete mechanism, as just mentioned, will be to ensure that our conferences take place in different parts of the world, thought we also hope that membership in the Association, with online resources and opportunities to join specific working groups of cross-regional nature, can serve as a connector for scholars from around the world.
and for new avenues of intellectual exchange regardless of physical co-presence.
To draw in practitioners, artists, and policymakers, making the MSA a forum not only for scholarly debate but also one through which scholars can make connections to more practical realms, and practitioners and producers of memory can be informed about the state of the art in memory scholarship.
To explore the possibilities for, and limits on, genuinely interdisciplinary work and crossdisciplinary exchange. At our annual conferences, we will offer a series of didactic disciplinary workshops (e.g. on best practices in methodology and on cross-fertilization between mnemonic approaches in the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences) and bring together innovative scholars from different disciplines for roundtable debates about points of contact and collaboration.
To continue to work on exploring the boundaries between social/cultural concepts of memory and psychological/neurological ones. We will proactively reach out to those academic communities that are organized through the journal Memory and that meet every 5 years at the International Conference on Memory. The goal will be to go beyond paying lip-service to interdisciplinarity by fostering practical venues for exchange and a spirit of learning from each other without privileging one disciplinary perspective.
To attract, build bridges to, and offer a home for our existing “sister fields,” such as heritage studies, oral history, transitional justice, archival studies, and others which have already made such important contributions to a nuanced understanding of the past.
To represent the interests of memory studies as a community of professionals –– including offering professional development activities and career boosting services — and to actively develop the field through institution-building and training of new cohorts by means of a mentoring program for graduate students in memory studies and PhD training workshops at every annual conference.
To increase the visibility of memory studies with both state-based and private funders of academic research and community outreach, as well as with publishers. Not only is this a crucial step toward increased institutionalization and sustainability of the field, but it should also have a positive effect on the career options for junior scholars of memory. Academics at the beginning of their career are often faced with difficult choices about how much energy to invest in memory studies (as opposed to their more established home discipline). Raising the profile of memory studies will result in a better outlook on tenure and promotion for those who publish in the field and ultimately will mean that they can contribute more productively to it (and to more practice-oriented fields of remembrance).
To offer our expertise on memory political concerns as they arise in public affairs and ethical debates. We believe that memory — broadly conceived — is an issue that has been gaining importance in international and domestic politics and that deserves our engagement as public intellectuals. Scholarly perspectives — and their often slower temporalities and distanced vantage points — have a unique contribution to make in reflecting on — and in — contemporary debates.
To develop the MSA into an organization that remains open to input from all interested parties and flexible to the changing nature of the field as memory studies evolves and expands further.
Can you say a few words about the last conference of the MSA in Copenhagen (how many people from different countries took part, the main events, how do you evaluate the results)?
In Copenhagen we had over 600 participants from over 40 different countries. All five continents were represented. So it was a truly international conference. We had both junior and senior scholars, we had scholars and practitioners, we had people coming from universities and outside of universities. The program included 77 research panels and round tables. We had eight turbo talks sessions, which had 10 presentations per session or around 80 different presentations. We had five poster sessions, which included 69 posters presentations. We also had some workshops on methodology, on teaching, on careers in Memory Studies. We had a little film festival, we had a book raffle and of course we had many opportunities for networking during coffee lunches and two receptions. We had different key notes speakers. They included Marianne Hirsh, Jan Gross and Joshua Oppenheimer. Astrid Erll, Ann Rigney, Carol Gluck, Patrick Hutton and Paco Ferrandiz participated in the round table ‘The Horizons of Memory Studies’. Some of the main scholars in the field of Memory Studies including Daniel Levy, Jan Kubik, William Hirst, Siobhan Kattago, Jeffrey Olick and Wulf Kansteiner, were among the participants. The conference was a huge success judging from the amount of positive feedback and ‘thank you’ messages we received afterwards., Many people came up to us saying ‘Wow, I have never been to such big memory conference’. I think what happened is that that people who represent different disciplines: sociology, psychology, political studies and others felt that the MSA has given Memory studies a common house.
How does the MSA plan to organize the next conference in Madrid?
The MSA conference in Madrid is going to be in June 2019 so exactly in one and a half year. We moved it to the summer because we have the impression that it is easier for people to come in June not in December plus the weather is nicer in June. It give us also a little bit more time to prepare this because we do expect much more participants than we had in Copenhagen, which was already very big. We have a local organizing committee in Madrid and we had a meeting with the local organizers on 27–29 January to prepare, to check out the venues and to see what we can offer there. We will try to combine the experience we got in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. We are trying to get more administrative support this time because we had a very small team in Copenhagen which made it very difficult to organize the conference. So we hope by June of 2019 that we will have more people joining us, more people involved in the preparations and hopefully also having a bigger budget which will allow us to outsource some of the tasks that we did ourselves during the last conference.
The “Manifesto” of the MSA was published in “The Memory Studies Journal”. How does the MSA collaborate with that journal?
We made a special agreement with SAGE, who is publishing the “Memory Studies Journal”. According to that agreement members of the MSA get access to the journal publications for free. On top of that, every first issue of the year will be edited by the MSA. We have decided that next one will be edited by the two local organizers of the MSA conference in Copenhagen Tea Sindbæk Andersen and Jessica Ortner. We would like to thanks them for their voluntarily activities during the conference and I am sure they will edit the first special issue of the Memory Studies Journal in the best way possible. On top of that, SAGE is going finance the first book award and the best paper prize in the next years. We start with that in 2018, and I hope the awards ceremony will be held during the Madrid conference.
During the Second conference of the MSA we discussed the problems of the Multilanguage's MSA activity. Can you say a few words concerning that important point regarding international organizations?
We are very much aware of the fact that not everybody speaks English and that important research has been done in other languages. We want to be inclusive and we want to be as encompassing as possible and not exclude people because we offer information only in English. So we very much aware of this need. The main problem at the moment is twofold. First of all, if you start producing things in other languages you have to come up some kind of hierarchy . We are little bit afraid of choosing one or two languages and then having other languages not been represented. So we have to carefully think of where we want to start investing money to translate making sure that no language group feels somehow overlooked. It was a part of our discussion in Copenhagen and I think we did come to a good conclusion of trying at least to cover the main languages which a lot of people speak: Spanish, French and Russian. Those three languages already cover a lot of ground. And the second problem is of course the resources. We have a very tight budget at the moment and it is very expensive to translate all the materials and not only translate it, but keep it up to date,. I think we will start by translating bits and pieces, especially those parts of the web-site which are not changed constantly. I hope that in the near future we can offer a lot of other languages to make sure that people, who do not speak English well, can still contribute.
I should reaffirm that the “Historical Expertise” team is ready to translate the content of the MSA web-site in Russian for free.
That is a very great idea. We are very grateful for that. I hope the Russian section of the MSA web-site will appear very quickly.
How can the Russian academics take part in the activities of the MSA? What advantages would they have by being members of the MSA?
First of all to take part in activities you can become a member and as a member you get access to all types of resources. On our web-site we have the members-only area which offers reading recommendations, written by members for members. We have job-listings in the memory studies field, we have several discussion forums, we have an area of career advice, which I think is particularly interesting for young scholars. We have a teaching resources page for people who want to share their syllabi . We get a quite number of discounted books, either offering a discount when you order the book, or offering a discount for the whole memory series of Palgrave, for example. And then we have access to the “Memory Studies Journal”. We offer travel grants for members who want to come to the annual conferences. We have several awards, for the best book and for the best paper presented during the annual conference. These are however all material benefits. I think much more important is getting access to a very big network. We had more than six hundred participants in Copenhagen, we expect around a thousand in Madrid next year and we have over five hundred paying members of the MSA, which all are listed in the members directory. If you are looking for someone, who is working on trauma and remembrance in Argentina and you want to start an international project or workshop you can find people who work on this topic on our web-site. I think the biggest benefit is the network which allows people to get into contact and to cooperate.
Most of the Russian memory researchers do not get any financial support from their academic institutions to participate in conferences, and traveling abroad is too expensive for them. Does the MSA have any opportunities to provide any grants for those researchers?
We are very much aware of this problem. There are a lot of scholars who got this problem and not only in the Central and East European Countries, in Russia and in the Global South. I myself had to pay everything out of my pocket as well despite the fact that I was one of the organizers of the conference. That means we are very much aware of the difficulties especially for those researchers who have no access to funds and have comparably low salaries. I think there is a big difference between a scholar who has no funding from Germany and his colleague, for example, from Africa. For the conference in Copenhagen we have made over three thousand euros for travel grants available. Anyone could apply at this point and we gave grants especially to young scholars who often do not have salaries. Our budget is very tight. We have started from zero. We have no paid staff. We are all working voluntarily. Our budget is dependent on the number of members. If more and more people will decide to become MSA members, if we manage to recruit more sustainable members who are prepared to pay a little bit more than others and if we get more people to help us acquire funding, then we will be able to get more travel grants for the participants of the MSA conference in Madrid next year.
Does the MSA plan to open the national branches of the Association? The Historical Expertize journal has united more than two hundred authors. Would you think, if is possible to open a branch of the MSA in Russia on the base of our journal? And what should we do in order to achieve that?
I think that is actually a great idea. There seems to be quite a big demand for that from different countries. We got the same question from researchers from Great Britain and from Poland. We very much welcome this development. I think regional and national branches of the MSA would be something we would like to support. The local branches and different subsections might help to connect researchers of particular regions, to enable them to organize local and international activities: conferences, workshops etc. I think if there is a demand and a willingness from Russian researches to do that they can certainly count on our support. We are in the process of thinking on the best way to do this and because we are still in the process we welcome any ideas on this. I think if “Historical Expertize” can support this by for example getting the word out and facilitating collaboration we certainly very much welcome this.
Thank you a lot for your informative interview.