I (Ayshka) was invited to attend a workshop on Agonistic Memory and Museums on 13 May 2019 at the University of Bath run by the Horizon 2020 funded UNREST project. The workshop targeted museum practitioners who had either applied agonistic memory to their own settings already, or who had expressed an interest in learning more about the theory and how it might be mobilized. I worked as a post-doc researcher for UNREST until March 2019, so am familiar with the project and theory, but I was keen to explore how agonistic memory might be applied to my current research as part of the Postcards from the Bagne project.
In this project, we are considering how best to disseminate our research findings outside academia, i.e. beyond publications in academic journals. One consideration is to create a board game based on experiences of bagnards in French Guiana. We are keen to nuance and challenge dominant narratives of escape by presenting the multiplicity of bagnards’ lived experiences, which were more commonly shaped by incarceration, deprivation and death, than escape. We are also eager to introduce perspectives other than the prisoners, for example prison guards, doctors, bounty hunters, to create a richer picture of life as part of this penal colony.
How then might agonistic memory help with the creation of this board game? In Cento Bull and Hansen’s article ‘On Agonistic Memory’ (2016), they outline the characteristics of agonistic memory, taking as their starting point the failure of the cosmopolitan memory mode to prevent the rise of antagonistic memories constructed by populist, neo-nationalist movements. The traits of this memory mode include:
- Multiperspectivism– hearing the testimonies of both victims and perpetrators, as well as witnesses, bystanders, spies, and traitors. It is believed that the testimonies of perpetrators can help us to understand when, how, and why people turn into perpetrators.
- Emotions and passions– agonism argues that passion is an important force to reinvigorate politics and can be used to create a sense of solidarity without demonising the ‘evil other.’ Empathy with victims is the first step in promoting understanding.
- Reconstructing the historical context – avoiding pitting ‘good’ against ‘evil’, ‘us’ against ‘them.’ Instead, agonistic memory acknowledges the human capacity for evil in specific circumstances and in certain social and political contexts.
These theoretical concepts have been applied to the creation of museum exhibitions, theatre performances, and significantly for this project, computer games. An online version of the computer game created by UNREST, Umschlagplatz, can be played here. Players can choose from four characters, a brief background about each character is given to players which outlines the specific historical and social context at the time, players then need to make choices to save themselves and can either share true or false statements or spread rumours about other players. The decisions and consequences triggered by players’ choices are designed to create an unsettling experience for those involved in the game, causing them to question how and why they made particular decisions.
Agonistic characteristics, such as multiperspectivism, unsettling experiences, the importance of historical and social contexts, and the acknowledgement of emotions and passions might be applied in the creation of our board game. Life history narratives (letters, diaries, biographies, autobiographies, memoirs) could be successfully employed to highlight the ‘unknown majority’ (Thompson, 2000, p.24) who were part of French Guiana’s penal colony. The inclusion of testimonies from historical actors other than bagnards could shed light on the specific historical context which might cause former prisoners to become bounty hunters, for example, or prison guards to become perpetrators. Lesser-known objects and artefacts associated with the French Guiana’s penalscape could also be represented in the board game to complicate and challenge the dominant narrative of escape.
More detailed discussions about our board game are to follow, but the workshop was certainly a productive brainstorming exercise and an excellent opportunity to hear from museum and heritage practitioners who are looking to develop new ways of representing difficult histories.
Bull, A. C., & Hansen, H. L. (2016). On agonistic memory. Memory Studies, 9(4), 390–404. https://doi.org/10.1177/1750698015615935
Thompson, P. 2000. The Voice of the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press.