How to manage 'dissonant' cultural heritage

A case study from East Germany analyses the challenges of embracing uncomfortable legacies from the recent past.

Gesine Schuster | PhD student in cognitive and cultural systems, Scuola IMT Alti Studi Lucca
Berlin, the parade for the 30th anniversary of the founding of the GDR. Wikimedia Commons, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-U1007-0009 / Wolfgang Kluge / CC-BY-SA 3.0

'Dissonant' is a term often used to refer to music. Dissonant tones are those that do not blend harmonically, but create a certain tension. In cultural studies, 'dissonant' or 'difficult' heritage is heritage - monuments, sites, works of art - that 'hurts' because it recalls past events that are difficult to reconcile with the values of visitors and their everyday experience.

In societies undergoing rapid social and political transformations, such as a change in the political system, managing this heritage becomes particularly relevant: people have to reorient themselves between changing historical narratives, new cultural reference points and a multitude of diverse interpretative claims. Sometimes, this effort can be made more difficult by personal traumatic memories and the monuments and sites connected to those memories can become contested. In the article "Curating the History of Socialist Reuse"two sites in former East Germany are used as examples to explore the challenges that can arise in coming to terms with a dissonant heritage from the recent past, such as, in this case, the legacy of GDR socialism.

Two fates for two castles.

The case studies concern two Prussian castles, one located in Berlin and one in northern Brandenburg. While they experienced a similar usage during the 18th and 19th centuries as royal residences, their fate diverged in the 20th century, especially during the 40 years of German separation. The first castle, Schönhausen Palace, had a clear political purpose, first as the residence of the first and only president of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck, and later as a guest house. The second castle, Rheinsberg Palace, on the other hand, was one of many smaller castles and stately homes in East Germany that found utilitarian purposes under socialism, serving as schools, post offices, hospitals or public cultural centres. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many of these uses were soon abandoned. Rheinsberg was turned into a diabetics’ sanatorium in 1953. In 1990, it opened as a museum only five weeks after the closure of the sanatorium. Schönhausen, on the other hand, was one of the last of the many Prussian castles that had experienced socialist reuse to be turned into a museum. It opened its doors to the public in 2009, after 20 years of vacancy.  

Patients in the dining room of Rheinsberg Castle, 1990, Klöppel

These two case studies thus allowed for two specific aspects to be analysed. Firstly, the effect of temporal distance from the historical events in question. Secondly, the effect of the level of political 'charge' attached to the sites. The castles are linked through the point of view of Detlef Fuchs, the curator and castle custodian, who was involved in the transformation process of both buildings.

An unease that persists over time.

The article is based on five semi-structured interviews conducted over the course of 19 months, which, in addition to the historical perspective of the former caretaker Fuchs, also gave voice to the views of the current curator of Rheinsberg Castle and the photographer who documented the castle's operation as a sanatorium only two months before its final closure. The research succeeded in demonstrating that almost 35 years after reunification, there still remains a sense of uncertainty in the political, personal and curatorial management of the GDR legacy. The most interesting result is that this effect seems to be more pronounced when the socialist legacy is less evident or when the site has a more everyday purpose. In Schönhausen, the political role of the building during the GDR era is openly presented and discussed in today's permanent exhibition, alongside the royal Prussian history of the 18th century. In Rheinsberg, the curators are still struggling to decide whether and how to deal with the history of its socialist re-use as a sanatorium. At the same time, the interviews showed how awareness of the need to develop polyvocal exhibition narratives has grown over the years and with increasing personal distance from the experience of GDR socialism. However, a sense of hesitation is still palpable, even for the current curator who has no personal memories of the GDR, having grown up in West Germany. The everyday character of the use of the sanatorium seems to pose particular challenges and questions on how to deal with this past. Something that has been described by Pendlebury, Wang and Law as an 'uncomfortable legacy' that 'generally does not cause significant pain, fear or revulsion, but is more likely to cause discomfort or embarrassment'.

However, as the research concludes, it is these kinds of sites that may be particularly relevant in coming to terms with dissonant or traumatic memories of the past, as they connect more immediately to the personal experiences of the vast majority of people. The most important political sites and monuments, on the other hand, were often further removed from the everyday experience of socialism. For this reason, everyday sites can facilitate public exchange on such experiences and engage a wider audience in debates. This, in turn, can foster an inclusive, participatory and polyvocal culture of memory that is a crucial element of any democratic society. Democratic societies have a clear interest in allowing multiple voices and experiences to be heard. Museums and heritage sites can play a crucial role in this effort by providing opportunities for social exchange and discussion, as well as personal and public reflection. However, this property of museums and heritage sites is not inherent. By presenting one dominant narrative, they can hinder the expression of different perspectives. When curators decide which stories to tell and where to place the focus of an exhibition, they perform a political act.

A lesson for the future.

That is why it is important for curators for curators to engage with their own hesitations and discomfort and to allow for conflict in order not to disable an important part of successful democracies. Often, this may require an act of effective rethinking and efforts to actively restructure the way many museums and sites have been designed. However, the latest ICOM definition of 'museums', with its mentions of inclusivity and the participation of communities, shows that the societal responsibilities of museums and heritage sites are increasingly gaining attention worldwide. The present case study is, therefore, not only relevant in the German or Eastern European post-socialist context, but may inform the way uncomfortable heritage and multi-layered historic sites are approached in other contexts as well.

You might also be interested in


How does it feel to see human remains in the museum?

A survey analyses visitors' opinions, amid ethical doubts and uncomfortable historical legacies.


Even the Middle Ages had its 'professionals of the future'.

A research project investigates the concept of time and forecasting of the epoch.


One million photographs to tell the story of the city of Lucca

A project in collaboration between the IMT School and the municipality enhances the city's vast photographic heritage.