HERA Closing conference: the end or just the beginning?
The HERA Public Spaces: Culture and Integration in Europe funding stream, of which this project is a part, marked its formal end with a two-day closing conference in Wroclaw, Poland on 8th and 9th September 2022. Twenty projects representing researchers from twenty-four countries were represented through posters, films and discussions, along the theme of ‘Humanities in Crisis, Crisis in Humanities’.
Wroclaw (pronounced more like ‘Vrot-swaff’ than English speakers may imagine), formerly known as Breslau, is a beautiful ancient city in the South-Western Silesia region of Poland; a city of many bridges and rivers, high-quality reconstruction following damage the second world war, and a local tradition of gnome sculptures. The city also has a long-standing and more recent Ukrainian community and the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag was flying from public and private buildings, chiming with the conference’s theme of crisis, at this of war in Europe.
Our CeMi delegation (Avril, Christoph, Marianne and myself, Katie McClymont) opened our visit by a trip to the Old Jewish Cemetery. Pleasing to the planners in the delegation, we quickly travelled there by busy tram. It was easy to access the space, but harder to find; being behind a high, unlabelled wall along a main road with little signage or ceremonial entrance. The Cemetery itself is officially a museum, part of the City’s combined museums trust and known as the Museum of Cemetery Art (insert Polish name?). This meant that the space was beautifully preserved, and graves of famous former residents well marked out; however its identity as a public space was therefore more problematic. We had to buy (albeit reasonably priced) tickets to enter, an immediate barrier to publicness, even if necessary for the maintenance and preservation of the site.
On exiting, we noticed a long avenue of trees leading to the entrance from a different direction from how we entered, presumably a former more formal approach, now dislocated by changing road and land-use patterns. Even in a city of such fine reconstruction, there is churn, change and forgetting. Unlike the playful gnomes which entice the visitor to seek out less-seen aspects of public space, the Old Jewish Cemetery felt hidden and out of sight and separate from its environs.
There is not the space here to reflect more fully on the wider themes and projects presented at the conference which spanned post-war social housing, night, markets, public transport and much more. Two terms raised in discussion particularly resonated, and I will briefly reflect on these. The first was the idea of ‘unlearning’- unlearning (post) colonial scripting of spaces and identities. Taking such ideas to think about cemeteries as public space can challenge the ordering of these spaces, too often received as apart and away from daily life. With processes of ‘unlearning’, the sense of belonging and needs of diverse groups can be repositioned, as our project has explored. The second was the idea of ‘visual nuisance’, raised in discussion about street homelessness and substance abuse. Are cemeteries and memorials a visual nuisance, or can certain practices within these (or spilling out of them) become so? As public spaces, what practices, if any, conflict with their publicness and should be controlled? Does such designation hide less welcome publics and stories? Should they therefore be hidden away?
Although the funding stream draws to a close, the discussion emanating from these two days demonstrated that there is so much more to explore. Projects which have been restrained and reshaped by Covid- a pandemic which fundamentally altered our ability to be in, and understanding of public space, highlight the importance of public space to our identities and actions, and that these are free of conflict, or remains static places. To be physically together in a place for a conference itself has a certain publicness, the sharing of ideas and findings, is itself an act of remaking our understandings.