CfP: (Dis)Claiming Pasts: Ownership, Responsibility and Contestation

TAPAS/Thinking About the Past is pleased to announce our next conference: (Dis)Claiming Pasts on 14-15 December, 2017 in Ghent. The aim of this workshop is to explore the different strategies, techniques and arguments used by individuals, groups or entire nations to (dis)claim particular pasts, and the different aims and motivations that underpin them. Our first confirmed keynote speaker is prof. Robert Meister from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Call for papers

Between 2014 and 2016 a curious legal battle took place in Amsterdam. The case concerned ancient Scythian treasures a Dutch museum had on loan from museums in the Crimea region. While the exhibition ran in Amsterdam, Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula. This raised the difficult question: to whom should the objects be returned? Should they go back to the Crimean museums where they came from but that were now under Russian control, or to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine? The litigating parties presented their claims to the judge in Amsterdam: the lawyers representing Ukraine resorted to international law and claimed that the state was the rightful guardian of national heritage. Since the Crimean museums now had taken on ‘a Russian identity’ they no longer had a rightful claim to the treasures. In contrast, the Crimean museums argued that the objects were culturally and historically affiliated with the people of the Crimea and had been residing in Crimean soil for ages, since long before the state of Ukraine came into existence. The litigating parties thus engaged contrasting legal, historical and cultural arguments to claim this particular past and its material remnants.

In this conference we want to explore the different strategies, techniques and arguments used by individuals, groups or entire nations to (dis)claim particular pasts and the different aims and motivations that underpin them.

Tensions surrounding the ownership or control over (certain aspects of) the past are an increasingly common phenomenon. Various social and cultural groups demand ownership or control over, or the return of, artefacts or human remains to which they claim cultural, religious, historical or biological affinity (e.g. the case of the Kennewick Man or the recently repatriated skulls of the Nama and Herero). Similarly, former colonies (re)claim archives produced by their former colonizers. Activists claim land or heritage sites that, they argue, historically belongs to them. But claiming pasts can involve more than claiming material remains. Corporations use historical figures or even entire historical periods for ‘retro- branding’ and politicians often refer to the legacy of famous predecessors to legitimize their views or positions. Conversely, there are many examples of individuals or groups who disclaim particular pasts because they are painful or shameful, or because they might come with unwanted (legal and other) responsibilities. Think, for instance, of the legalist reasoning that the Austrian state cannot be held responsible for crimes committed by Austrian individuals during the Second World War because the Austrian state was under German control after the Anschluss. Or consider Marine Le Pen’s recent statement that France cannot be held accountable for the prosecution of the French Jews during the same period because the Vichy regime ‘did not really represent’ France or the Republic (thereby repeating arguments previously used by de Gaulle and Mitterrand).

For this conference we are especially interested in papers that discuss the local or global dynamics of (dis)claiming pasts in the following contexts:

- Discussions about cultural and intellectual property: (inter)national heritage politics, repatriations, traditional knowledge, etc.
-  Nationalist and ethnic vs. universalist claims about the past (e.g. world heritage) and the specific techniques used in these discussions (e.g. claims about cultural affinity vs. biological continuity based on DNA analysis).
-  Appropriations of the past in (identity) politics.
-  The use of historical arguments in discussions on land rights and land reform.
-  Discussions about (transgenerational) responsibility concerning historical injustices, victimhood and suffering.
-  Religious claims about the relations between past and present.
-  Commodification of the past in marketing, advertisement, tourism, etc.
-  Discussions about who has epistemic authority and can claim the proper expertise to speak about/for the past (e.g. academics vs. contemporary witnesses, activists, lawyers and judges, etc.).

We welcome a variety of approaches, including theoretical ones, however, we ask all contributors to use one or more concrete cases as a starting point.

Practical information:

Those interested in participating in the conference are asked to submit an abstract (maximum 700 words) before 15 September 2017. Notifications of acceptance will be sent out by the end of September 2017.

Organising committee:

Berber Bevernage
Katie Digan
Rafael Verbuyst
Eva Willems

Please send abstracts and questions to:

Katie Digan

Ghent University – Department of History Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat 35
9000 Ghent - Belgium 

Scientific committee:

Prof. Bruno de Wever (Ghent University)
Prof. Bert de Munck (University of Antwerp)
Prof. Idesbald Goddeeris (KU Leuven)
Prof. Stefan Berger (Ruhr University Bochum)
Prof. Jo Tollebeek (KU Leuven)
Prof. Chris Lorenz (Ruhr University Bochum)
Prof. Peter Romijn (NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies)
Prof. Stephan Parmentier (KU Leuven)
Prof. Nico Wouters (CegeSoma)
Prof. Valérie Rosoux (Université Catholique de Louvain)
Prof. Nanci Adler (NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies)
​Prof. Susan Legêne (VU Free University)

Posted: 29-05-2017 | Updated: 14-10-2022