Discover our Research: Meet the academics

As part of Birkbeck’s Discover our research activity, Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine of the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies writes about her current research activity.

Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine

Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine

Hi Silke. What is your current topic of research?

My current project is on the notion of ‘challenging heritage’: I am interested in the ways in which ‘challenging’ or ‘difficult heritage’ is interpreted and managed in different cultural and national contexts. My focus is on the question of how personal and cultural memory relate to each other in modes of engagement framed as affective and experiential encounters with the past, most importantly but not exclusively in (memorial) museums and heritage sites that favour immersive strategies and aim to produce empathy in visitors.

In this context I interrogate preconceived assumptions of what the relationship between affect/emotion, experience and comprehension (and consequently action) is supposed to be; just because we have ‘felt’ and experienced something, does it mean we are any closer to understanding it? Key questions are:

  • the role of interactive media forms (from the oral to the performative and digital) in this process
  • how memory practices and performances are negotiated among groups of stakeholders
  • and how supposedly very different modes of relating to the past (trauma, nostalgia) complement and inform each other in unexpected ways as audiences engage with historical interpretations.

One of my case studies is a comparative analysis of commemorative projects around the First World War Centenary.

Why did you choose this topic?

Living between (at least) two cultures (Silke is originally from Germany, but now lives in South-West London) drew my attention to how collectives relate to shared pasts in very different ways: they do not only choose to remember and forget different bits or tell different stories about shared events, they also have very different modes of engaging with the past.

What excites you about this topic?

Its topicality and relevance to current memory politics, people think of memory as predominantly being about the past but in actual fact the way we relate to the past is mostly about how we want to live in the present.

What is challenging about the research?

The most challenging element of the research I am doing is that it is situated between subject and research areas, which means that I am often trespassing on other people’s turfs. I have to engage with a broad spectrum of research methodologies, increasingly not only quantitative but also qualitative methodologies, so I am constantly forced to step out of my comfort zones.

What are the potential impacts of your research on everyday life?

I have worked with practitioners from various walks of life – artists, museum curators, theatre people – in order to get closer to the audiences which have a vested interest in the role cultural memory plays in all our lives. I think my research can offer a self-reflective perspective on the modes of memory we all engage in every day and identify how we can mobilize strong affective responses as catalysts that help to transform unprocessed affect into emotional thought (and when I am very hopeful) also into actions.

What misconceptions are there around your discipline or area of research?

When I tell people that I work on First World War Commemoration they often think that I am a historian and that I actually work on the First World War. Some are rather disappointed to learn that I am first and foremost interested in the way contemporary societies relate to the First World War and how they narrativize the past in the here and now.

My focus on cultural memory is also difficult to explain, most people associate memory with the ability of an individual to recall experiences and events through which they have lived. However, the concept of cultural memory provides a conceptual framework that helps to interrogate how smaller or larger groups (families or nations) ‘remember’ and keep memories alive beyond the lifetime of the actual memory bearers.

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What’s in an umlaut?

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

It sometimes seems as if the news is made up of either cataclysmically large or vanishingly small issues. There are quite enough of the former to worry about at the moment, you might think – and the latter – the ‘human interest’ stories – are just there to sell newspapers.

UmlautIn theory, they do not get much smaller than the argument, reported in this week’s papers, which is raging in a small town in Minnesota.

Lindström was founded by Swedish immigrants in the 19th century. The reason for the current battle is that the Minnesota Department of Transportation has decreed that the town name should consist only of ‘standard English characters’. Therefore the umlaut, i.e. the two dots above the o, has been omitted from the sign. The inhabitants are up in arms over this – apparently petty – issue.

It is interesting to look beyond the apparently trivial casus belli and consider the deeper issues at stake. Is it possible that someone in the Transportation Department is ‘anti-immigrant’, or at least very right wing (in European terms)?

They may be a supporter of the ‘English Only’ movement, which argues that immigrants should integrate linguistically. Rather than being encouraged to maintain their language of origin, which linguistic studies have shown time and time again to be beneficial to their OVERALL linguistic proficiency AND to their wellbeing, in some states they are instead obliged to take additional remedial English classes.

In this case, the immigrants in question have long ago been eaten by the worms; the umlaut-supporters are merely symbolically honouring their distant ancestors, and their own origins.

The kindest interpretation of the Department’s refusal to add the umlaut is that they just want an easy life and cannot be bothered with the idiosyncacies of the local population, which necessitate additional signwriting resources. But I suspect the issue is related to their convictions about what it means to be American.

Whichever it is, the importance of the umlaut for the population clearly goes well beyond its tiny presence on the town sign. Like so many linguistic issues, it can only be understood in terms of the link between language and identity. Crush my language, my accent, my alphabet, my name, and you deprive me of my individuality, my history, my sense of belonging to a particular group.

In Alsace under the German Occupation, Jean had to become Hans and François had to become Fritz – on pain of serious punishment. Europeans joining Islamic State change their names to Islamic ones. In this case, a Swedish name which indexes the heritage of the town is being bleached into an English name. Perhaps next year it could have an e added at the end, then why not remove the ‘str’ and replace it with an h? ‘Lindhome’ would sound as American as apple pie.

Of course none of this matters a single jot compared with the big issues in the news – until you start to realise that language is one of the main ways in which our identity is expressed. Languages, words, names – and people’s expressed wishes about them – should not, and cannot, be swept under the carpet – or painted out on signs.

Find out more about Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros

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