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Online and brick-and-mortar museums in Central and Eastern Europe (1989-present)



Change log



Online museums experienced their renaissance during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Even before 2020, however, they occupied a prominent – yet under-researched – place on Central and Eastern Europe’s commemorative landscape. Historians and museologists have analysed brick-and-mortar museums, but they mostly avoided venturing into the online sphere. Researchers of the Internet, in turn, tended to stay away from historical museums. As a result, the existing scholarship only partially explains how narratives of the past are forged in Central and Eastern Europe. This gap in research is pressing especially now, as the online sphere is polarising, and the past is being mobilised by political actors and authoritarian regimes to further exclusionist policies. My PhD thesis seeks to fill this gap: I analyse historical museums based on websites and on mobile applications. How do online exhibitions represent the past differently than their brick-and-mortar counterparts?

The project is founded on literature from four areas of research. The politics of history – the ways in which the past is used for present-day goals – has been studied by historians and political scientists, but most of their work has a national focus and omits museums. Museologists have engaged with the social and political contexts in which museums function, but they scarcely analyse online exhibitions. Social scientists studying the Internet, in turn, tend to study present-oriented phenomena, at the expense of history-related content (and, in particular, of museums). Finally, historians adopting the transnational perspective analyse the academic implications of their work, while often omitting its impact on and resonance in popular narratives about the past. I build on and further develop the research and methodologies from each of these fields. At the same time, my interdisciplinary project brings together these four areas of research, hitherto largely isolated from one another.

Against this backdrop, I analyse six museums from Germany, Poland, and Russia. Each of my case studies has both online and brick-and-mortar components, and each commemorates twentieth-century events entangled in the history or collective memory of multiple nations and communities; in particular, all six museums engage with (forced) migrations. This is why my case studies have been described as (or accused of being) transnational. The first chapter of my thesis explores the case studies in detail and probes into the online-offline binary. The subsequent four chapters explore how online and offline exhibitions approach: (1) exhibits, (2) space and spatiality, (3) the museums’ activities beyond the exhibition, and (4) the people involved in commemoration. In the concluding chapter, I explore the methodological opportunities and challenges of researching online museums – a novel, yet pressing topic.

Online museums, in line with ‘new museology’, tend to be more democratic than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Projects based on websites or on mobile apps allow for a multiplicity of historical narratives, engage with their host and target communities, and exercise self-criticism. The Internet helps curators to obtain and display various – often conflicting – exhibits, testimonies, and interpretations of the past. I argue, however, that online museums are more aligned with the principles of ‘new museology’ only in part thanks to the Internet’s inherently democratising potential. Often, online museums are simply newer or more malleable than brick-and-mortar ones. At the same time, digital technologies are used to constrain the visitors’ choices, to manipulate their emotions, and to impose certain interpretations of the past for political gain. The Internet, therefore, is not the democratising gamechanger that it promised to be in the 1990s. Instead, it provides new grounds for fighting old battles over history, memory, and identity.





Jahn, Hubertus


expulsion, Germany, Gulag, migration, museum, online, Poland, Russia, transnational


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
AHRC (2135897)
Arts and Humanities Research Council (2135897)
PhD Studentship from the Centre for East European Language-Based Area Studies (CEELBAS) Doctoral Training Partnership