COURAGE: Connecting Collections

What COURAGE Registry is good for? 1) The Registry allows the discovery of collections that have been scattered and hidden because official cultural politics under State Socialism forbid or barely tolerated any systematic archiving of countercultural and non-conformist phenomena. 2) The Registry allows archives and museums to map similar materials to their holdings in Europe and launch joint projects across borders and cultures. For example, it lets them organize exhibitions together, exchange duplicate materials to diversify their own holdings, or apply for grants together. 3) The Registry contains the provenance and history of collections, the profile and stories of the people and organizations who contributed to creating and maintaining the collections, and key events in the history of the collection (e.g. exhibitions based on the holdings). This caters an approach to history that highlights the contributions of ordinary citizens to cultural opposition against oppressive regimes.

What we would like to achieve? 1) To persuade archives and museums that it is beneficial for them to join the Registry. According to our experience, as the number of collections grow and more people and institutions get to know about the database, the number of archives, museums and private collections that would like to join and be described also exponentially grows. 2) To raise the attention of researchers and educators to this little known but very rich cultural heritage that could inspire societies today. Many of the collections described are hidden or barely known. The Registry not only directs attention to these holdings and their never analysed rich materials, but also provides a new perspective to dissident movements and the history of regime changes by shedding light to the history of collecting, archiving and the motivations behind such often clandestine practices. 3) To promote the online learning materials for educators so that they could integrate this part of cultural heritage to their curriculum, and raise students’ awareness of the recent past and inspire critical thinking.

How do we spread knowledge? The COURAGE Learning Platform is based on three columns according to the audience it addresses: a pioneering modular syllabus system for higher education; full online courses for secondary schools; and a walking application for city tours for locals and tourists. 1) The syllabus system for higher education consist of modules covering relevant topics. Each module contains a description of the topic, reading lists, short-term and long-term assignments, and links to the COURAGE Registry and to external sources. It is highly innovative for the following reasons: registered users can create their own syllabi (that they can also download and add to their universities’ learning management systems, like Canvas or Moodle); share and discuss each other’s syllabi: it creates a community of educators across countries and regions; the widely used bibliography manager system Zotero is integrated to the platform: scholars who use Zotero can join the thematic bibliographies attached to each thematic module, may add any titles to enrich them, and thus the newest publications in the field get into the pool of titles. From the pool professors can easily select the assigned readings. In short: it radically shortens the way a publication gets used in higher education. 2) For the secondary schools, COURAGE offers elaborated thematic introductions that cover topics the contemporary youth might be interested in. It states what skills and competences the lesson improves, and suggests assignments for students. It also integrates various online games developed by COURAGE and offers audio-visual materials for greater engagement. 3) The walking app was developed for Budapest, Prague, Bratislava, Tartu and Zagreb. It is a map-based application that shows and provides information on the better or less known scenes that are important from the perspective of dissenter activity. The walking app connects citizens with their daily environment, encourages engagement with the past and increases social cohesion. It could be also interesting for tourists who would like to go off the usual tracks.

What challenges the project address? There are several issues at stake. One is that Eastern Europe, despite most of its countries are EU members, remains largely incomprehensible to the West, and this is partly because its history and culture has not been integrated into the common European cultural memory. Despite all the efforts to the contrary by a cohort of excellent scholars, the recent history of the region is still dominated by accounts narrowly focusing on political events, and culture under Communism is still associated with dull propaganda art and boredom. This is, however, just one side of the full picture. This approach neglects the plethora of personal strategies and practices of dissent that did not necessarily take the form of political opposition or active resistance but manifested in nonconformist cultural practices. In the final account, behind the official forefront of propaganda, there was an exciting culture flourishing that responded -- and not only in an imitative way -- to developments on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The extent of this were varying from country to country, but still... Further, simplistic accounts propagated by contemporary governmental memory politics all over Eastern Europe suggest that the story of Communist dictatorships is a story of easily identifiable victims and perpetrators. Again, these cliches that overlook the wide “grey zone” will not help us understand the historical dynamics of Eastern European societies.

The problem is that this alternative culture under Communism was (and still is) poorly documented, and it is for obvious reasons: while state-supported culture found its way to archives and museums easily and it is (despite the many sculptures removed) all over the urban space, collecting and documenting the various forms of nonconformist art were not so easy. Often it was a result of a clandestine practice tolerated by institutions. There is a threat that this entire scene, especially its downright countercultural part, will fall into oblivion even though it is not only exciting but also essential for an understanding of our past and contemporary Europe. These are the challenges that required response, and we expect to achieve a breakthrough via the COURAGE platform.