Objects from museums and archives play an important role on the Copernico portal. As part of our shared cultural heritage, they can tell us a lot about the history of Eastern Europe. In October 2021, an online workshop was held to discuss what contribution such objects can make to the study of migration histories.
Objects on the Copernico portal
The cultural legacy of Eastern Europe is one of the Copernico portal’s core topics. We currently have 11 museums in our partner network. Users can search the Research database to learn about selected collections, and under Topics they can find stories of selected objects from our partners’ collections. Examples include an “Ulm box,” a wardrobe trunk, and a nativity set. In telling these objects’ stories, particular emphasis has been given to the role they played in their owners’ migration.
In future, Copernico wants to highlight even more clearly what these objects can tell us about the history of Eastern Europe, and is looking for new ways to present them and make them accessible. To that end, several of our partner institutions are preparing a proposal for a joint indexing and digitization project. This project would centre around items from our collections that have a particular link to migration history. That link could take myriad forms: the objects might, for instance, have been taken on journeys of migration themselves. One key area of focus would be processes of transformation, either in their owners’ lives (raising the question of what, if anything, these objects can tell us about those transformations) or changes that occurred in the objects themselves, during or due to migration.
The workshop
From 19 to 20 October 2021, representatives of Copernico network members and academic researchers attended an online workshop to discuss the potential for a joint indexing and digitization project. The idea is to prepare a project proposal together and submit it to the German Research Foundation (DFG). The plan is exceptional in that the Herder Institute wants to submit a proposal alongside smaller institutions such as museums.
Theoretical underpinnings
Following a welcome address by Peter Haslinger and an introduction by Barbara Fichtl, the workshop kicked off with three short talks:
 + Jochen Oltmer gave an outline of current issues and questions in migration history research. He stressed the importance of self-reflection as part of the indexing and digitization process: that is, the need for researchers and museums to reflect on why they choose to classify certain objects as relevant to migration history.
  • Jannis Panagiotidis set out a functional definition of transformation that distinguishes it from similar concepts such as continuous change, acculturation, and cultural transfer. He concluded that transformation should be understood as “profound and rapid change resulting from historic turning points,” and that the collection of a local or folk museum could therefore be seen as “inventing tradition” during times of transformation.
  • Anna-Lisa Müller analysed migration and transformation through the lens of material culture: a body of collectively shared, socially meaningful practices with objects. She invited workshop participants to reflect on what interests them: is it what objects can tell us about people who migrated, or is it the migration of the objects themselves?
The subsequent discussion, addressed the question of how a self-reflective perspective can work with the restrictions of the categories of a standardized, structured digital database. One possibility that was considered was an event-based approach to incorporating migration history into a data model. Another challenge is how to ensure that data that has been categorized under the heading of “transformation through migration” – whereby that data’s existence and spatial position is fundamentally changed by “migration” into digital space – can still be kept open and available to avenues of research not previously considered. Participants discussed analogies to inventory-taking and historical geographic data, as well as creative ways to integrate pre-existing information into digital records and paradoxes such as the fact that a box or bundle of mixed items is always itself an object, or at least is treated like one. Building on these initial discussions, these issues will be explored in greater depth in the next stages of the project.
How exactly transformation should be defined for the purposes of the project was another issue that participants addressed, concluding that it should be understood in relation to objects. It was noted that the concept of transformation will have a different significance at micro, macro, and meso levels, depending on the research perspective that is adopted, which adds a further complication to distinguishing the different levels and classifying individual objects.
Working groups
The participants split into three working groups to discuss different categories of objects. A working group on picture postcards, led by Joachim Tauber, looked at how shifts in migration societies are reflected in postcards through media-specific aspects such as images, text, and franking. The group discussed the idea of focusing indexing on migration “hotspots”: that is, on objects that move relatively frequently between places and on places whose geographical classification changes. Participants believed this could be a productive approach. A working group on prints and paintings, led by Beate Störtkuhl, Agnieszka Gąsior, and Ksenia Stanicka, discussed the benefits digitization brings to participating museums and how it could be used to make their holdings more accessible to the public. The group also considered the different levels at which migration and transformation can be understood: in relation to people, in relation to objects that moved from one place to another, in relation to collectors’ personal stories, in relation to changes resulting from migration, translocations, or semantic reinterpretations. One issue that came up concerned thesauruses that could be used to research intersecting levels of meaning. The third working group, led by Nico Wiethof and Barbara Fichtl, looked at objects in general. Participants highlighted the importance of defining the concepts used in indexing projects as well as the need to document the discussions and problems around these concepts. The group agreed on a broad concept of transformation that encompasses an object’s change in function from one of physical use to one of individual and then collective remembering. One difficulty is posed by objects that have not migrated themselves but are the product of a migrated idea (cultural transfer). For instance, migrants brought waffle irons with them into the Russian Empire, and later they were produced there too. All participants then came back together for a concluding discussion about how stories of museum holdings should be documented, and how issues of veracity and imprecision should be approached when cataloguing items.
In the afternoon, three new working groups were formed. The working group on maps, led by Christian Lotz and Markus Lörz, made the observation that maps accompany people on journeys of migration, as well as being used to prepare those journeys, and should be understood and presented as media of knowledge transfer, as they both reveal and conceal possible domains of migration – another paradox that requires further investigation. Participants noted that transformative change is reflected in maps through the use of place names in different languages and through the movement not of people over borders, but of borders over people. Both the maps working group and the working group on mixed holdings discussed how collections of diverse items could be brought together in virtual spaces. The latter group, led by Cornelia Eisler and Silke Findeisen, concluded that there are many parallels between objects and mixed holdings. However, the main problem with mixed holdings is that different types of materials are subject to different data standards. Another issue is how to deal with missing or absent items. It was also noted that museum workers’ knowledge needs to be incorporated into indexing too, to prevent it being lost when someone leaves an institution. The working group on texts, led by Felix Köther, explored whether thematic clusters are useful or counterproductive, how and where digitized content should be published, and how cross-references between content can be created using a thesaurus.
Looking back and looking ahead
The in-depth discussions continued on the second day. Barbara Fichtl, Antje Johanning-Radžienė, Felix Köther, and Nico Wiethof gave a presentation summarizing the workshop so far. This prompted participants to reflect on which aspects need to be given particular emphasis in the project proposal, and how challenges can be transformed into promising opportunities.
Peter Haslinger** then gave his assessment on the prospects for the proposal. He argued that neither Eastern Europe nor groups of people should be thought of as “containers,” and recommended looking for and including topics that fall outside the scope of Section 96 of the German Federal Expellees and Refugees Act (BVFG). Aspects of provenance research, the context of “Ostforschung,” and colonial treatment of cultural assets also need to be considered.
 In the subsequent discussion, participants had another chance to hear from the invited experts. Jochen Oltmer spoke again about the broad notion of migration that is commonly applied in historical research, and explained how this notion can be adopted without overextending the general concept of migration. Given the highly varied character of the network and its collections, he also suggested that before submitting the proposal it would make sense to identify connections, to think about where consolidation might be possible, and to rigorously select the items to be digitized – without, of course, neglecting the need for a self-reflective perspective. Anna-Lisa Müller called for a rethink of collection and inventory practices. Both speakers also stressed the importance of facilitating the transfer of acquired knowledge to researchers, the general public, schools, and universities. The workshop participants talked about current indexing practices and what the future might hold. They regard the joint proposal as a way to create links between things that have previously been confined to their own separate spheres.
Barbara Fichtl and Nico Wiethof provided input on the DFG proposal and possible directions it could take, such as a best-practice or broad-indexing approach. In the subsequent discussion, museum and institutional representatives considered the possibilities that their involvement in the proposed project could open up. Appealing prospects include the opportunity to index their collections and make them available to academic researchers and the adoption of new, long-term software solutions. Participants also discussed possible avenues of research and the sharing of individual collections in order to increase visibility and simplify loans between network members. The speakers were also invited to be involved in the project in future.
The final speaker, Frédéric Döhl, presented the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media’s white paper “Cultures in Digital Change,” which drew participants’ attention to other funding opportunities and allowed a comparison with alternative approaches. The conference was then brought to a close.
In summary, the two days of in-depth discussion and expert input gave the project partners greater clarity about the form the project proposal will take. Future work on the proposal will build on the lessons learned at the conference.