Performances of Conscience at Three Historic Site Museums

  • Joel Chalfen

Student thesis: Phd


The International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience contributes to current debate about the role that heritage institutions can play as agents for social change. In particular, it proposes historic sites as key venues where dialogue about contemporary human rights issues can take place and help contribute to building stronger democracies, connecting past to present. On the one hand, this raises questions about the activation of competing interpretations of the past to create a critical civic culture. On the other hand, the project of the 'Site of Conscience' asks questions about what there is in the nature of visiting historic site museums that might particularly lend itself to creating an active citizenry.Focusing on the latter of these two concerns, the thesis uses theatre and performance as a conceptual framework for understanding the controls and possibilities of a creative and empowering participation for public visitors at three of the Coalition's member sites: the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, USA; The Workhouse, UK; and The Gulag Museum at Perm-36, Russia. Through reading performance into the visiting event, the thesis is able to respond to questions about how visitors negotiate the museum's project to relate past to present with their own interests in visiting the past, not as a matter of competing narratives but of competing modes of encounter. How people experience their visit is foregrounded as a condition of political engagement.The question then asked is how this negotiation of modes of encounter becomes a performance of the Site of Conscience and the effective achievement of the museum's social agency. The thesis focuses on the uncertainties and gaps that emerge out of the intervening presence of a museum interpreting an historic site. In these circumstances, how control over the making of the visiting event is distributed becomes critical to its transformative potential. The thesis therefore asks about how visitor experiences of these uncertainties and differences become a negotiation of authority to represent the past and hence, how the past emerges in the present.
Date of Award1 Aug 2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAnthony Jackson (Supervisor) & Helen Rees Leahy (Supervisor)


  • Presence
  • Audiences
  • Citizenship
  • Difficult Heritage
  • Participation
  • Historic Sites
  • Human Rights

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