Memorialization, Historiography & History Education: Actors

Main actors in memorialization work


All practitioners stress the fact that ideally local actors should initiate and shape memorialization processes. "Initiators of memorials range from individual survivors and the communities in which they live to civil society organizations, national governments, and even private sector enterprises."1 Whoever the initiators are, a wide range of actors need to be involved in order to ensure the multi-disciplinary approach required for such projects: "transitional justice experts, historians, museum designers, public artists, trauma specialists, and human rights activists, among others-- who traditionally have not worked together or are not viewed as having concerns in common."2

Private initiatives are also conducted. For instance, post-World War II in Europe, private initiatives have sought to document the past with an eye towards remembering and healing. Examples include Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) - Gunter Demnig came up with the idea to plant cobblestones with a 1-millimeter-thick brass coating in the sidewalk outside World War II victims' homes, which pedestrians then "stumbled" on and bent down to read. As of October 2007, he had put down more than 13,000 Stolpersteine in more than 280 cities. He expanded his project beyond the borders of Germany to Austria, Italy, the Netherlands and Hungary.

Overall, the main actors involved are:
  • Victim/Survivor groups and individuals
  • The community at large (in particular when one specific community is directly concerned)
  • Religious and community leaders
  • Museum/Monument designers and artists
  • Educators and mental health professionals
  • Local civil society organizations
  • Local media
  • Government officials/ministries
  • Private sector enterprises
  • Security authorities


Outsiders play an important role in supporting local memorizalization projects. A wide range of international actors are involved in such activities:
  • Human Rights Activists
  • Trauma and mental health professionals
  • Museum/Monument designers and architectural experts
  • Transitional justice experts
  • Historians
  • International NGOs                                                        
  • International organizations (including peacekeepers)
  • International Media

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Main actors in historiography and history education project


Key actors:
  • Teachers
  • School principals
  • Parents
  • Students
  • Historians
  • Civil society actors (including community and religious leaders)
  • State and political leaders (including the ministry of education)
Two categories of actors call for specific comments.


Teachers are the most critical resource but history teachers, in particular, are generally under enormous pressure in post-conflict societies. Elizabeth A. Cole, who lead a research project on writing history in such contexts, summarized the challenges they face. They are expected "to play too many roles-- from psychologist and guidance counselor to conflict resolution expert and mediator. Education reformers, particularly those from outside, also typically expect teachers to be agents of fundamental social change. Yet...teachers are not comfortable being leading agents of social change, and they doubt that anything they teach can counter the history students learn at home.  In the most extreme cases, in highly charged political contexts where adopting new teaching approaches or texts may lead to threats to teachers' physical safety, they will be especially likely to shy away from innovation."3 As a consequence, they should receive more attention and support than is generally the case. Yet, many workshops organized and supported by international organizations and non-governmental organizations do not necessarily focus on the average teacher. As a result, those most engaged with the daily challenges of post-conflict history education are inadequately targeted by external programs.


"Major conflicts are often shaped by fundamental historical misunderstanding. More precisely, certain misconceptions inform politicians - even those who are engaged in conflict resolution - and become factors in the political process. This suggests that historians might have a role to play in correcting such misconceptions and in creating new space for political negotiations."4 There are many discussions among historians themselves about the limits and ethics of their role, the extent of their "objectivity," the level of "truth" in the narratives they propose, the multiplicity of stories that inform and form the larger history. "Ultimately, the historian must create a narrative that allows for contending voices, that reveals the aspirations of all actors, the hitherto repressed and the hitherto privileged."5

Contemporary historians are generally called upon to establish the facts and circumstances of violent conflict.  By doing so, a historians work can become part of the overall process of seeking justice in the aftermath of violent conflict. Historians working on and in post-conflict contexts sometimes have to deal with a sort of "competition of victims" and may be asked to choose sides. Historians generally feel uncomfortable with the idea of "serving as judges and seeking to establish guilt or innocence."6 Yet, "the historian cannot ignore the fact that he or she is also an agent of history and contributes to the formation of collective judgment of the society in which he or she lives."7 "Faced with these social realities, the writing of history is a delicate task because it must not only account for the initial facts and place them in context, but it must also acknowledge the confrontation between conflicting memories.  Furthermore, it must reveal the processes of instrumentalization and mythification, while avoiding engaging in a senseless diatribe against the state or other power-group."8 The daunting tasks of the historians in postwar contexts are to "lay bare the calculated amnesia, cover-ups, and evasions that stand in the way of public acknowledgment of the facts, to challenge the distortions of ethnic memories, to call into question the ethnicization of guilt and to bring to light the full complexity of the historical forces and circumstances that lie in the background of these traumatic events - these are the immediate tasks facing historians. More often than not at their own peril."9 Research projects regarding the writing of history and critical historiography by historians themselves help clarify how this activity is changing over time and how a society is constantly evolving in its relation with its own history and its historians. "The historian's work is, by definition, circumscribed in a critical perspective and has the goal of offering conclusions that are subject to revision."10


Outsiders are more particularly involved in research activities, training, the production of new teaching material as well as funding of different programs.
  • Historians and academic institutions and networks
  • Non-governmental organizations
  • International organizations and donor agencies (bilateral & multilateral)
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The roles of state and political actors

State and political actors play key roles in memorialization and history work. And, in both cases, they can be ambivalent.

The presence of political authorities at the inauguration of a memorial may be perceived by the local community as a sign of recognition; but it can also present opportunities for all kinds of manipulation. Many national monuments and museums commemorating victims of past wars are also reflective of the political compromises of the time.
Go to South Africa: Memory community project (District Six Museum and Trojan Horse Memorial)

History work is equally delicate. The transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next through textbooks is shaped not only by scholarly quality criteria and by pedagogical standards, but also by political circumstances, including the interests of the dominant political actors. The traditional consensual model of historical commissions, for instance, tends to reinforce state ideology and does not dare challenge political taboos or deeply-entrenched national myths. Non-governmental historiography projects also have their own limits if local education authorities are not involved. Successful projects have produced excellent textbooks that may have limited impact if they are not supported and approved by key political actors and official education systems, or are even banned. The involvement of local governments is therefore crucial, yet for that mere reason it may block any actual progress, either because the party in power is the winner of the war and in a position to impose its version of  history, or because nobody wants to jeopardize a fragile peace by revisiting difficult historical  controversies.
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The insider-outsider dynamics in the memorialization and history work

Insiders versus outsiders working on memorialization projects

Go to About Peacebuilding: insiders vs. outsiders

Survivors themselves have often initiated and participated in various memory projects such as conceptualizing and sustaining memorials and sites of memory, including former torture centers, recording names and details of those who died or were victimized during a conflict, and organizing events on key historical dates.11 All practitioners stress the importance of local actors in initiating and shaping memorial processes if they are to become truly meaningful to post-conflict societies. But local actors also often lack the funding and expertise to carry out memorialization efforts on a larger scale. Also, as memories of conflict are often still ripe, local actors may need the support of outsiders in order to reestablish contact and dialogue across conflict lines before memorialization processes can begin or assist communities to reconcile or heal. "It is not easy for outsiders to determine their proper roles in such situations, especially when dealing with ad hoc, spontaneous efforts to build memorials that can fuel the desire for revenge and promote further violence. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the definition of 'outsider' depends on context. Survivors in local communities may view fellow nationals from other communities or identity groups as outsiders."12

Most practitioners consider that, among outsiders, the locals who are fellow nationals are in the best position to recognize the needs of the community, understand and identify with the effects of the atrocities of the past, as well as the cultural beliefs and nuances of the affected communities. They are in the ideal position to recognize what type of memorial would be accepted, utilized and felt as more meaningful by those for whom a memorial is directed. Such involvement may also support ownership of memorials and will help to sustain and maintain the structures and their effectiveness. Nationals clearly have strong cultural and linguistic advantages upon international actors. However, in some circumstances, survivor communities may view international actors as more 'objective' or seek their support, drawing them into local disputes about the creation or maintenance of memorial and cultural sites.13 Nonetheless, "there is no such thing as complete objectivity. Local actors generally perceive outsiders as being on one side of the conflict or the other, which affects the roles they play in memorialization/social reconstruction."14

Increasingly, outside experts on memorialization are called upon to consult on national memorial projects in societies emerging from conflict. Both fellow nationals from outside the immediate survivor community and international actors "can help plan and implement memorial projects. By insisting on the importance of widespread consultation during the planning process, and by helping local actors plan and fund assessment and evaluations, outsiders can bring skills and perspectives that may not be available in the survivor community. They may also have access to essential funding sources."15 Outsiders may be expected to "protect places (such as mass gravesites or important document collections) that form the basis for future memorials and museum sites or that may be valuable in legal trials."16 UN peacekeepers have played that role in different countries. International organizations (such as UNESCO) are expected to help with cultural preservation tasks. NGOs working on humanitarian aid and psychosocial development (including trauma relief) may also be confronted with local needs or demands for memorials.

International actors, especially, need to be clear about the limits of their role. "Few international actors [...] involved in postwar reconstruction are prepared to deal with memorialization. Their personnel need to learn about the importance of memorialization, for good or for ill, in societies emerging from conflict. International actors must recognize sites and other resources (such as document collections) of cultural, historical, or symbolic significance and clarify how they can protect these resources in an effort to promote social reconstruction. They also need to train their staff to be culturally aware of local practices and beliefs relating to conflict resolution, death, and burial."17

Insiders versus outsiders working on history projects

An equally delicate balance needs to be struck when working on history projects. International and some regional organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Council of Europe, which are involved in the production of new teaching material, seek the approval of local governments for their actions. But "their dominant position when providing expertise and funding arouses skepticism among the indigenous population, who suspect that a new cultural bias will permeate the reformed curriculum and thus alienate young people from local traditions, values, and way of life."18

For that reason, most funders (in particular bilateral ones) consider other transitional justice processes, such as trials and elections, worthier of their time and support, as well as more appropriate for outsider involvement.19 As a consequence, most outsiders working on history-education reform tend to be from non-governmental organizations or academics affiliated with foreign universities. This may help counter-balance the dominant impression associated with the work of some international organizations. But the fact that, in many post-conflict settings, most historical narratives relating to violence come from individuals outside the conflict-affected society complicates the role of outsiders and raises the dual question: "Who is making history, and for whom?"20 As suggested by some practitioners and scholars, "creating and supporting the development of local histories and local historians" should receive more attention in such contexts.21 The presence of outside historians remains crucial but they need to have legitimacy in the eyes of their local colleagues and then can "offer insight into how history can best be researched and performed in ways that allow for credibility."22 "One should never forget how key is this dialogical exchange in the rebuilding process: It is important to always take into consideration what people think and believe about their own past, present and future; but they also often require outsider resources and information to support the writing of stories from a perspective wide enough to counter calls for simple vengeance."23

1. Judy Barsalou and Victoria Baxter, "The Urge to Remember: The Role of Memorials in Social Reconstruction and Transitional Justice" (Washington, DC: USIP, January 2007), 4.
2. Ibid.
3. Elizabeth A. Cole, "Introduction: Reconciliation and History Education," in Teaching the Violent Past: History Education and Reconciliation, ed. Elizabeth A. Cole (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 11.
4. Elazar Barkan, "Engaging History: Managing Conflict and Reconciliation," in History Workshop Journal 59 (Spring 2005), 230.
5. Charles S. Maier, "Doing History, Doing Justice: The Narrative of the Historian and of the Truth Commission," in Truth v. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions, eds. Robert I. Rotberg and Dennis Thompson (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000), 274.
6. Ibid, and Beatrice Pouligny, Bernard Doray and Jean-Clement Martin, "Methodological and ethical problems: A trans-disciplinary approach," in After Mass Crimes: Rebuilding States and Communities, eds. Beatrice Pouligny, Simon Chesterman, and Albrecht Schnabel (Tokyo, New York and Paris: United Nations University Press, 2007), 34-35.
7. Pouligny, Doray and Martin, "Methodological and ethical problems: A trans-disciplinary approach," 22-23.
8. Ibid.
9. Rene Lemarchand and Maurice Niwese, "Mass murder, the politics of memory and post-genocide reconstruction: The cases of Rwanda and Burundi," in After Mass Crimes: Rebuilding States and Communities, eds. Beatrice Pouligny, Simon Chesterman, and Albrecht Schnabel (Tokyo, New York and Paris: United Nations University  Press, 2007), 185.
10. Pouligny, Doray and Martin, "Methodological and ethical problems: A trans-disciplinary approach," 29.
11. Ereshnee Naidu, The Ties that Bind: Strengthening the Links between Memorialisation and Transitional Justice (South Africa: Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2006), 1.
12. Barsalou and Baxter, "The Urge to Remember: The Role of Memorials in Social Reconstruction and Transitional Justice," 1.
13. Ibid., 1.
14. Ibid., 18.
15. Ibid, 14.
16. Ibid., 1.
17. Ibid.
18. Falk Pingel, "Can Truth Be Negotiated? History Textbooks Revision as a Means to Reconciliation," in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 617, no. 1 (May 2008), 183.
19. Elizabeth A. Cole and Judy Barsalou, "Unite or Divide? The Challenges of Teaching History in Societies Emerging from Violent Conflict" (Washington, DC: USIP, June 2006), 7.
20. Pouligny, Doray and Martin, "Methodological and ethical problems: A trans-disciplinary approach," 30.
21. Roberta Culbertson and Béatrice Pouligny, "Re-imagining peace after mass crime: A dialogical exchange between insider and outsider knowledge," in After Mass Crimes: Rebuilding States and Communities, eds. Pouligny et al. (Tokyo: United Nations University Press: 2007), 275.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid, 276.

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