Sharon Macdonald’s acclaimed book Memorylands: Heritage and Identity in Europe Today (2013) has been translated into Polish by Robert Kusek and published by the International Cultural Centre in Krakow. Here, we present Prof. Macdonald’s  preface to the book’s Polish edition. 


I am delighted that Memorylands is now being published in Polish and offer heartfelt thanks to Robert Kusek for undertaking the translation and to the Research Institute of Cultural Heritage at the International Cultural Centre in Krakow for supporting this. These organizations play an important role in supporting research on culture and heritage in Central Europe, ensuring that the specificities of this part of Europe are given attention, while at the same time engaging in wider international debate. Although Memorylands does not contain many instances in which cases from Poland are directly discussed, it includes many from Central Europe as a whole. Moreover, the book’s general arguments, as well as its coverage of memory of World War II, Holocaust and Socialist dictatorship, all have bearing upon it. How much so and in what ways will be for scholars of Poland to debate and research. I am especially pleased that this Polish edition will help to open up that possibility still further and I look forward to learning of what transpires.

The final chapter of Memorylands is entitled ‘The future of memory – and forgetting – in Europe.’ Looking back at what I wrote there almost ten years ago is a good entry point for considering how far my reflections hold and for revisiting some of the main arguments of the book, as well as for highlighting certain changes underway. In that chapter, I discussed claims (mainly from Rosenfeld 2009) that the emphasis on memory in Europe – and the concomitant flourishing of memory studies – might be coming to an end. The reasons given for such claims were that given the extensive heritagization going on, most that needs to be commemorated or monumentalized will have been so, that difficult historical legacies will have been dealt with, and that there will be an associated running out of new topics to study. In addition, according to Rosenfeld, looking back at the past is a kind of luxury and, as such, will not occur in the face of more pressing current concerns, such as ‘financial crisis’ and ‘radical Islamic fundamentalism.’ The precise time scale for the predicted demise of the emphasis on memory was not made entirely clear, though it was implied to be fairly soon. By now, a decade later, then, surely, we should be seeing signs of it. Indeed, the current crises of climate catastrophe and the COVID pandemic would seem especially likely to seal the memory boom’s fate.

In that chapter, as you can read below, I argued against each of the claims, drawing on the theorizing and cases from earlier chapters in the book, as well as on then current examples. In short, my argument was that memory has become so integral to senses of self, identity, temporality and value (as part of a memory-heritage-identity complex) that it is unlikely to be easily forgotten and moved on from. Memory, to put it differently, is not only and perhaps not even mainly, about the past. It is a mode of bringing the past into the present and thus always thoroughly about the present and indeed future. As such, social and cultural memory practices – what I call ‘past presencing’ – are unlikely to stop. Invoking the past, we might say, has become a given mode of engaging with the present and contemplating the future, especially in the face of disputes that relate to senses of identity in any way.

In the years since Memorylands was published, there is little evidence of a relaxing of concern over memory within Europe. Many disputes described in the book continue to rumble on, or they lurk, ready to be catapulted back into the forefront of public debate as new disagreements are framed through historical precedent or past injustice. Certainly, attention to particular pasts may wax and wane, including in relation to changing political, economic or demographic shifts, as well as to both current events and significant anniversaries or new historical information. But an overall diminution of engagement with the past is hard to detect. Likewise, in terms of research, the area seems to continue to grow. The success of the Memory Studies Association, which was launched at the end of 2016, and has seen the numbers at its annual conferences increase from 200 in 2017 to 1400 in 2019, is one indication of this. The continuing expansion of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies is a further instance.

Even in relation to some particular pasts there has been more memory work and heritagization than might, perhaps, have been predicted. There are good reasons, for example, to have expected that World War II and the Holocaust would by now be receiving less attention than previously given the greater temporal distance since they occurred and the associated generational change. Few direct witnesses are still alive. One might have anticipated that into the twenty-first century this history would have been sufficiently memorialized and disputes settled. Yet this is not the case, as illustrated not least by the  example of Poland. Memorylands includes discussion of ‘the Jewish revival’ – growing attention to Jewish culture and heritage – in Poland and other countries, and it highlights some of the ambivalences and complexities involved in this. Since the book was published, interest in Jewish culture and heritage has continued, with developments at local levels, such as the reconstruction or restoration of synagogues or holding of Klezmer concerts (see, for example, Grzyb 2020; Waligórska, Sorkina and Friedmann forthcoming; Waligórska 2020), as well as the establishment of POLIN: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in 2014 (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2015).

These years have also seen important research projects bringing to light the history of Jews in Poland, investigating strategies for doing this effectively, and analyzing the social and cultural implications of remembering or not. The project Unmemorialized Genocide Sites and their Impact on Collective Memory, Cultural Identity, Ethical Attitudes and Intercultural Relations in Contemporary Poland (funded by the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education, the National Programme for the Development of the Humanities, 2016-2019) is a notable example (Sendyka 2016). It was led by Roma Sendyka, Head of the Research Center for Memory Cultures at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. So too was the project Awkward Objects of Genocide. Vernacular Art on the Holocaust and Ethnographic Museums, which was part of the EU Traces. Transmitting Contentious Cultural Heritages with the Arts. From Intervention to Co-Production (Horizon 2020, Reflective Societies, 2016-2019). In this, she worked together with anthropologist and museologist, Erica Lehrer, anthropologist at the Krakow Ethnographic Museum, Magdalena Zych, and artist, Wojciech Wilczyk, to curate and analyze an exhibition about vernacular art relating to the Holocaust present in the museum’s collections (Sendyka, Lehrer, Wilczyk and Zych 2019). This project built on the work by Erica Lehrer that is discussed in Chapter 8 of Memorylands (see also Lehrer and Sendyka 2019). Also expanding upon this research, investigating the transnational networks of these ‘awkward objects,’ is a new project Polish Folk Art and the Holocaust: Perpetrator, Victim, Bystander Relationships in the Polish-German Context (German Research Foundation, Polish National Science Center, 2019-2022), led also by cultural historian and sociologist Magdalena Waligórska. These are just some examples of the significant work underway in this area.1

It is important here to note, however, that the situation is far from being one of straightforward flourishing of Jewish heritage in Poland or of research linked to it. The Law and Justice Party, which came into governance in 2015, has pursued a nationalist agenda in which it has sought to curb approaches that it deems as giving unfavourable images of the country (Lewis and Waligórska 2019), with this focused especially upon how Poland’s role in World War II and the Holocaust is portrayed. A high profile case of this concerned the Museum of World War II in Gdańsk. The Museum was in the making since 2008 and with a team of international experts had planned to give emphasis to the suffering of civilians (rather than, say, to focus on military tactics) and to do so in a more global perspective. This was, however, seen by the government as both doing too little to contribute to senses of national pride and dignity, as well as not giving sufficient recognition of Poland’s particularly heavy wartime hardship. Considerable dispute has followed, both before and subsequent to the Museum’s opening in 2017. New exhibits, emphasizing Poland’s suffering, have been installed and there are proposals to merge the Museum with another one, creating a new institution that will present a view of the past that the current government regards as more fitting for the nation today.2

These few examples show clearly, then, that the past remains a lively and ongoing source of contention in the present. It should be emphasized that while the Polish case is distinctive in various respects, it is far from alone in still giving attention to this history, or in experiencing contest over its contemporary representation and commemoration. As I write, there is controversy in the UK over a proposed Holocaust memorial.3 Considerable funding for such a memorial has been pledged by various governments but there has been disagreement not only over its possible site and form but also whether it would play into a celebratory ‘Britain alone myth’ (see Memorylands Chapter 8) or even that creating a monument now serves more to close down remembering than to encourage it (echoing arguments are discussed in Chapter 7 below). Poland is also not alone in having taken a more nationalist and also anti-European stance over this past decade. Indeed, the extent and scale of this across the continent is beyond what I had anticipated and, of course, hoped. Again, I take the case of my own homeland, the UK. Although Memorylands pointed out the widespread Euroscepticism in England (Chapters 2 and 9), and a long history of using the past to nationalist effect, I would not have expected that this would lead to the UK leaving the European Union. Whether other member states, including Poland, will follow in its wake and how pasts might be mobilized for or against this – as already takes place – will be something to watch with trepidation over the next years. 

One past that was sometimes evoked with nostalgia during calls for Brexit was Britain’s imperial and colonial history. More widely, the history of empires and colonies beyond European shores has come to greater public attention in recent years. While some of this, as in pro-Brexit rhetoric, has been as part of nationalistic pride, more critical strands have also been increasingly evident. This has been seen, among other things, in the highlighting of buildings or organizations funded with profits of colonialism and the slave trade, exhibitions about colonialism, calls for restitution of objects acquired during colonization from European museums, renaming of streets named after colonial officials, and the toppling of statues of slave traders. This has necessarily been most intense – though still at an early stage – in the countries that had overseas empires and colonies. While Poland is not among these, scholars have pointed out that there were nevertheless attempts by Poland to gain non-European lands and also that many Poles participated in the colonial endeavours of other countries (Balogun 2018). Such scholarship is itself part of a movement giving greater attention to colonial memory. At the same time, whether land acquisition and settlement beyond a nation’s boundaries within Europe should be discussed as colonial alongside and in relation to beyond-European colonialism has also become the subject of debate (see, for example, Snochowska-Gonzalez 2012; Grzechnik 2019). In relation to within-European colonization, the case of Poland is interestingly complex, as during its history it has played the role of both colonizer and colonized. How such complicated heritages are, and will come to be, remembered, especially in light of the growing global emphasis on questions of colonial legacies and durabilities, seems highly likely to be a focus for research, and perhaps too for public attention and political maneuvering, in coming years.  

Memory, then, as Memorylands argues, mostly operates not so much an add-on to other concerns but as a preeminent mode or medium through which they are expressed and experienced. It seems reasonable to expect, nevertheless, that there are concerns that are not articulated in these terms and in relation to which memory might indeed be either irrelevant or ‘a luxury.’ Climate catastrophe and the COVID-19 pandemic are two current threats that seem to fall into this category. Yet even here memory is not absent. Climate debates are infused with calls to return to past ways of life or to revive practices that have become uncommon, such as the mending of clothes or re-use of packaging. The COVID-19 pandemic has been discussed in relation to previous ones, especially that of ‘Spanish flu.’ Here too, there has been a search for examples – such as of communities choosing to self-isolate – that can serve as exemplars to help chart a course for the future. In relation to both too, there has been ongoing heritagization, with, for example, museums collecting banners from Fridays for Futures marches and COVID masks, together with testimonies from witnesses.4 Already, the present is being configured into heritage for the future. 

In 2020, the year in which I am writing, Europe is surely still a memoryland in the terms in which I describe it in this book. It seems unlikely that memory practices – and past presencing – will fall off the agenda any time soon. They are too entangled in a memory-heritage-identity complex. Yet this does not mean that all remains the same. Rather pasts are constantly reworked into a changing present – not only as effect but also as part of its motor. Which pasts, how, by whom and to what effect are all open questions, as too is that of ‘Europe’ – of what this means and includes and of its future – itself. There is, undoubtedly, much to observe and much to research, in Poland and elsewhere. My hope is that this new Polish edition of Memorylands can contribute towards inspiring some of this vital work ahead. 

Sharon Macdonald
Berlin, October 2020 



1 I select these as those leading them have links with the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage ( that I founded and direct in Berlin. A further project at CARMAH, also involving Roma Sendyka, is Challenging Populist Truth-Making in Europe: The Role of Museums in a Digital ‘Post-Truth’ Society ( Thank you to Roma Sendyka and Magdalena Waligórska for their collegiality in these projects and help with this piece.

2 For documentation and discussion of these developments see Muller and Logemann 2017; Machcewicz 2019. The Museum’s current website is here:

3 See for the government position; the controversy and opposition to the monument are discussed here

4 Examples of museums in Europe that have been undertaking such collecting include the House of European History in Brussels, the Museum of European Cultures in Berlin, the National Museum for Contemporary History in Ljubljana, the Museum of London.



Balogun, Bolaji 2018 ‘Polish Lebensraum: the colonial ambition to expand on racial terms’. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 41(14): 2561-2579. 

Grzechnik, Marta 2019 ‘The Missing Second World: On Poland and Postcolonial Studies’, Interventions, 21(7): 998-1014. 

Grzyb, Anna 2020 ‘The changing landscape of Holocaust memorialization in Poland’. In Simone Gigliotti and Hilary Earl (eds) A Companion to the Holocaust, pp.619-637. New York: Wiley-Blackwell. 

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara 2015 ‘Inside the Museum: Curating between hope and despair: POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews’, East European Jewish Affairs, 45(2-3): 215-235. 

Lehrer, Erica and Sendyka, Roma 2019 ‘Arts of witness or awkward objects? Vernacular holocaust art as a source base for ‘bystander’ Holocaust memory in Poland’, Holocaust Studies, 19 (3): 300-328. 

Lewis, Simon and Waligórska, Magdalena 2019 ‘Introduction: Poland’s War of Symbols’, East European Politics and Societies and Cultures, 33(2): 423-34. 

Machcewicz, Paweł 2019 The War that Never Ends. The Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk. Oldenbourg: DeGruyter. 

Muller, Anna and Logemann, Daniel 2017 ‘War, dialogue, and overcoming the past: the Second World War Museum in Gdańsk, Poland’, Public Historian, 39(3) 85-95. 

Rosenfeld, Gavriel 2009 ‘A looming crash or a soft landing? Forecasting the future of the memory “industry”’. Journal of Modern History, 81: 12-58. 

Sendyka, Roma 2016 ‘Sites that haunt: affects and non-sites of memory’. East European Politics and Societies and Cultures, 30(4): 687-702. 

Sendyka, Roma, Lehrer, Erica, Wilczyk, Wojciech and Zych, Magdalena 2019 ‚Awkward objects of genocide project – difficult encounters with Holocaust folk art’. In Arnd Schneider (ed.) Art, Anthropology, and Contested Heritage: Ethnographies of TRACES. London: Bloomsbury. 

Snochowska-Gonzalez, Claudia 2012 ‘Postcolonial Poland – on an unavoidable misuse’, East European Politics and Societies and Cultures, 26(4): 708-723. 8 

Waligórska, Magdalena 2020 ‘The Klezmer revival as a contact zone’ POLIN: Studies in Polish Jewry, vol. 32, Jews and Music-Making in the Polish Lands, ed. by Francois Guesnet, Benjamin Matis and Antony Polonsky, London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. 

Waligórska, Magdalena, Sorkina, Ina and Friedmann, Alexander forthcoming ‘Jewish heritage revival in the Polish-Belorusian-Ukrainian borderlands and the myth of multiculturalism’. In Stanley Bill and Simon Lewis (eds) Multicultural Commonwealth: Diversity and Difference in Poland-Lithuania and its Successor States. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press. 


Sharon Macdonald is the founder and director of the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH), co-director of the Hermann von Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturtechnik (HZK), and Professor of Social Anthropology with an emphasis on museums and heritage at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. She came to Berlin in 2015 as an Alexander von Humboldt Professor, after having held several full professorships in the United Kingdom. Committed to transdisciplinary and collaborative research, she has been Principle Investigator in European and in national research projects, including, currently, the Matters of Activity excellence cluster. She has also worked with many different museums and heritage organisations in Germany and elsewhere. Her writing is internationally known and has been published in ten languages.