Heritages of Hunger Learning Session 1: expectations and objectives for the project

As COVID has shown, the ways of the world can take unexpected turns within a year and may profoundly affect our understanding of the past. An example of how past legacies are informed by the present—a now well-established thought thanks to memory scholars such as Astrid Erll and Ann Rigney— was last Sunday’s ceremony to mark Ireland’s National Famine Commemoration Day. To what extent does the commemoration’s recognition of past and present heroism also prompt future historical duty?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic we unfortunately had to postpone the launch event planned originally for March 2020 in Nijmegen and Amsterdam (it is now scheduled for 2021). This was very disappointing, but thanks to digital possibilities many members of the consortium were able to meet each other online on October 29th for the first Heritages of Hunger (HoH) learning session.

Heritages of Hunger Learning session 1

Before the first learning session with the HoH consortium, we asked all partners and advisory board members to fill out an informal survey. Anne and Charley presented the results during the first half of the session, and we used them as starting points for the discussions in the breakout room sessions.

The first questions of the survey were meant to get a general overview of the make-up of the consortium. More than half of the meeting’s participants work in (academic) research and slightly more than a third work in a museum or other heritage institution. Many also work in education, primarily or alongside their other work. Unsurprisingly, the consortium works on a large variety of famines: the Great Irish Famine (1845–50), Finnish “Great Hunger Years” (1866–68), Ukrainian famine/Holodomor (1932–33), famines in the Middle Ages, the Leningrad Blockade (1941–44), and famine generally and comparatively were mentioned.

We also asked participants what materials they work(ed) with in their research and famine education. This too resulted in an overview of an incredible variety of materials: from newspapers, oral history and historiographical data as sources that were most used, to photography, history textbooks, maps, literature, monuments, and demographical data, amongst others. Digital educational devices and games were also suggested as important materials for researching and teaching famines.

As a follow-up, we asked what materials are important to help change our perceptions of famine. This led to an interesting thematic range in answers: a group of participants emphasized the importance of the arts, oral history, and literature to help those in the present identify or empathize with famine victims of the past. In a sense, they view employing these materials as a strategy to emotionally engage learners with these pasts. In contrast, another group listed the necessity of official reports and sociological surveys to gain a deeper understanding of the structural causes and progression of famine.

The main challenges for famine education, as listed in the survey answers, are how to move beyond national borders or narratives, how to connect the past to the present, how to gain further insight in local knowledge, how to access available data sources (both geographically and linguistically) and finally, how to deal with the silence, horror and shame that can surround the experience of famine. We also asked how the participants use famine legacies to reflect on contemporary issues. Many responded that they connect past famines to climate change, contemporary migration issues, or contemporary famines. Some also mentioned that they utilize these turbulent famine pasts to foster appreciation for present day stability and human rights.

Our final question, how famine education can become more transnational and inclusive, received answers that were in line with earlier responses. Many pointed out the necessity of moving beyond national narratives of suffering and victimhood and emphasized the importance of a comparative approach to research and educational practices. Others listed the importance of eyewitness testimonies to make the experience of famine more real, as well as linking famine to current examples of war- and famine refugees. The creation and collection of online sources, widely available and comparative in nature, was also mentioned.

Finally, we asked what the participants hope the HoH project will have achieved by 2024. Many hope that the project will help to broaden perspectives on famine and will lead to more comparative research, as well as international cooperation and the exchange of knowledge. They acknowledge the importance of the development of a database and educational materials, as well as the development of not only academic knowledge but also educational and museal knowledge and best practices.

Overview of expertise of the consortium

After Charley and Anne’s presentation, we moved into different breakout rooms, where we could get to know our new colleagues and discuss the question: ‘What are the main challenges in teaching and researching famine legacies, and which strategies can we pursue to overcome these challenges?’ Because we were divided in small groups of 4-5 attendees, we could engage in real-time conversations and share our thoughts on the matter.

The conversations gave more context to the challenges summed up above. One of the topics was the issue of connecting the past to the present. Why is educating and researching famine legacies important today? Finding historical experiences which resonate and stimulate historical empathy could be a strategy to overcome this challenge. Inviting students to identify with historical actors and describing their perspectives can help stimulate emotional engagement and acquire a more contextualized knowledge of this history.

The question of ‘how to engage audiences?’ was seen as another challenge. Using modern technology, creativity and storytelling were mentioned as possible strategies to help encourage students’ engagement. By considering more diverse perspectives and looking at various sources instead of a single text, audiences can become more active participants in the learning process. Furthermore, considering multiple perspectives might help in providing pathways when discussing controversial issues in famine histories. Some participants agreed that, despite the complexity of all these challenges, the HoH project could be a very good starting point.

For the second breakout session, participants were encouraged to discuss the question ‘What impact – societal and/or scholarly – do you hope the HoH project will have achieved by 2024?’ Part of the answers provided were related to the educational field. Several of the participants hope that the project will develop and collect strategies to disseminate knowledge from universities to societies, especially to young people, by making knowledge accessible without simplifying it. Others expect HoH to create different kinds of accessible materials and teaching resources adapted to specific audiences (such as visitors of museums, students, etc.), and to, for example, share these through a repository or database.

A second group of responses was related to the field of research. Many hope that the project will better integrate the different case studies addressed by the experts in the field of Famine Studies. Many also trust that this will serve to question well-established narratives such as that of uninterrupted progress, to better understand the structures behind individual suffering, or to understand how geopolitics can increase vulnerability. In line with those considered to be the main challenges, some participants believe that the HoH framework will facilitate progress towards a transnational history. Finally, others trust that the project will help its members to foster cross-cultural consciousness of each other’s famines; for example, by communicating and accessing the works published by other colleagues working with famines (especially in a different language).

Discussing these challenges, expectations and objectives was a great beginning of the co-creation process central to HoH and its partners and board members. Engaging in plenary and breakout room conversations was a good chance to get to know each other, learn together, and think about future directions. We very much look forward to the next learning session on December 4th, 2020 and the kick-off meeting in March 2021.

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This blog was written by Charley Boerman, Gloria Román Ruiz and Anne van Mourik. 

Organizational unit
Intercultural Dynamics
History, Art & Culture