[Many thanks to Helen-Frances Pilkington (Birkbeck, University of London) for this report on Rethinking Cultural Memory. The conference programme can be viewed here. – Ed.]
Rethinking Cultural Memory 1700-1850 was held at Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies, University of Copenhagen on 4th and 5th of December 2015. Under the auspices of the Nordic Association for Romantic Studies (NARS), the conference was organised by Robert Rix and Kasper Guldberg and provided wonderful demonstration of European (and wider) Romantic networks, both during the period and within current scholarship.
The schedule was arranged with four plenaries and six parallel panel sessions across the two days with somewhat ambitious 15 minute coffee breaks, which might not always have been adhered to. The conference also included an excursion to the Danish Royal Library and its Black Diamond extension on the river front for a wine reception on the first night.
‘Anamnesis: Romantic Recall’ was the first plenary by Joep Leerssen (University of Amsterdam), who heads up the Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms (SPIN). Arguing that memory is too static a concept, Leerssen focused on the rediscovery of the past which was being recalled into Romantic thought. Leerssen also highlighted the tension within Romanticism being its tendency to ignore the Renaissance and present Medievalism as their immediate precursor, a dis-continuum presented as a continuum.
After this slightly dizzying introduction, the first panel I attended was on “Monuments and Memorialisms” with Alexandre Bonafos (University of South Carolina), Miriam Strieder (University of Innsbruck) and Ana-Stanca Tabarasi-Hoffmann (Johannes-Gutenberg Universität Mainz). From picturesque views in France to clocks and megaliths in Germany, our speakers highlighted the importance of past objects and landscapes in the formation of identities and the remembering, or re-remembering, process involved in forming these identities.
Next up was the “Visual Arts” panel with Asya Rogova (St Petersburg State University) and Eveline Deneer (Université Paris I – Panthéon Sorbonne, Paris & Technische Universität, Berlin). Whilst Rogova focused on the visual-verbal relationships between Wordsworth and Haydon, Deneer reviewed the movement of images between different literary almanacs, showing the re-captioning and re-using of images between periodicals and across borders.
After lunch, I confess my brain was struggling having had three excellent sessions so I took advantage of the remaining daylight (sunset was 3:30pm) to explore a little more of Copenhagen:
We reconvened at the Black Diamond for a guided tour of the Danish Royal Library and an introduction to the special exhibition on our conference theme in relation to the collector, Count Otto Thott, who bequeathed a large number of incunabula and manuscripts to the Library on his death.
‘The Viewing Nation in the British Romantic Period’ was the second plenary by William St. Clair (University of London) and was hosted in the Black Diamond. Commencing by observing that only expensive or cheap editions, but not mid-range editions, had pictures, St. Clair argued that only political economy could explain this occurrence, rather than taste, technological changes or manufacturing costs. St. Clair noted that the use of roundels within cheap editions helped not only reduce costs but also presented a standard, classical view of these subjects. This meant that the imagined community of the nation was engaging with visual representations of imagined worlds from out-of-copyright authors. After this fascinating plenary, a well-deserved wine reception was held.
The next day commenced at 9am with the third plenary ‘The Finnish Art Society: Establishing a National Museum and a National Story of Art’ by Susanna Pettersson (Finnish National Gallery). Founded in 1846, the Finnish Art Society engaged with educating, exhibiting and collecting art. Pettersson demonstrated how the Finish Art Society shaped the art scene in Finland and visual representations of Finnish nationalism through its educational activities.
After refuelling with some coffee, the first panel on the Saturday was “Space” with Leena Eilittä (University of Tampere), Peter Henning (Lund University), Jennifer Wawrzinek (Freie Universität Berlin) and yours truly. Spanning nostalgic constructions of the past to spaces of eating in Keats’ poetry to De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis and astronomical networks within Europe, this panel presented very different approaches from the theoretical to the archival. Despite these differences, layering and the importance of networks were thematic links throughout.
After that, the next panel I attended was “Danish Art History” with Thor Mednick (University of Toledo, Ohio) and Gertrud Oelsner (Aarhus University). Sumptuously illustrated, both papers provided fascinating insights into the ways in which different areas of Denmark were perceived by the Danes themselves by way of paintings of the periphery as well as the construction of Danish national art.
After some of the spiciest pulled pork sandwiches many of us had eaten for quite some time, it was time for the third set of parallel panels. The “Music 2” panel of Ursula Rüger (University of Konstanz), Vivien E. Williams (University of Glasgow) and Oskar Cox Jensen (King’s College London) took us on a journey from a German music theorist in Copenhagen to the theorised origin of bagpipes (simultaneously Scandinavia and Rome) then to the loved/hated London ballad singer. Longing for a time past crossed all three papers, be it returning to Northern mythology, Ossianic mythology or the lamentable demise of the ballad singer, but all also engaged with the problematisation of that longing.
After a much-needed coffee break, we headed for our final plenary: ‘Habitats of Memory: Scott’s Materialism and Its Afterlives’ with Ann Rigney (Utrecht University). Synthesising many of the themes from the conference, Rigney examined Scott’s unpublished (in his lifetime) Reliquiae Trotcosienses, his own guide to Abbotsford and the way that this guide moved from a site of memory to a habitat of memory including the salvage of parts of demolished buildings and the disguising of the latest modern conveniences, mixing past and present. Rigney then moved to look at Loch Katrine, the location of Rob Roy and The Lady of the Lake, and argued that due to its ‘historic’ poetic nature, it could ‘cope’ with modern engineering (an aqueduct to bring water to Glasgow) being placed in it.
Thanks must go to the organisers for putting on such a fascinating conference and I hope that many of the papers presented will appear in the NARS journal, Romantik: Journal for the Study of Romanticisms.
Helen-Frances Pilkington (Birkbeck)