Challenging Populist Truth-Making in Europe (CHAPTER):
The Role of Museums in a Digital 'Post-Truth' European Society (since 2020)

Challenging Populist Truth-Making in Europe: The Role of Museums in a Digital ‘Post-Truth’ European Society (CHAPTER) is funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. Through ethnographic research and digital innovation, it develops approaches and best practice examples to support museums in challenging the growing influence of populist discourse in Europe. The project is a collaboration of researchers in Berlin (project leader Sharon Macdonald), Tübingen (project leader Christoph Bareither, London (PI Haidy Geismar) and Krakow (PI Roma Sendyka) and museums in the respective countries. The advisory board has members from six European countries. The project will also cooperate with software developer Fluxguide in Vienna, with whom the team will develop and co-design a museum app together with young visitors from three European countries. The project brings together a broad range of anthropological fields, including digital and media anthropology, museum anthropology, political anthropology and the anthropology of emotions/affects. Based at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH) at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the Ludwig Uhland Institute for Historical and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Tübingen, together with the Jagiellonian University (JU) in Krakow and University College London (UCL), the project aims to develop a European perspective on how museums can challenge populist truth-making in contemporary digital societies.

Project Team, Partners and Advisory Board

CARMAH, Humboldt University of Berlin

Prof. Dr. Sharon Macdonald (project leader)
Dr. Julia Leser (Postdoc researcher)

University of Tübingen

Prof. Dr. Christoph Bareither (project leader)

Helena Kieß (PhD researcher)
Pia Schramm (research associate)

Jagiellonian University Krakow

Prof. Dr. Roma Sendyka (principal investigator)
Marlena Nikody (PhD researcher)

University College London

Prof. Dr. Haidy Geismar (principal investigator)
Alice Millar (PhD researcher)

Project Partners

Fluxguide Vienna

Advisory Board

Prof. Dr. Robin Boast (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
Prof. Dr. Péter György (Budapest, Hungary)
Constanze Itzel (Brussels, Belgium)
Prof. Dr. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (New York, USA / Warsaw, Poland)
Prof. Dr. Luca Basso Peressut (Milano, Italy)
Prof. Dr. Klaus Schönberger (Klagenfurt, Austria)

Aim of the Project

One of the biggest challenges to democratic public discourse in contemporary European societies is the rise of so-called “post-truths”, particularly on the Internet, which challenge established norms of fact-based belief systems. Museums are increasingly confronted with strong claims about culture, history, society, politics or environmental developments that are considered to be true because they feel true. Drawing from anthropological perspectives on emotions and affect, CHAPTER highlights the role of emotions in populist truth-making, exploring how they work to foster particular opinions about society, politics and culture. Such practices of emotional populist truth-making pose a dilemma for museums: How can they counter populist truth-making without explicitly or implicitly reproducing populist practices? Is it possible to question emotional truth-making without reinforcing a simplifying dichotomy between “rational truth” and “emotional post-truth”? What can museums do to bring the complexity of questions of truth-making to the fore without feeding into populist assumptions and accusations? In short: How can museums meaningfully and effectively respond to, reflect upon and critically encounter populist claims?

CHAPTER takes these questions as its key challenge. To meet this challenge, the project deploys an innovative multi-layered research design, combining ethnographic research on populist truth-making, visitor experiences and digital innovation in museums with an applied co-design of a digital museum app. The app will be developed in cooperation with three partner museums and the software company Fluxguide. It aims to challenge young visitors to critically engage with practices of populist truth-making. Our goal is not only to co-design this app together with young visitors, but to accompany, analyse and evaluate its use in order to gain critical knowledge about the potential of digital media in museum contexts on a much broader level. We will produce a best practice portfolio that offers practical and interdisciplinary solutions to allow museums and cultural institutions to build upon CHAPTER and develop individual strategies for challenging the growing influence of populist truth-making in Europe.

1: Understanding the Impact of Populist Truth-Making on Museums

Work area 1 aims to understand the impact of populist truth-making on European museums, providing a rich ethnographic comparison on a European scale. An empirical explorative interview study, coordinated by postdoc researcher Julia Leser and supported by the PhD researchers Alice Millar, Marlena Nikody and Helena Kieß, will capture the experiences of museum stakeholders in Germany, Poland and the UK. It addresses the following questions: What is the impact of populist truth-making on European museums? What strategies have museums developed so far in order to challenge post-truth practices through their curatorial and educational work as well as public engagements? What strategies and politics do populist political actors support and/or enforce in museums? How are questions of museums’ own truth-making presented? Given the particular relevance of digital media for “post-truth” societies (e.g. online platforms functioning as spaces for the proliferation of “fake news” and other “alternative facts”), the team will also conduct an Internet ethnography on these questions.

2: Studying Visitor Experiences in Museums’ Affective Contact Zones

Work area 2 pays tribute to the fact that museums are not only spaces in which ‘rational’ knowledge is exchanged, but are also spaces in which ‘truths’ are emotionally transmitted and the feelings of others encountered. Adapting James Clifford’s concept of the contact zone allows us to capture how museums constitute what we call “affective contact zones” and to understand their dynamics with particular regard to young adult visitors. The PhD researchers will collaborate with partner museums (the Humboldt-Forum in Germany, the Museum of London and the Migration Museum in UK and Oscar Schindler’s Emanel Factory in Poland) and schools/universities/colleges in Berlin, London and Krakow to conduct ethnographic fieldwork on how young visitors relate to the affective contact zones of museums. The key research questions are: How do young visitors experience and engage in emotional truth-making in museums? How do museums function as affective contact zones in relation to particular truths? What can we learn from this study to better situate and understand the influence of populist truth-making on museums?

3: Exploring Digital Media’s Affordances for Truth-Making in Museums

The purpose of work area 3 is to evaluate the affordances of digital media in fostering critical engagement with populist truth-making among a young audience: What role do digital media play in truth-making processes? How can digital tools, such as museum apps, inspire young museum visitors to critically engage in post-truth practices and questions of emotional truth-making during their visit? In what ways can social media be used to share reflections beyond the museum space? To answer these questions, we will ethnographically study both the affordances and practical uses of existing museum apps, digital devices and platforms to explore how they shape truth-making practices among young adults in the context of museums. Together with work area 1 and 2, this work area will help to develop ideas for the co-design of the CHAPTER museum app.

4: Challenging Populist Truth-Making through Digital Innovation

In work area 4, we will merge our ethnographic findings from previous work areas to develop a museum app in cooperation with our project partner Fluxguide. The purpose of the app is to foster critical citizenship skills in regard to populist truth-making by enhancing the affective contact zones of our partner museums through a digital, playful and critically reflexive medium. The app will have a shared design but the contents will be tailored to each partner museum. The app will be available for free download from the App Stores for iOS and Android devices. After its release, we will study and critically reflect on the process of developing and implementing the app, using ethnographic techniques to better understand the use of the app by young visitors. Through a mobile content management system provided by Fluxguide, app users will be able to collaborate with our researchers, provide feedback and adjust the contents and tasks provided by the app according to their individual ideas. By reflecting this collaborative process through an ethnographic lens, the research team will gain crucial insights into the relationship between emotional truth-making, digital media and museum spaces that will lead to the creation of a best practice portfolio for challenging populist truth-making through digital innovation in museums.

Introduction Video

Project Presentations

Julia Leser: Affective Politics of Right-Wing Populism. (Keynote at the Helsinki Conference on Emotions, Populism and Polarisation (HEPP3), June 2022).

Pia Schramm: Digital Populist Practices to the Museum Landscape. (Panel contribution at the Helsinki Conference on Emotions, Populism and Polarisation (HEPP3), June 2022).

Alice Millar: Challenging populism through digital media: ethnographic case studies in London museums. (Workshop on Critical Heritage and Social Justice. UCL, May 2022).

Alice Millar: Defining Social Media Objects. (UCL, May 2022).

Julia Leser, Alice Millar & Marlena Nikody: Museums and Populism – International Perspectives. (Making Museums Matter Online Series of Discussions ICOM/COMCOL together with panelists Bridget McKenzie (Climate Museum, UK), Jacek Kołtan (European Solidarity Centre Gdánsk, Poland) & Hilke Wagner (Albertinum Dresden, Germany), moderated by Sharon Macdonald and Christoph Bareither, April 2022).

Marlena Nikody: Unveiling the Dissonance in Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Collection as a Practice of Resisting Mnemonic Populism. (Post-Workshop online Conference Dissonant Heritage: Concepts, Critiques, Cases, Kraków, March 2022.

Marlena Nikody: Reparative Education Against Populist Practices in Poland’s Historical Museums. JU Symposium, Kraków, January 2022.

Christoph Bareither, Julia Leser, Alice Millar & Marlena Nikody: Challenging Populist Truth-Making in Europe: The Role of Museums in a Digital ‘Post-Truth’ European Society. (Project Presentation at the Institute for European Ethnology (IfEE), Humboldt-University Berlin, December 2021).

Marlena Nikody: The Process of Unveiling the Dissonance of the Collection of the Ethnographic Museum in Krakow. (PhD Workshop Dissonant Heritage: Concepts, Critiques, Cases, Una Europa. November 2021).

Haidy Geismar: One the Itineracy of Digital Cultural Heritage. (Public Lecture Series on Itinerant Heritage: Tracing Transcultural Dynamics and Mobilities, Heidelberg University, October 2021).

Julia Leser: The Roots of Populism. History, Heritage and Politics Divisional Research Seminar Series at Stirling University, October 2021).

Sharon Macdonald: Images of Remembering and Forgetting. (Lectures and Discussion with Aleida Assmann, Cristina Baldacci and Sharon Macdonald, Akademie der Künste Berlin, June 2021).

Julia Leser: Challenging Populist Truth-Making in Europe: The Role of Museums in a Digital ‘Post-Truth’ European Society. (Volkswagen Status Symposium Hanover, June 2021).

Julia Leser: Challenges for Europe Revisited: Ten Theses. (Panel discussion at the Volkswagen Status Symposium Hanover, June 2021).

Marlena Nikody: Reparative Education in Poland’s Historical Museums Against a Populist Turn in Polish Museology. (Volkswagen Status Symposium Hanover, June 2021).

CHAPTER-Team: Challenging Populist Truth-Making in Europe: The Role of Museums in a Digital ‘Post-Truth’ European Society. (Project Presentation at the Research Center for Memory Cultures, Jagiellonian University Krakow, March 2021).

CHAPTER-Team: Challenging Populist Truth-Making in Europe: The Role of Museums in a Digital ‘Post-Truth’ European Society. (Project Presentation at the UCL Digital Anthropology Lab, UCL London, February 2021).

Helena Kiess: Digital Innovation and Visitor Engagement in Museum Spaces. (PhD Winter Conference, Humboldt-University Berlin, February 2021).

CHAPTER-Team: Challenging Populist Truth-Making in Europe: The Role of Museums in a Digital ‘Post-Truth’ European Society. (Project Presentation the the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH), Humboldt-University Berlin, January 2021).

Sharon Macdonald: Museum Futures Beyond the 2020 Crises. A Transatlantic Conversation. (Discussion hosted by the German Historical Institute, Washington, December 2020).

Social Media

CHAPTER is also present on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter.