An interview with Maria Tsantsanoglou, Acting General Director at MOMus and the artistic director of MOMus-Museum of Modern Art- Costakis Collection, Thessaloniki, Greece, interviewed by Ana Frangovska, art historian and curator.
Maria Tsantsanoglou is Acting General Director at MOMus and the artistic director of MOMus-Museum of Modern Art- Costakis Collection in Thessaloniki, Greece. Her research field and publications mostly refer to the period of Russian avant-garde. She has specifically dealt with subjects such as synthesis of arts, visualpoetry, art and politics as well as with Russian and Greek contemporary art and contemporary art in Caucasus and Central Asia. She was member of the State Committee of the Ministry of Culture for the Costakis Collection reception (1998). She collaborated with the Ministry of Press and Mass Media as a scientific associate on subjects related to the cultural furtherance and promotion at the Greek Embassy in Moscow (1994-1997) and later on as Press Attaché (1997 – 2002). She taught History of Greek Art at the Moscow State Lomonosov University (1997-2001). She published a significant number of articles and participated in numerous conferences in Greece and abroad. She was the co-curator of the 1st Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art (2007) and the director of the 2nd Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art (2009). She established an excellent cooperation with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje and hereafter she shares with us her opinion on ‘shared or contested heritage’.
We do have heritage that can evoke different – sometimes difficult or competing – views and emotions, depending on the approach and viewpoint. The challenge of dealing with such divergence lies in the attempt to simultaneously convey different views and voices when presenting this heritage to the public. Do you agree and do you think that this is an essential task when dealing with heritage and histories that speak to different people in different ways?
Maria: Tangible and intangible cultural heritage has the peculiarity that on the one hand it is transmitted, protected and valued, but on the other hand it is identified and redefined by society itself as it belongs to it. Cultural heritage cannot be imposed and impressed through artificial ways neither in society as a whole nor in a part of society. In this sense, any different approach of cultural heritage by part of the society should be governed by the rules of respect for human rights.
Which are peaceful and tolerant ways of reading and presenting facts about the shared history or contested history according to you?
Maria: History, shared history as well, has the objectivity of the recorded facts (what undoubtedly happened) and the subjectivity of their interpretation. It has also been many times a subject of falsification. History is studied and taught by scholars, who present the facts and openly discuss them and is not an object of political manipulation. When politicians deal with history for nationalistic reasons, people should be cautious.
Do you engage in cross-border cooperation with professionals from North Macedonia and do you find any difficulties in its realisation?
Maria: I represent a big cultural organisation for visual arts in Thessaloniki and I consider the cooperation with North Macedonia important and seriously pursued it not only out of self-interest but because I believe that this could mutually enrich our relationship. I met exceptional, creative and inspiring people in North Macedonia. I am especially speaking about the colleagues from the Museum of Contemporary Art of Skopje who also sought a substantial cooperation with us but I am sure that this practice applies to other institutions as well. Now we have the best possible relations, we are very proud to be friends with great prospects for further mutual cultural events.
Can you think of an example of a case study of shared or contested heritage related to your particular field of interest (ethno-music, history, archaeology, contemporary art, art history etc.) and how would you approach its presentation?
Maria: The organisation of two exhibitions, one produced by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Skopje and presented in Thessaloniki entitled “All that we have in common” and the other produced by the MOMus – Museum of Contemporary Art of Thessaloniki and presented in Skopje entitled “Am I that name or that image” gave the first incentive of a case study. Other collaborations will follow that will embrace the culture of our region as we believe that what unites us is much more and important than what may separate us.
How we choose to remember the past and how we choose to move forward are the critical issues of today. What does cultural heritage mean in different national and regional contexts? Who can claim it as theirs, and who decides how it is preserved, displayed, or restored? How to share cultural heritage?
Maria:I believe that cultural heritage does not always belong exclusively to a single nation but leaves its mark on a wider geographical area, where different nations interact and share common experiences over time. Hence the rich common Balkan folk tradition in music, dances, fairy tales etc. This interaction should be seen as a treasure trove of cooperation and good relationships.
“Cultural heritage is a treasure trove of cooperation and good relationships”
“What signifies the national narratives are that they do not include layers; they are one-sided, often chronological and has a sense of a fixed, static, historical truth, about them”, said Anderson in 1991. Do you agree with this citation and why?
Maria: I would rather not talk about fixed national narratives but about important cultural events that have been recorded in the collective memory through heritage and oral tradition and have been historically recorded and preserved.
Of course, these retain their importance as long as they are listed as acts that promote human values and protect the peoples’ freedom and social justice with emphasis not on hostility but on the question of brotherhood and good neighbourliness of the peoples.
Another method of challenging the national narrative, regarding shared or contested heritage, would be to go from the particular to the universal. Cornelius Holtorf writes: “(…) the new cultural heritage can transcend cultural particularism by promoting values and virtues derived from humanism and a commitment to global solidarity.” What do you think about this?
Maria: I think that my previous answer partly answers this question as well. Cultural heritage can be the best example of cultural dialogue and cooperation when it is not limited to the national narrative and, of course, when it is not interpreted to serve narrow nationalistic purposes. Especially when there are similar features of cultural heritage, such as music, folk dances, fairy tales, as is often the case in the Balkan region.
When we discuss about shared or contested heritage the issue of time is essential, and in extreme cases of recent turmoil, the best method for reconciliation might not be to address the past as individually relatable; but rather that the past should hopefully remain in the past. Do you think that this can be implemented into our context?
Maria: Culture can also be defined as a tool for better understanding and defence of humanitarian values, it speaks an all-human language and nations contribute with their cultural achievements to this universal language. In this sense, cultural exchanges contribute to the building of a better future.
Do you think that being more polyvocal, engaging, diverse, (self-)reflective and participatory may solve some of the obstacles on the way of presenting cultural heritage (shared or contested)?
Maria: Definitely, I do believe this. Through pluralism, diversity and participation, cultural workers aim to create conditions of tolerance and mutual understanding that could potentially solve such obstacles.
Do you think that the realm of words can influence the way the audience reads the stories related to heritage (shared or contested)?
Maria: Genuine art does not have one single level of interpretation, it is the object of thought and not of absolute knowledge. A creation that is interpreted unilaterally and one-dimensionally is either incomplete as a work of art or its approach is problematic.
The interview is conducted within the framework of the project “Shared or contested heritage”, implemented by ALDA Skopje and Forum ZFD. The aim of the project is to improve cross-border cooperation between North Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria. The project raises awareness of the role of contested histories and shared cultural heritage for the EU integration processes among heritage practitioners and cultural workers. The content of the interview is the sole responsibility of the interviewee and does not always reflect the views and attitudes of ALDA and Forum ZFD.