Parrhesia of Traces

Alumna Lea Grüter (Master of Museology) graduated with her thesis Parrhesia of Traces.

Lea: 'My research focusses on unchallenged dynamics of memory and forgetting within national narratives and national museums in relation to the current international discourse on Nazi-looted art restitution. Nazi-looted art restitution traditionally envisages the finding of fair and just solutions for the handling of artefacts in public institutions such as museums that have been looted from individuals in the context of the Holocaust. Its practice since the 1990s is based on a morally charged memory argument. The specific understanding of Nazi-looted art restitution, that I propose in this thesis, challenges this basic principles and assumptions of the legally framed discourse from a memory critical perspective. Memory is not per se positively charged and unpolitical. It is also an identity-forming narrative, especially when it comes to the subject of the Holocaust and art, unconsciously and still painfully covering the criminally inscribed forgotten gaps, which I identify as the actual traces of the crime. Treating memory and the presence of traces as a moral argument and nostalgic by-product to a discussion on looted cultural goods, does not challenge the Nazi’s actual trial of eradicating traces of crime and societal members but unconsciously repeats their inflicted narratives. I first theoretically establish a memory critical framework to the Nazi-looted art restitution discourse to problematise the narrowed vision and reflection of narratives in Nazi-looted art restitution. Based on my critique, I develop my concept of Parrhesia of Traces. Finally, I demonstrate the functioning and relevance of both in a two-folded case study on political communication in an influential French governmental restitution report (2018) and a permanent installation on restitution of potentially looted art at the Louvre (2017).  
The concept of Parrhesia of Traces, which I develop in this thesis, allows a societally relevant discussion of the crime itself and the inherent objectification of people as well as an encounter with the forgotten narratives of what “we” as a current world may have lost. My thesis implies that restitution starts with the recognition of socio-political relevance of these traces of people and their absence caused by crime, which are still present in objects and documents, hidden in the blind spots of public institutions. Reconstructing traces of people and the crime related to the artworks, can hold monologic dominant narrations about the past accountable and can burst unconscious heritage reproductions of “othering”, antisemitic stereotypes and the forgetting of diverse narratives as a result of the Holocaust. The case study illustrates the identified discursive gaps of a current Nazi-looted art restitution and turns the argument around into a future potential for the communication of restitution professionals and (national) museums. Researching and discussing the traces of a societal person and crime connected to one of the Louvre paintings, I illustrate that in a relevant Nazi-looted art restitution discourses their encounter is an added value to our idea of a pluralistic society.
My concept stimulates self-critical reflection on the use of ambivalent memory and restitution narratives. It enables to avoid the repetition of narrative aspects of the thefticide both in the classification of sources in provenance research and the ongoing debate on restitution. I show that the use of my concept changes communication in a way that forcomes the repetition of trauma. It allows to see the gaps as part of the crime that cannot be filled. It may enable to recognise the value of a fractured and likewise uncomfortable ambivalent discussion for which no fair solution exists, instead of turning it linguistically into an abstract argument of general Holocaust memory.' 

Thesis Introducing the Concept of Parrhesia of Traces

'For the world is not humane just because it is made by human beings, and it does not become humane just because the human voice sounds in it, but only when it has become the object of discourse.'
Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times


Merel van Erp, provenance researcher, Rijksmuseum: ‘In her thesis, Lea sheds light on another side to the history of looted art and restitution related to the Second World War. She elucidates the aspect of human memory in a new way. The theoretical framework of the thesis can be easily used in the practice of provenance research. It is interesting to see how a legal discussion is placed in the light of the politics of remembrance through this thesis.’

Judy Jaffe-Schagen, lecturer Reinwardt Academy: 'Lea wrote a thesis that is absolutely original, authentic, challenging and daring, and that has been composed with great care and feeling for the many details at stake. Her research shows how existing ways in which society functions, memory politics operate, and the legal system functions are not necessrily a given that you 'just' have to accept. For a MA student to come up with a truly original theoretical and practical concept that is both relevant and urgent and to be able to define and contextualise it in an outstanding matter is remarkable.'

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