The exhibition was the result of several years’ collaboration by Georgian civil society, journalists, academics, curators and volunteers. It drew on unique source materials from archives collated as part of The Memory Project, in parallel over a five-year period by teams on either side of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict divide. Exhibits included video and audio interviews with people who lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union and ensuing violence, as well as personal letters and memoirs, photographs, newspaper articles and official documents.
Deliberately not creating a narrative for the visitor about what happened, or why, the exhibition offered rare access to voices often not heard – including material from the Abkhaz Memory Project archive. It presented a picture of complex, interwoven narratives, facts, multiple truths, gaps and silences. In doing so, it posed questions, provoked discussion, and provided a basis for visitors to generate analysis of their own.
Why is such an exhibition important?
Memory Project participants believe that exposing their society to different aspects of the contested past will better equip it to reflect on the root causes of conflict, learn from past mistakes and shape a different future.
There is understandable scepticism in parts of Georgian society toward dealing with the past. The history of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict continues to be highly politicised, and there are divergent opinions regarding the role and prominence of Russia in relation to it.
There is concern about asymmetry, that a process of critical reflection on the Georgian side of the conflict may not be matched by a similar process on the Abkhaz side. Some people fear that examining what happened is too risky in the absence of a settlement – that contested views of justice can only lead to more tension without an agreed legal framework within which to address them.
Yet other people see it as critically important to find constructive ways to talk about a past that is ever-present, that dictates current-day politics, behaviours and attitudes, and, crucially, presents an obstacle to moving forward.
New myths are forming on the basis of insufficient knowledge about what happened, and decades of separation make it more important to access memories and insights of counterparts from the other side of the conflict divide. Georgians rarely hear Abkhaz viewpoints at first hand. Mutually-exclusive dominant narratives about what happened and why, are reinforced by what is, and what is not, taught in school.
For many, dealing with the past can be a form of justice. Exclusion, discrimination, and perceptions of unfair treatment lie at the root of this conflict. To better understand the perspectives, and the processes that ultimately made violence inevitable in the early 1990s, is to start to unpick the root causes of conflict. Without confronting the underlying grievances that led to war and that have perpetuated conflict ever since, it is hard to imagine the possibility of building future relationships based on mutual understanding.
One year on, what have we learned?
A year on from the exhibition, the Caucasus looks different. War is raging between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a tragic reminder of how grievances left unaddressed can escalate into new cycles of violence and create new injustices. COVID-19 has closed the physical spaces of museums and lecture theatres, and plans for a mobile exhibition to tour the regions have had to be postponed. As the organisers work to adapt to a world of online curation and public debate, they have been reflecting on what they learnt from last year’s experience.
Almost 2,000 people attended the exhibition. Feedback was gathered from people who joined public lectures, guided tours and participated in focus groups, as well as from people who completed a short written survey.
While opinions differed, it was clear that the very fact of holding an exhibition of this sort had generated significant interest. At a time when concerns about poverty and unemployment, and perceptions of Russian threat, dominated the domestic agenda in Georgia, the exhibition focused attention on the early 1990s. Particularly striking was the fact that the majority of visitors that came to the exhibition were young people, driven by an interest in knowing more about the conflict and its roots. This would seem to contradict opinion in parts of Georgian society, and in expert circles, that young people in Georgia are less interested in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.
Feedback also indicated a readiness among the Georgian public to learn from the past. Older generation visitors spoke of the challenge of looking with hindsight on what happened. In the words of one Georgian who had occupied a prominent political role at the time:
Even I, who knew first-hand about that period, have learned a lot of new things thanks to this exhibition… Had I known it all at the time, I would have acted differently, I would have made different decisions. The war destroys both sides.
Younger people spoke of the exhibition as an opportunity to learn and ask questions about their recent history. One young visitor said: For me this was less about re-assessing the past, it was about learning from it. Another spoke of the exhibition as a sort of ‘time travel’:
...as if you were going there in the past and becoming aware that you live in a continuation of that past in the current moment. Then you realise that these things are directly connected with you and with your country.
Many visitors felt that exposure to more perspectives from the Abkhaz side was key to a more balanced understanding of events – and asked to be given online access to such materials.
Public willingness to look at the past
Responses to a recent public opinion survey conducted by Caucasus Research Resource Centers support the view that there is now space in Georgian society to engage critically with its recent violent past. Almost a third (31.1%) of those questioned responded positively to the question ‘Is it important for Georgian society to re-assess, or evaluate the Georgian-Abkhaz armed conflict of the 1990s?’.
The Corridors of Conflict exhibition, alongside dealing with the past initiatives by other groups and organisations, has shown that constructive discussion of the legacies of the contested past is possible before a conflict settlement has been reached. Memory Project participants feel it is not only possible, but essential. Work that enables better understanding of what happened and how it could happen, that surfaces taboos, challenges assumptions and triggers necessary conversations, is transformative. In the words of one exhibition organiser:
It is ultimately forgetting, not remembering, that heals – but before we can come to forget, we must go through remembering.
In response to overwhelming visitor feedback, as well as the particular challenges of COVID-19, the Georgian Memory Project team is now working toward a digital exhibition that will launch in 2021.
At the same time, the Memory Project teams continue to expand the archives on both sides. Please get in touch with the Memory Project organisers if:
- you would like to record your personal memories on video or audio
- you would like to donate any items to be scanned or photographed and uploaded to the digital archive. These may include any of the following: letters, photographs, documents (domestic or official), postcards, newspaper clippings, memoirs and diary entries, VHS footage, or artefacts from that time that have particular meaning for you.
One of the team will then be in touch with you to discuss confidentiality, conditions of use and ownership, and our commitment to safeguarding your materials. To donate your stories or documents, or if you are interested in getting involved in the Memory Project, please email MemoryProjectExhibition@gmail.com