The goal of this project is to return historical memories of our colonial past to our former colonies, and to share them. So far, we have been working on private sources and mostly photographic documentation relating to the creation of a short-lived colonial empire in the Horn of Africa.
Returning these visual, private memories means returning true copies of the originals, a task made possible by available technology. We would like to approach history in a new way, sharing our documentation with our former enemies and encouraging a joint study of our common past.
We hope we'll create a new study procedure and a work method that others may follow, possibly motivating individuals, state archives and public Italian institutions to attempt similar ventures.
About our project
An appraisal by Haile Mukulen, historian
University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
"Representation of the colonial encounter between Europe and Africa has generated divergent views styled as Eurocentric and Afrocentric historiographical schools of thought. While the former tends to depict the period of colonial era as a benign time in which civilization was introduced to Africa by Europeans, the latter asserts that the colonial period was a time of net loss to Africans politically, economically, culturally and emotionally.
While both schools of thought have their own intellectual contributions, not adequate empirical evidence is forwarded to substantiate and validate their diametrically opposed interpretation of the colonial period, which is a defining moment of African history. At any rate, it should be noted that both narratives cannot be true and much needs to be done to provide an objective and scholarly understanding of the whole process that led to colonial adventures and the consequences thereof.
It is against this background that we can appreciate the significance of the "Returning and Sharing Memories" project."
(excerpt from the proceedings of the conference "Short-lived empire, short memory", Ivrea, Italy 10th March 2012, full text )
This project was born out of an unusual encounter between historical research and volunteering. Professor Paolo Bertella Farnetti was commissioned a community-based research by MOXA and HEWO, two non-profit organizations based in Modena and operating in Ethiopia. The research would focus on the experiences had by Modena residents in the Italian colonial adventure in the Horn of Africa. That is to say, a rather uncommon way to reflect on one's own mission and on the current status of solidarity, as opposed to the aggression perpetrated in the past, when Italians brought war, invasion and repression to Africa. Thanks to funding by Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio Modena, among the project's outcomes were "Modena-Addis Ababa Round Trip" -a very successful exhibition divided into two sections- and two books, both published in 2007. Due to the generous response to our plea, a remarkable trove of historical relics -mostly of the visual kind- came out of Modena's attics and drawers: photo albums and loose pictures, a few journals, letters and other keepsakes.
The following remarks were prompted by the quantity and quality of the materials, as these were being collected, selected and digitized for display at the exhibition:
1) while not highly regarded in textbooks and history courses, seen -as it is- as a reminder of an embarrassing past, the event had deeply affected its participants, whose memories had been carefully preserved by their descendants, unlike what happened with regard to other significant, dramatic events. Its blend of adventure, romance, gloriousness and exoticism had set it apart and made it unique;
2) judging from the outcome in Modena, it's reasonable to expect that many more similar documents still remain concealed in people's homes: a treasure trove of images and documents that could greatly increase our knowledge of history, by complementing public archives while at the same time making history more accessible and "familiar". If it's not retrieved, this cultural heritage risks being lost forever;
3) such flexible and powerful tools as scanners, and perhaps digital cameras too, can generate true copies of private documents, thus saving them from oblivion. At the same time, while establishing a link between public and private memory (obviously with the consent of the owner) a new kind of source is made available to scholars,. Unlimited diffusion of these copies is then doable, be it physical or virtual, such as on the Web.
After the exhibition in Modena, and once the originals were returned to their owners, our venture didn't end. Upon invitation of the Italian Cultural Institute in Addis Ababa, the exhibition was relocated to Ethiopia. The local shortage of documentation from the colonial period -visual and otherwise- was apparent to us, especially when compared with the abundance of what had been retrieved in Modena (in itself a small fraction of what could possibly be available in Italy).
It was in this context that, after coming in contact with Ethiopian archivists and historians, the idea of returning and sharing the memories retrieved in Modena was born. Provided that they would be made available to researchers and students, copies of all documents were donated to the University of Addis Ababa -where a collection was set up for this purpose - with the consent of the owners. Thanks to a scanner, it was then possible to have one's own story step out of anonymity, make a contribution to the knowledge of history and be part of an international solidarity event, all the while keeping the precious family memories at home.
The next step was to start a pilot production that would allow us to test the procedure. The choice fell on the vast photograph collection of the late Pier Luigi Remaggi, a medical officer during the Italo-Ethiopian war. The collection, made available by his heir Ms. Angela Remaggi, features 681 photographs held in two albums, and a few hundred loose ones. More than 400 pictures were selected, scanned and then stored in a CD-ROM, together with accompanying notes on selection and cataloguing guidelines, and biographical notes. Copies of the CD-ROM were donated to the University of Addis Ababa and to the Italian Cultural Institute, with a cover letter that stated the project's goals as follows:
1. Return the documentation retrieved in Modena to the Ethiopian people, and make it available to students, scholars, and the general audience.
2. Encourage private and public archives, and Italian institutions, to undertake similar projects.
3. Promote joint research projects on the Italo-Ethiopian common past (1935-1941).
A reserved area for "Colonial Memories" was recently set up at Casa delle Culture in Modena, in order to carry on and better organize the process of gathering and digitizing the documentation. Two scanners (formats A4 and A3) are available for this purpose. A library provides access to assorted resources (e.g., books and magazines) from the colonial period. Copies of the documentation that was retrieved and returned will be available to the Italian public.