Why Not Only Urban Historians Find Ostrava Interesting?

An Interview with Historian Andrea Pokludová

The Faculty of Arts of the University of Ostrava could become the organizer of the most prestigious congress of urban historians in 2022.

Ostrava could join such cities as Rome, Antwerp, Helsinki or Lisbon. Doc. Andrea Pokludová from the Department of History of the Faculty of Arts explains what an opportunity it would be if Ostrava organises one of the largest international scientific congresses and what makes Ostrava interesting for urban historians. It was her who gave her international colleagues the idea of showing Ostrava as a city on the border – social, economic and geographic. A city full of opportunities with the possibility of dynamic development and a scientific potential.

What precisely can an urban historian study?

Urban historians place a human being in a context; they create a vivid image of a person's life in the past. They perceive a city in broader relations, such as urban – rural, how it was formed economically and socially, how models of behaviour as well as market relations are transferred. They watch all of that in a global context, paying attention to migration, economy… there is really a lot. They strive to bring a vivid story to future generations, to show what proved or did not prove useful, what to stem from, what the lessons are. They also put emphasis on cultural heritage and its presentation and bring a great advance in the approach to conservationism, for instance. That makes urban history interesting for museums and archives. For example, digitalisation is a great current topic and it also includes the creation of 3D models of cities, how they were built from the medieval times to the present. colleagues from Western Europe are very progressive in this regard. We are still dealing with the consequences of the Iron Curtain that prevented us from working with them.

Have we not managed to catch up with our western colleagues in historiography even after more than twenty years?

Unfortunately, we are still working on the basic research while our colleagues in the west are already applying their results with success. They have already started cooperating with urbanists and architects. They do not see the boundaries between the branches. They do not distinguish between historians, sociologists, architects or cultural geographers. There are no barriers between the individual branches, which is still common in the Czech Republic. Their research teams are closely intertwined and they manage to reach a consensus and cooperate effectively. Our objective is to achieve such an applicability and field diversity.

What is your main interest of research in relation to urban history?

The most important thing to me is to understand the life of a person in a specific urban environment where there have often been turbulent changes. Professor Myška provided a unique topic in 1990s: forming of intelligence in the second half of the 19th century, which is a structural history, and I was fascinated with uncovering the story of a huge boom of our region.

In mid-1990s, Ostrava was presented as a city experiencing a recession, marked with the end of mining, a polluted, black city, a city with many social issues. And in the middle of that, I started discovering a 19th century Ostrava, a city with a dynamic economy that was developing. At the beginning of the 20th century, Ostrava attracted famous architects, lawyers and engineers from all over Europe. The urban society at that time was enormously diverse and multicultural. I wondered how people asserted themselves in such an urban society with such distinct social problems. In my opinion, the civic society in the process of modernisation is one of the most interesting topics in urban history. The few years at the turn of the century brought a huge economic, business and cultural progress to the region.

Were historians not interested in studying the history of the 19th century before 1990? Is there a lot to catch up with in this area as well?

Some topics were not pursued, such as entrepreneurship or local administrations. As far as the 19th century and the process of modernisation is concerned, we have caught up in many areas. In this regard, the Ostrava centre has done a lot of work. We started our research using the available model of an industrial city and we gradually added other locations. Thanks to the research, we started to cooperate with the Prague centre, through which I discovered urban history. We started attending international conferences with our Prague colleagues where we presented our outputs. And people found the issue of the civic society, communal government and social history of an industrial region, which we studied in Ostrava, attractive. We did not follow any domestic centres in their studies of local governments but we identified our own direction of study after the fashion of the German research. We perceived the importance of comparison. We were interested in learning why we were lagging behind England, Germany or Belgium in the construction of urban infrastructure. What processes did the civic society go through? It was unique research.

What was your journey to the European Urban Research Association like?

It arose from research in the modernisation processes of a city environment at the Department of History and Centre of Economic and Social History. Our Prague colleagues convinced us that it was an issue that should be presented at the Gent Congress (2010) where the main topic was the multiculturalism of cities and transformations in the 19th and 20th century. Together with my colleague, Hana Šústková, who studies history from the archiving point of view, we submitted a request to organise an entire section on the topic of multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity of cities in the 19th century Central European environment. The rule in such conferences is that there should be two experts from different countries per section. We did not know that and yet we succeeded in CFP.

Four years later, Professor Ľuda Klusáková nominated me to replace her as a member of the committee of the European Urban Research Association. Last year, I was re-elected as a member of the committee for another period of four years at the 14th International Conference on Urban History in Rome.

What does it mean for your scientific career?

People abroad think I am from Prague but I always say I am from industrial Ostrava which also has a university. Thanks to the conferences we are able to establish new contacts, get information about the outcomes of our foreign colleagues and learn about what they study in relation to this topic in other countries, what new approaches there are. I believe that it is fundamental, as well as creating awareness of the Ostrava centre among our foreign colleagues and developing potential international cooperation.

What are the rules for electing representatives for the committee, what countries are represented the most?

Well, it is a problem because the committee does not represent countries, but regions. Each of the 18 members represents not only the region, but also the field of urban studies and the selected time period.

The Urban History Congress will be in Antwerp in 2020, and the Faculty of Arts of the University of Ostrava would like to organise this huge congress in 2022. What is the chance that Ostrava will host such a prestigious event?

Both in the committee and at the congress, I have always acted as a historian who comes from an industrial region with a rich history and attractive topics of study. I have presented Ostrava with regard to multiculturalism, the problematic multi-ethnic development – vanished neighbours – the Jews and Germans, as well as a place of memory and industrial heritage. In my opinion, Ostrava is a city of borders: geographic, ethnic, social, economic and political. Moreover, it has gone through dynamic changes, totalitarian regimes, a subsequent transformation that the city had to deal with, and it is burdened with ecological problems. My colleagues are really interested in the city as it has a lot to offer. For example, take the industrial heritage. It is a very attractive topic for our foreign colleagues because a part of the industrial heritage in Western Europe either has already been preserved, or lost forever. In Ostrava, they can see the possibility of restoration, trace the parallels as well as the impact of the totalitarian regimes on the development of the city. What also makes Ostrava interesting is the fact that it is not the capital city, which always develops differently as it is usually the centre of administration and education. Not only Ostrava, but the entire former Eastern Bloc represents an unknown quantity from the urban studies point of view. I think that the chance is high.

The Congress is prestigious thanks, in part, to its interdisciplinary character. What would it mean for Ostrava?

Above all, it would mean an opportunity to present the city and its surroundings. Up to six hundred experts in urban history from all over the world would come to Ostrava – architects, historians, sociologists and other experts from related fields of study. It is an opportunity to build the awareness of Ostrava in the world, to show that it is a city with great potential for development as a modern urban settlement and that it belongs in the context of an all-European history. It is also up to the management of the city, how they will grasp this opportunity. Ostrava and the Moravian-Silesian Region are not viewed as an attractive tourist destination, but I believe that it has the same touristic potential as Kutná Hora or spas, thanks to the industrial heritage. I don’t see any differences there.

Updated: 08. 07. 2019