Subscribe » Issue #50, Mar-Apr 2014 Mag Cover
Idealog—in the ideas business

The one discipline we all share: Memory Studies

 
What stimulates your memory, or your understanding of what memory is? How does the motivation to create and contain memory co-exist within the expression of your design work, your architecture, your photography or art?
 
Wellington was the place to be to get deep and meaningful about this growing agenda of questions last week, when the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa joined with New York’s Syracuse University and Massey University in hosting the Contained Memory Conference – Pupuri Pohewa
 
This international event took the assembled cognoscenti of artists and academic scholars around the vast world of memory studies in about 80 different papers, keynote addresses and related fora.
 
Conference convenor Kingsley Baird, an Associate Professor at Massey, says he was motivated to stage such an event in New Zealand after being Inspired by the burgeoning interest in memory studies he witnessed at Syracuse in 2008 (for example see the Public Memory Project). 
 
As observed by his fellow convenor Kendall Phillips, of Syracuse, memory studies are constantly animated by points of tension—between presence and absence, private and public, therapeutic and confrontational, constructed and deconstructed. “And throughout we exhibit this deep primal urge to make memories visible”.
 
Certainly the small slice of the conference I attended was a ticket to this parallel world, placing acts of living and dying memory in intersections with the complex representation of real events and timeless spaces: a lynching in the USA, a plaque commemorating Passchendaele, mass graves in the Katyn Forest, plinths where statues of Lenin once stood, compromised languages, displaced diasporas, the role of boxed set DVDs in edutainment.
 
The way public memory is captured can have a profound impact on public understanding of a nation’s history and heritage. States may seek to interfere with and control our memories. Orthodox societies might look the other way while heritage is ignored or lost or vandalised. On our own we might forget, deny, repress.
 
Like many of the speakers who attended the event, architect and University of NSW lecturer Dr Russell Rodrigo is an active designer of memorials. He notes that monuments, memorials and interpretive sites are being created at an accelerated pace worldwide – “an international phenomenon of memorialisation which has developed since the 1980s and is unequalled since the decade after the First World War”.
 
Yet at the same time as we develop a ‘loose’ relationship to these public spaces or celebrate another immortalisation of the house of some famous writer, the family photo album and its traces of a traditional hierarchy give way to a digital ephemera of unknown remembrance, set in anything but stone.
 
As we turn the page on another year, this was a conference full of redolent and poignant thought provokers. What knowledge from 2010 will be recoverable in the future? How much will be made-over or, in the words of Christchurch landscape architect and book author Jacky Bowring left “resolutely off the map”?
 
This conference was a reminder that as tourists of our collective memories some fascinations will fade and others won’t, and a reminder of the code-breaking role that memories have always played in the future we shape. 

Contained Memory Conference convenor Kingsley Baird (left) with guest speaker James E. Young, a leading scholar of Judaic studies. Young sat on the jury that selected the design for the World Trade Center Site Memorial at ground zero in New York City and is currently completing an "insider's story" on that experience.

 

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