Individual and Collective Memory: How Do They Tie in With History?
Today, historians and museum curators are grappling with the issue of popular historymaking, and how it can be incorporated into the already existing framework for exhibits and displays. Many are very wary of including it because the quality and/or truth of the public’s history is not very reliable. But the public is pushing back because they feel that their own individual memories and stories have a real position in history. Where and how does one go about including individual or collective histories; should they be included at all?
When Wolfram von Scheliha came to our class and shared with us his project on the Soviet prison camps, he shared that many of the camp survivors’ memories of camp experience were confused and blended with those survivor stories from the Holocaust prison camps. Because of this blurring of experiences, von Scheliha determined that these sources were no longer very valuable because they weren’t completely accurate. From what I could understand, he decided not to include their histories in with his display on the Soviet camps. If he did include some stories, I’m sure as a historian he selected parts of the stories that he determined, based off of his research, were “historically accurate”. Although he did mention that many of them were upset when the display opened up, he didn’t seem to be too bothered by their reactions. As a historian, von Scheliha seemed to value actual documentation and artifacts for his exhibit rather than actual experiences. I understand his hesitation to include individual memory in his exhibit but I think those individual stories would add depth to the exhibit, and make it more accessible and interesting to the public. Wolfram von Scheliha’s story represents the lack of connectivity between individual/collective memory and history.
Although this Shipborne Radar from WWII is intriguing, it doesn’t encourage visitor interaction. This is a text heavy exhibit, similar to von Scheliha’s, that although may be intriguing, doesn’t incorporate individual memories with history.
An exhibit that does a slightly better job of connecting the popular historymaking with actual history is the City of Memory project. This site “enabl[es] visitors to rediscover the city through the memories of others” (Zeitlin, 43). This site has curated stories as well as publicly submitted stories. Zeitlin also writes that “some of the contributions to the site… are less than impressive…we plan to re-curate the site periodically, leaving only the more interesting and substantive entries up permanently” (40). This process of re-curation leads to the question of what is interesting or important to this map? Who should decide what stays and what goes? I agree that the very short or obviously false stories should be eliminated but perhaps a different setup could be established for this map to allow for more user-submitted pieces. If there were two different maps, one with only curated dots and the other with only user-submitted stories on it, this would perhaps allow for the “less interesting” stories to stay on site without having to eliminate them. By having two maps, this would allow site-users to select which type of memories they want to view, individual or curated. Perhaps the existing map on the site could remain for those who are interested in both types of history, but I think adding those two split maps would allow the user-submitted stories to have less restrictions and more freedom to submit what each thought was an important historical memory to them. It may also give comfort to the historians that their curated histories will remain untarnished by the popular history of the user-submitted stories.
What I felt was an ideal incorporation of both individual/collective memory and history was the Open House: If These Walls Could Talk exhibit. This exhibit “set out to capture singularity; [they] wanted to show the rich multiplicity of ordinary people’s lived experience and to represent it to [their] visitors in three dimensions” (Filene, 138). This project allowed for lots of individuals to contribute their memories of the house/neighborhood /and for it to be presented to the public as a collective history of 470/472 Hopkins Street. The curators of this exhibit provided a good framework for these memories to be shared in; “Open House set out to capture history’s inherent messiness – to tell a story that was not a straight line with ready-made lessons, to let the lives of real people from the past guide [visitors] in directions that… had not [been] mapped out in advance” (140). By focusing solely on one house, this narrowed down the histories to a manageable pool of tenants to display in this exhibit. The curators provided the setting and necessary historical information such as periods in history as well as what other larger events framed the lives of these narratives. The complete blending and blurring of the individual memories into a collective one of this house is fascinating. The historians and curators did a wonderful job of not only blending the individual memories with curated ones, but also allowed the viewers to create their own memories and lessons to take away from the exhibit. By allowing visitors to interact physically with objects in the house and having various kinds of media, it allowed for all visitors of all ages to interact with the exhibit in their own way. I think by having various sorts of media to explore and interact with, it reaches more people in the audience and allows more people to learn or take away a message or some newly learned information at the very least.
The article Boswell shared with us about Museum Selfies is, in my opinion, a step too far in trying to connect individual memory with history. Although it perhaps does encourage people who aren’t traditionally interested in museums/history to become involved, it really serves no purpose for us to learn anything. I can say that I’ve taken pictures at various historical museums and monuments, but it has served no other purpose than for a keepsake photo from a family trip. By posing in a certain way or viewing an item in a different way in order to take a selfie does not encourage new ways of thinking or interacting with the historical pieces; most people are just worried about how to take the picture so it looks entertaining and gets a social media “like”. They are not actively thinking about how their interaction with this historical memory will bring them a new perspective. Like Katie said in class, this also has the potential to be taken way too far; people would be taking selfies in non-appropriate exhibits such as slavery or other serious exhibits.
Overall, I think that Open House does the best job in blending the popular historymaking with the history provided by the curators of the exhibit. The way our society is today, curators often struggle with if and how to incorporate popular histories or memories with curated exhibits. The various examples I’ve provided have all started off with, attempted to, or have successfully blended the individual’s memories with the historial facts. This subject is by no means an easy one to answer and is very difficult to initiate and incorporate in various historical exhibits and displays. But I believe that individual memory and collective memory should somehow be included in curated historical exhibits.
Filene, Benjamin. “Make Yourself at Home – Welcoming Voices in Open House: If These Walls Could Talk.” Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Ed. Bill Adair,Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski. Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011.
Zeitlin, Steve. “Where Are the Best Stories? Where Is My Story? Participation and Curation in a New Media Age.” Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski. Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011.