Sunday, 1 February 2009

What to do with places of memory?

I promised a post on places of memory and what we should do with them, so here it is. ;-)

First of all, let me get a little bit technical and start with the definitions. What do I mean when I talk about remembering? I wasn't personally there during any of Latin America's military dictatorships or civil wars. So I can't 'remember' in a personal sense. Neither, now, can millions of Latin Americans, since they weren't yet born. Argentina has now been a functioning democracy, albeit at times a shaky one, for twenty-five years. Nevertheless, we hold such events in memory, we commemorate them, we enact civil performances so that they were not forgotten, and therefore I speak of 'remembering' them. This is not uncontroversial, naturally, and some would argue that only first-hand witnesses can remember the past. [For an introduction to questions of social memory from a Latin American expert, you could do a lot worse than Elizabeth Jelin's State Repression and the Struggles for Memory]

What are places of memory? The term comes from Pierre Nora's seminal study of French historical memory and the phenomenon he terms lieux de memoire. Now, Nora is sceptical of the, as he sees it, contemporary proliferation of places that are particularly significant for memory. He maintains that they are not 'real' memory, but are artificial ways of shunting off the process of remembering into handy little compartments of our lives and not really living it.

Nevertheless, I use the term to mean those sites which are particularly significant for commemoration. Obvious examples include the ESMA and Club Atletico in Buenos Aires, Uchuraccay and Putis in Peru, the Villa Grimaldi Park in Chile. Different countries deal differently with such places and the question of whether, and how, to preserve them.

In the case of the ESMA, the idea was mooted to demolish it. Human rights groups opposed the plan on the grounds that this was merely an attempt to erase the past and not to learn from it. In the meantime it was still in use by the armed forces, as if they had not used it to torture and kill innocent civilians. Schoolchildren used its swimming pool. Eventually, it was handed over to become a Museum of Memory, although progress for this is slow, in part because of disagreements over the final use for the site. Should it contain a sombre historical exhibition about the dictatorship? Or should more emphasis be given to spaces for education, culture and human rights teaching? Should it be a place for respectful quiet, mourning the dead, or for exorcising ghosts with the laughter of children, or somehow (how?) both? I have confidence that the solution, when it comes, will do justice to the significance of the ESMA and believe that destroying the buildings would have been a huge obstacle to Argentina's commemorative efforts. This is not to say that every one of Argentina's over 300 detention centres should be preserved in aspic, dotting the landscape. The ESMA's symbolic role has a long reach.

What happens when a site of terror starts to decay and would need to be restored? Is it better to let it die slowly or should it be kept as a permanent symbol? In the case of Auschwitz, I would suggest that its status as a global icon of horror means that it should stand, even if part of this is artificial. In other cases, local people may feel that the place can be transformed or simply left to slowly cleanse itself. There is no one answer. It's hardly possible to be objective in the representation of the past; political issues inevitably creep in. But I would argue that each nation needs to keep some sites on which to focus memorial activities and to teach about them. For me, the crucial factor is that people actively engagely with the place of memory and keep it alive; whether that means setting up and visiting exhibitions, holding memorial services, performing plays, educating schoolchildren, or whatever. The place cannot just have a plaque attached to the wall and the subject closed.

Places of Memory resources:

Memoria Abierta's map of detention centres in Argentina

International Coalition of Sites of Conscience

Sites of Memory website

APRODEH's website on sites of memory in Peru

Collective Memory Project blog

Marita Sturken articles


Daniel Saver said...

I have become an avid reader of your blog, and I really enjoyed this post!

You mentioned Villa Grimaldi/Parque por la Paz, which is the site that I am most familiar with, and which provides an interesting case. During one of the tours that I took there, the guide told us that there was a discussion about how exactly to commemorate the space, and what I found fascinating is that she mentioned that the survivors were asked for their opinions. Many of the survivors (or family members of those disappeared there) did not want the old structures/buildings to be reconstructed (the military did a surprisingly good job of tearing everything down in 1978) because they felt it would manifest -- in a negative way -- many of the terrible memories that they were trying to deal with. They instead opted for a symbolic reconstruction, which maintained the layout of the old buildings but did so using landscape techniques. Personally, I find that it reaches a nice balance between remembering the tragic events which occurred there and transforming the past into something synthetic and new.

As you said, the important thing is that people engage with the space. And I think an important aspect of this process is that people begin to not only recognize the past, but also transform the past into something which can help to bring about healing and progress today.

Lillie Langtry said...

Thanks Daniel. I've never been to Villa Grimaldi actually so it's good to hear from someone who has(I've been to the ESMA, but you couldn't yet go in when I was there).

I could say a lot more on this subject. I was thinking about the views of survivors and while they are obviously extremely important, I don't think they can be the only consideration. The majority of the population is an "inbetweenee" - neither perpetrator nor victim, but still affected by the past.

Also, fairly obviously, I think artificial reconstruction is very different from preservation.