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Let’s return our collective memories to November 2019 when the first known case of Covid-19 was traced in China. This was the recorded beginning of when the world would begin to collectively experience the impacts of a little-known virus turned global pandemic. I won’t use my words to detail the many and varied impacts of the pandemic on everyday life – although there are a lot of words to use. What I want to do is highlight something very particular that was happening in the museum sector in Australia, and I speculate across the world. That is, members of the public (including journalists and researchers) seeking out information about the Spanish Flu – also known as the Influenza Pandemic. A pandemic that arrived in Australia in 1919, one hundred years before Covid-19 arrived on Australian shores. These publics were seeking out information about the historic event, the human impact, the medical response, the role of quarantine, and so on to make sense of the current situation. In fact, the National Museum of Australia’s Spanish Flu entry on its website received 62,733 unique page views between 1 March 2020 to 28 February 2021.
What is most interesting to me about this is that our museums, galleries, libraries, and archives were often the first port of call for the information. There was an expectation that the museum would have all the answers to complicated questions, have associated collections that related to the Spanish Flu, and that current staff could front up to the media and participate in quite complex discussions that drew links between the historic event and the contemporary moment. In responding, museums supported publics in the process of sense-making. That is making sense of what was (and is) happening in their world by looking to the past. There was a recognition (conscious or not) that museums were useful to communities, particularly in times of crisis. This experience and the logic that informs it, I suggest, is a practice of collective remembering. My argument is that museums and other cultural institutions are not only custodians of collective memory but are active participants in the making of collective memory through the process of collective remembering.
Now, a criticism of collective remembering is that in a postmodern social, cultural, and political context the practice of collective remembering appears contradictory. That it is not in keeping with political discourses such as inclusion and democratisation and that collective memory strives for notions of grand narratives or singular ways of understanding a collective. I want to argue, as others have, that a critical engagement with collective memory, and thus its productive future is being progressed within museums as they engage more deeply with digital technologies. We know that throughout the pandemic museums refocused their energy and redirected their resources towards digital products and outputs. This was largely due to the necessity of closure that was thrust upon the sector. Alongside this is a key practice of museums to make decisions about how to build and maintain collections, which items to make accessible online, and what information to disseminate about them. In this context museums have power to influence and shape the collective memory of a group, community, and society. I believe this power has been increased through sectoral engagement with digital technologies.
To demonstrate how I believe digital projects and programs are progressing the practice of collective remembering I want to share a project led by the National Museum of Australia to document the 2019/2020 Australian bushfires and the Covid-19 global pandemic. As soon as the fires began in July 2019 the staff at the National Museum of Australia started thinking about how best to document the event for present and future generations. As the season progressed, and by mid-November it was clear that the fire event was different to those experienced before – it was longer, hotter, drier, and more dangerous. It would become be a defining moment in Australia’s history. Before the bushfire season was declared over the first case of Covid-19 was record in Australia on 25 January 2020 – another defining moment. Across the two events what struck museum staff most was the flow of information on social and digital channels including social media and through mainstream media agencies. The imagery, the videography, the experiences were powerful and prolific. How could we capture this cultural practice in what seemed like a fleeting environment?
Informed by what we were seeing and, in an attempt, to capture more than the medical and governmental response we developed and launched an online project. Momentous is at once a virtual exhibition, a digital archive, and a contemporary collecting project that brings together stories from the 2019/2020 Australian bushfire season and the Covid-19 global pandemic. Rather than segregating the two events of recent crisis, the project brings them together to offer a space for reflection on how a Nation reconciles and responds to profound change. Momentous not only collects stories but (re)presents stories back to users in real time so that audiences online can read, view, and reflect on shared experiences irrespective of their active participation in the project.
What sets projects like momentous apart, particularly to the kind of work that museums have historically undertaken, is crowdsourcing – which I believe has a much greater impact through online projects. As users create and submit content, they contribute to the construction of knowledge and memory – the direction of Momentous and more than that the direction of a nation. Crowdsourcing ensures users play an active role in the making of history and memory, and in many ways democratises the creation of collective memory and the practice of collective remembering. It encourages publics to take ownership of collective memory which informs knowledge production and identity formation. In many ways the practice of collective remembering is a world-making activity. Momentous and projects like it are attempting to create a more pluralistic narrative of the past which by virtue becomes the benchmark of how we understand moments in time and contemporary experience, as groups, communities, and in the case of Momentous, nations.
The future of collective memory and collective remembering, then, requires institutions like museums, galleries, libraries, and archives to move beyond linear, cohesive narratives and create spaces for complex and contradictory narratives to exist together. This involves creating spaces where active dialogue is possible between such narratives to form a richer understanding of the past that considers the many and varied lived experiences of those who inhabit this world. And while I am aware of the limitations of digital projects, including access to the internet, privacy issues and more – I believe that through our engagement with digital technologies museums can progress the mission of a more complex and nuanced understanding of collective memory and collective remembering.
Craig Middleton is Senior Curator, Digital Innovation & Strategy at the National Museum of Australia. In this role he is responsible for creative and content development of digital innovation projects within the Public Engagement Division.
Since 2019 he has held roles in the Museum’s exhibitions and curatorial teams. Before moving to Canberra, he was employed by the History Trust of South Australia as Manager of the Centre of Democracy. His time at the History Trust saw him take on various roles in visitor services, public programming, community engagement, marketing, curatorial and leadership.
He is a widely published author and his book, Queering The Museum, co-authored with Dr Nikki Sullivan was published by Rutledge in November 2019.
Craig tweets at @_museumguy
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