Recently, I attended the launch of the Room’s Where Once They Stood We Stand campaign - an ambitious, multi-year program (and accompanying fundraising effort) to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beaumont Hamel and the First World War. The Room’s has big plans including a 5,600 square-foot exhibition tentatively titled The Battle of Beaumont Hamel and the Trail of the Caribou: Newfoundlanders and Labradorians at War and at Home 1914-1949, an accompanying exhibit catalog and First World War website, and an endowment for First World War public school programs. Content will be sourced, in part, via a “mobile lab” that will travel to communities throughout the province in the spring of 2014 to solicit First World War stories and artifacts from the public.
At the Room’s, the announcement was met with effusive hand clapping, back slapping and patriotic sentiment, including this assertion from the campaign co-chair:
From the National War Memorial in downtown St. John’s to the Trail of the Caribou monuments erected in France and Belgium, generations before us have worked to honour the stories and sacrifices of the First World War. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the battle of Beaumont Hamel, it’s our turn now. This is our generation’s memorial.
It was one of those memorable moments that left me feeling ... kinda uneasy.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking the plans for a commemorative exhibit. Far from it. It’s just that the idea of “exhibit as memorial” worries me. Why? Because memorials are exclusive rather than inclusive - both in their subject and their audience. To paraphrase French historian Pierre Nora, a memorial only accommodates the facts that suit it and is blind to all but the groups it binds.
Maybe, one hundred years after the Battle of Beaumont Hamel, what we really need isn’t another memorial, but some really great public history - a project that analyzes the events of the past AND the way in which we have used and reused them to serve our own purposes in the present. A project that strives to connect with every Newfoundlander and Labradorian, whether they’ve been here for generations or just arrived last week.
So, how do we avoid the pitfalls of memorialization and create great public history? Here are a few suggestions:
- Engage professional historians. Not subject experts, but practicing historians - trained professionals who possess the necessary skills to properly interrogate source material and reconcile historical accounts from multiple sources. Folks who understand the particularity of context and who recognize that memory is an active practice of construction in the present, rather than a recollection of the past. Engage these professionals not as fact-checkers, information go-getters, or tail-end reviewers, but as integral members of the exhibit development team. Empower them to help you consider emerging stories from a broad perspective, to determine where proposed themes fit within current historical thinking, to identify who has explored these themes before and where their work merges with and diverges from your own. Encourage them to alert you to the presence of bias, assumptions and stereotypes. Yes, there may be some testy moments of negotiation as you travel down the exhibit development path, but the end product will be all the richer for it.
- Remember, the subject is not the story - To quote Mike Jones “Stories are not about their subjects – subjects are metaphor. Subjects are the means to explore bigger ideas.” In other words, the end goal of an exhibit about Beaumont Hamel shouldn’t be to present a comprehensive account of the battle and it’s aftermath, but to use those events as a vehicle for engaging audiences in a conversation about something else ... something bigger.
- Make “the ask” inclusive - The idea of crowd-sourcing content from across the province via a mobile lab is a good one. It builds on the approach used by the Rooms to develop content for the new 4th floor galleries and could help generate a sense of public ownership of the final exhibit. How that “ask” is framed will determine who will, and who won’t, be able to participate in the process. For example, a simple question like “Tell us your family’s story about Newfoundland and World War I” automatically excludes anyone whose family arrived in this place after 1918. Alternatively, a question like “Tell us about your experience with war” potentially opens the process up to anyone who wants to participate and might generate content and connections you'd never consider otherwise.
Ultimately, whether the Rooms decides to create a memorial or a public history project will depend on how it defines it’s role as a public cultural institution - to support a soi-disant, official view of history, or to challenge assumptions, pose difficult questions, and engage each and every one of us in a shared conversation about the past. I, for one, hope it’s the latter. How about you?