In the bustling streets of São Paulo, museums can seem a far-off concern. The sun is shining, cars roar past, all sorts of people are shouting and hurrying by. It feels as if the entire southern hemisphere has descended on this one Brazilian city.
What you experience – as you stand there trying not to get run over by the traffic – is both a vibrant urban centre today, and what turned it into such an astonishing place. All this commotion reflects, if you look hard enough, a history of movements, a longstanding legacy of arrivals and departures, of population and trade.
There is material evidence all over São Paulo to remind you of such things: the implements of export in coffee and sugar can be found; church statues and personal belongings inscribe the less innocent histories of missionaries and slaves. Colonial architecture etches its monumental testament across the sky.
But if you were to cast your hook further into the past, to look for not just what was left but what you could find, what you might fetch up are the stories not enshrined in artifacts and archaeology. And the civic authorities in São Paulo brilliantly did just that. When one of the two large railway stations in the city was being rebuilt, they decided to convert part of this busy public space into a museum. And not just any museum. A railway station was hardly the place to be encumbered with objects. Instead, they built what is now a celebrated museum of the Portuguese language.
Language is not an obvious subject for a museum. A specialist library, perhaps, or an archive. What is there to show for language? But in São Paulo, they realized two important things. One was that the symbolic resonance of where you put your museum can be as important as what’s inside. The Estação da Luz has always been a gateway. The tens of thousands who arrived from Africa and Asia, from Portugal itself, were transported here, and it was here that they first came face to face with a new continent. If both the station and language itself constitute a kind of encounter, what better place to commemorate those many past encounters, and in a spot where 300,000 passengers still, every day, move in and out of the city.
The second thing they understood in São Paulo was that museums are not necessarily about standing still and just looking. Visitors emerging from a train station, busy and bustling as that environment is, might be better prepared in fact to enjoy a museum that is about activity. For this is what language is: a living, changing, moving thing. It can’t be trapped in a display case and fixed in time with a label. The exhibits in the Museum of the Portuguese Language reflect this. There are entire walls of visualization, screen layered upon screen; there are computer terminals and light displays that cast poetry in shapes across the floor; there are a host of what we might call graphic events, inspiring connection in the viewer – for this is about language now and our relationship to it – but also commemoration, for it was those past encounters that made this city of immigrants the linguistically complex place it is today.
I open with this example of a museum of language to ensure that any discussion of museums and memory frees itself of its traditional focus on the object and what we might say about. If we are going to create a potent showcase for communal memory, to give voice to the past in all its forms, we are going to have to be bolder. What we have to do is grab hold of the intangible and wrestle it into the building.
Memory in museums has often been confused with history. To recall through galleries and exhibits what happened before – as so many of our museums continue to do – constituted an exciting remembrance of things past, uniting as it did historical ideas with the material proof of their veracity.
But two problems gradually emerged from such an approach. One has been our increasing distrust of the monolithic voice of the museum. It can feel, in its authoritative anonymity, like the voice of the victors, telling visitors what they ought to think and, in its inevitable selection, what really matters. The second problem is that it excludes participation. As our understanding of what people do in museums grows ever more precise, there has been a useful shift from models of learning, where the museum provides facts and information to be digested, to those of engagement, where the past is a prompt to thought and emotion, and where the relevance of a display, while no less informative, draws a richer response from the visitor.
And it is here that we can begin to define “memory” in the museum context. While any of us might argue for the importance of history, we ought to draw on every means at our disposal to communicate that history. Memory becomes a tool we can use because it personalizes history such that any single visitor can feel that they have a connection to the matters discussed. Memory is both on display and a response that draws on the individual history of the spectator.
Of the important ways in which memory becomes subject matter, we might take, for instance, the idea of witness. The Gulag Museum at Perm commemorates 70 years of oppression and punishment in Soviet Russia. It does not do this through objects. Visitors to the Maximum Security Camp are informed through the shocking testimony of former prisoners, but just as significantly they encounter the physical environment themselves. Visitors bear witness to the prison experience: they walk along the same paths taken by the prisoners; they endure the atmosphere of surveillance, vulnerability and isolation.1
A similar experience is on offer at the Workhouse Museum in Nottinghamshire, where the English poor were incarcerated in the 19th and early 20th centuries and made to work for their moral improvement. Like the Gulag, the workhouse was a place designed to alienate. Groups were segregated, families broken up, husbands kept separate from wives. To visit is to encounter not the belongings of the poor – for by definition those who ended up there had lost everything – so much as the strict regime they underwent.
But what encounters these are for the visitor. There is the potency of those who bore witness in the past. There is the accumulation of their experiences – not just one voice, but a plethora of testimonies. There is our own charged response to such environments.2
And what is more – and it is here where memory becomes particularly powerful in a museum context – there is the magnetizing effect of gathering stories into a public display. A memory unshared is a private event. But once it is told, memory becomes story. Passed from person to person, it takes on a social vitality no book-bound history could ever hope to compete with. The writer Jamal Mahjoub has said, describing the problem of indigenous identity in colonized Sudan: “We had stories, but we didn’t really have museums or books to put them in. How we came to be assembled here at this confluence of streams seemed to be a question no one was particularly interested in asking.”3
This is what museums do. We ask the questions. We ensure that those stories – those memories made public – are given value, and we reassure all groups, however disenfranchised, that the questions they pose are worth asking.
The gathering of these stories does not require objects. As the Gulag and Workhouse museums illustrate, places can be sites of memory, and those memorialized sites become powerful museums. They are particularly important because they retrieve lost histories. The absence of artifacts does not mean certain stories ought not or cannot be told, but that we must find a way, as these museums have, of capturing the intangible. The very absence of objects can itself be the starting point of the story, for such emptiness is an unsettling, often moving proof of loss or annihilation – more powerful than any display of things.
My intention is not to create a new taxonomy of museums: traditional object-led institutions versus museums of place or absence or memory. If new types of museum experiences are possible, using new technologies in particular to convey and elicit memory, then they should be used effectively across the museum sector.
The London, Sugar and Slavery gallery at the Museum of London Docklands is a case in point. The gallery tells the history of the slave trade as it connects to London and to the British and other empires. It is a story that crosses the globe, and the gallery contains objects that can tell some of those stories: the shackles used to imprison slaves in Africa, the tools of sugar refinery in the West Indies, the published appeals of former slaves in London. The movement to stop the slave trade is represented on everything from abolitionist sugar bowls to parade banners.
But was our collection enough? How were we to represent all the lost stories? How could we capture the history not only of commercial leaders, ship owners and politicians, but of the slaves themselves. Most had nothing and left nothing behind. Was our museum to describe them en masse, as a faceless commodity, treat them in effect as impersonal cargo, just as they were treated by the slave traders themselves?
To address this, we looked to the methods of memory. The gallery opens in a state of loss: with an empty room instilling not just a sense of absence, but of uncertainty – for a room without objects in a museum is a very disconcerting space. An enlarged register of slave ships lines one wall, a tally of all those lives torn from their country and taken away. A film splices dozens of speakers – black, white, old, young – uttering the same text to render the appeal against the indignity of the slave trade, a history in which every one of us is implicated.
“Consider slavery,” wrote the Laurence Sterne in his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, “How bitter a draught and how many are made to drink it.” And the gallery does – or rather, it encourages visitors to do so. When the lights dim, and a son et lumière show stops the gallery every 20 minutes, we are slaves ourselves – pinioned where we stand, hearing a toll of amplified and terrible announcements: “You will have no voice, you will have no name.” Standing there, we extend our sympathy into the past, and we bring forward the missing voices of those who could not speak.
The London, Sugar and Slavery gallery did not adopt this set-up lightly, where imagination stands in for objects. If museums are to create a space for memory – both as content and as something visitors bring to their viewing – they have to communicate sincerely with those implicated in the narrative. From its advisory board to participating community and school groups, the Museum of London gallery has been shaped by a complex sense of the importance of remembering – for individuals; for communities still marginalized through centuries of ethnic division and misunderstanding; for society and national identity as a whole. This is not a new way of speaking on behalf of communities: it is a platform that allows them to speak.
Community involvement enriches the displays and teaches us what works. If we consider a museum like the District Six Museum in Cape Town, the very essence of it is its meaningfulness for those displaced by the policies of Apartheid. Commemorating a former South African neighbourhood that was flattened and “cleansed” – as black residents were forced out to make way for an all-white gentrification – the District 6 Museum ensures that physical destruction is not matched by a failure to remember. What is there is less important than that it is there – and former residents continue to bring their children and grandchildren to pay witness to the past and understand what preceded reconciliation.
These spaces free us from the tyranny of objects and widen our remit – and our resources. We find a similar direction in the cultural sector through UNESCO’s Memory of the World program. Established in 1992, the program encourages us to preserve the world’s documentary heritage. This too is a struggle against what UNESCO rightly calls “collective amnesia” and is a persuasive attempt to move beyond the object to highlight other forms of archival information that are often underused or at peril from looting, dispersal or destruction. Some histories are only possible to tell through such materials. The Memory of the World Register includes, for example, archives relating to human rights abuses in Argentina, Chile, Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Cambodia and the Baltic States. If we are to record the past fully, raise awareness and build reconciliation, we have to ensure such documents of memory are rescued, conserved and disseminated. The program is admirably capacious, ranging from centuries-old maps, charters and account books to recent film, photographs and electronic communication.
Our experience at the Museum of London is that archives fascinate the public. When the museum acquired the papers of Thomas and John Mills, two 18th-century plantation owners on St Kitts, they drew immediate attention from our visitors. They were especially moved by a list that named the plantation slaves – Celia, Dorinda, Dinah, Doll, Pompey, Polydore, Patrick. The men and women, boys and girls, carry no surnames. Some are succinctly memorialized as “dead”. The archival documents pick up exactly the missing voices the gallery design seeks to retrieve. It is hard not to be moved by these brief lives. One is proud to put them on display and commemorate them.4
Access to such material raises awareness. It creates, as do all memoryrelated projects, a pathway of emotion, as we re-experience the past and carry that sympathy out into the world. It helps to build a sense of community.describe the power of handling historical materials and encountering the untouched past. Many testify that traditional museum displays have now come to life for them in a new way, through their direct behind-the-scenes work with archives and archaeological material. They feel more strongly that it is their history on display.
Such an approach can be drawn in to all museums. All those objects I have so lightly shunted to the side are, of course, a part of this. In the new Galleries of Modern London at the Museum of London, the approach has merged traditional gallery display with the wealth of innovative methodologies that have emerged from new forms of archival access, sites of conscience and museums of memory. Community groups contributed to several displays, creating in one instance a cabinet of curiosities relating to the Great Fire of London and the rebuilding of the city. They selected objects from the museum’s collection that they thought audiences today would find interesting and informative – copper coins and gold rings, inkwells and animal bones, wig curlers and chamber pots. Most importantly, they chose objects they thought were relevant both to the museum and to audiences, for if no one looks inside, the best produced display case in the world is a waste of time. The very fact of their participation has appealed to many of our visitors, for it breaks down the divide – as has happened with the LAARC volunteers – between curator and public. Visitors feel they are more a part of the museum.
Technology proves an increasingly useful tool for this blend of the material and the memorial. Oral histories tell the stories of individual Londoners during the Blitz with a personal appeal no object or photograph could muster. Displays on civic life encourage public interaction, as visitors add their views on political issues and civic concerns. The results of these living debates are in a perpetual state of change, updated on computer screens for all to see. By interacting, the visitor presence becomes a part of the display and their own voice one of a series of commemorated voices – a powerful moment in terms of making the museum a significant element in defining who they are. Their lives are recorded, just as the historical displays are records of past lives. The inherent value they find in themselves accords an analogous value to those who went before them. The museum becomes a memory bank.
In 2010, Seamus Heaney, the poet and Nobel Prize winner, published a collection of poems entitled Human Chain. For Heaney, it is this human chain that links us to those who went before us, and those who will inherit what we leave. His book is a series of poetic testaments. He attempts to catch hold of every life, however inconsequential, before (as he puts it) “the memorable bottoms out / Into the irretrievable”.5 For Heaney, memory is at the heart of who we are. And so he has defined our task for us: to ensure that we collect not just things, but all that is memorable too and join ourselves in the great human chain.