WHAT COLLECTING SPONTANEOUS MEMORIALS CAN TELL US ABOUT COLLECTING COVID-19 – PART I
Kostas Arvanitis, Institute for Cultural Practices
Kostas Arvanitis reflects on what collecting spontaneous memorials after traumatic events, such as terrorist attacks, can tell us about collecting (experiences of) COVID-19 and life under lockdown.
During the last few weeks there have been numerous messages and posts in mailing lists and social media about collecting (around) the experience and impact of coronavirus in the UK and beyond. Collecting and documenting this unfolding phenomenon presents a number of conceptual, ethical and practical challenges, especially when it is combined with a lockdown and furloughing of staff. Although the nature and scale of this task is not comparable to collecting spontaneous memorials (after terrorist attacks or disasters), the latter might have some points to offer, as museum, library and archive professionals are considering whether, when and how they might document and collect around COVID-19.
Here, I’m drawing on my own experience in working with the Manchester Art Gallery, Archives+ and Belle Vue Productions in archiving and documenting the spontaneous memorials that sprung up in Manchester after the Arena bombing on 22 May 2017 (now known as the Manchester Together Archive). I’m also drawing on the experiences and practices of other archives of spontaneous memorials in Europe and the USA, as well as discussions held by about 30 cultural professionals and academics on that topic in September 2018 in Manchester, when we launched the Network of Archives of Spontaneous Memorials; and an Urgent Collecting Roundtable in October 2019 at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York.
Urgency, Ephemerality and Rapid-Response
There is a discussion in mailing lists about whether documenting and collecting COVID-19 is urgent and whether it requires a quick (or, as it is often termed, rapid) response and action. In the case of spontaneous memorials, the urgency and quick action usually have to do with the ephemerality of spontaneous memorials: such memorials are temporary and removed after some time, the length of which varies from case to case (e.g. in Barcelona it was after two weeks, while in Nice it happened after several months). So, museum professionals are confronted with an urgent task: decide whether, why and how to collect such memorials, before they are removed. Sometimes, this kind of material is even more ephemeral than the physical items of the memorials, e.g. the chalk graffiti in St Ann’s Square, after the Manchester Arena attack, which was part of people’s spontaneous memorialisation.
In the case of COVID-19, one perhaps needs to ask whether urgency is again linked to ephemerality; and, if so, what is the ephemeral material that a cultural organisation might need to capture, document and, indeed, collect? Is this ephemeral material physical or digital (or both)? Or is the ephemerality in the everydayness of people’s experiences? Arguably, in the context and reality of the lockdown, whereby much of the (shared) experience is communicated via broadcasting media and the Internet, the need to document and archive digital objects and social media content would be as important and relevant (if not more) as collecting physical objects.
Why, what, when, how, who and what/whom for?
These are often questions that museums, galleries, libraries and archives need to address when embarking on a collecting, documentation or archiving project. In cases where there is a need for urgent coordination and action, addressing fully those questions might need to happen in parallel with (or even post-) action taking. This might sound contradictory to best practice, but in cases where the urgency is combined with lack of previous relevant experience, such an approach might be not just inevitable, but also necessary and beneficial.
This seems to have been, indeed, the case with cultural organisations that didn’t have previous experience of collecting spontaneous memorials. Besley and Were explain the issue succinctly with reference to the Queensland Museum and State Library of Queensland in the wake of the floods in 2011: ‘the two institutions faced a tabula rasa; an unprecedented scenario of urgent contemporary collecting where direction and policy had to be developed as the disaster and recovery unfolded’ (Besley and Were 2014: 42). The same was largely true for the Manchester Together Archive, where the Manchester Art Gallery adapted and diverted from standard collecting processes. But, as I’ve tried to argue here (Arvanitis 2019) this in itself can be a creative process of negotiating the interaction between institutional contexts, professional ethics and social/civic responsibility.
As I mentioned above, one needs to critically assess where the urgency lies in the first place, as not all actions around COVID-19 collecting will be urgent. Following that, and having identified the urgency, there is also some very useful and practical guidance on contemporary collecting, e.g. Contemporary Collecting Toolkit (link to PDF) and Contemporary collecting An ethical toolkit for museum practitioners (link to PDF), which should help with addressing some of the questions in the heading above. It is also more than OK to trust your professional museum instincts and ethics, which will, undoubtedly, ‘kick in’.
In the case of spontaneous memorials, faced with unprecedented scenarios, museums often fall back to their standard processes and treat such memorials as any other collecting project. In some cases, such as the collecting after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando by the Orange County Regional History Center (Schwarz et al. 2018), museums would consider the collecting of spontaneous memorials as part of their mission statement. In the absence of a collecting policy, many organizations would try to draft such a mission, scope, and selection statement on the spot, as it were.
Yet, the effort to generate and stick to selection criteria rarely goes according to plan. Shayt (2006), discussing the Smithsonian’s Katrina Collection, stresses that although the museum had made a list of things that were considered to belong in an ideal material record of the storm, in the end serendipity played a more important role. The same result followed the Queensland Floods in 2011: a wish list of the types of objects and themes that the curators of the Queensland Museum wanted to collect proved to be over-optimistic (Besley and Were 2014).
My general point here is, don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers right from the beginning or things don’t go according to plan; instead, you might want to develop a process that allows for agility and adaptation, as and when you are able to move on. This should also help with the challenge that Gardner and Henry outline with regards to collecting 9/11: writing just months after 9/11, they stressed that ‘our sense of obligation to the historic nature of the events and their aftermath combines uneasily with the sense that we are still too close to them to be able to judge clearly what is truly historically important’ (Gardner and Henry 2002: 38). I would challenge the idea that the construction of a ‘historical importance’ takes place in an unspecified future and is disconnected from people’s actions (or inactions) now. Nevertheless, distancing (not distance) can be beneficial. In my view, such distancing ought to be more conceptual than chronological; it takes the form of a pro-active and critical challenging of own perceptions about value and significance, while museum professionals are embedded in the chronology of the events themselves. In the case of collecting after the terrorist attack in Manchester, this distancing translated into regular and frequent documentation and critical reflections on our actions and decisions (more about documentation of decisions and actions in Part II of this Insight).
Collecting the Intangible, the Performative and the Digital
In the case of most spontaneous memorial collecting, the emphasis (and urgency) is often on collecting the physical material of the memorials. However, as Santino (2006) has argued, spontaneous memorialisation is both memorial and performative; and this is represented not just by the physical items left in those memorials, but also by individual or group behaviours and actions at those memorials, such as singing or, indeed, the eerie quiet that many people experienced in St Ann’s Square. In Manchester, we tried to capture and document those performative actions retrospectively, relying on photographs and videos by individuals and broadcasting media. Similar actions have been taken by cultural professionals in other cases of spontaneous memorials. Of course, spontaneous memorialisation nowadays also takes place online and a collecting project needs to consider the digital and social media content too. For example, in Stockholm, the Collecting Social Photography project and the Nordiska Museet collected images shared on social media with the hashtags #openstockholm or #prayforstockholm after the 2017 Stockholm truck attack. In Manchester, we archived thousands of tweets tracking a number of related hashtags, using TAGs.
In the case of life under COVID-19, many people’s individual/shared experience of it is constructed digitally and shared via social media. Take for example the 2018 footshake challenge, which was re-contextualised in the no-handshake post-coronavirus outbreak reality; or the clap for carers; or the countless coronavirus and lockdown memes.
These and many more individual, family and community responses combine creativity, performance and digital/social media. The online sharing itself constructs a continuous re-mediation spiral that leads to more creative digital responses by more people; from one balcony sing-along to another; from Owain Wyn Evans’ drumming BBC News theme tune, to Radio 2 Folk Award winner Ciaran Algar’s joining in on the violin, to BBC Scotland Weather’s Joy Dunlop adding a ceilidh, to then Owain’s Big House Band, made up of numerous clips of people playing, humming or dancing along to the tune.
In this context, it is almost self-evident that museums will need to be thinking about collecting the performative, intangible and (born-)digital, which often seem to overlap or collapse, as in the examples above.
On a side note: unless cultural professionals are interested in tracking and capturing how the digital culture of COVID-19 is developing day-by-day (which would probably require more urgent documentation), retrospective digital collecting wouldn’t be an issue in most cases, although starting to make long lists of such material would be advisable. However, if one is interested in archiving tweets related to the event, then the best approach is to do this as close to real-time as possible, at least in the case of Twitter, e.g. by using TAGs to track specific hashtags (for an excellent example of how to use TAGs to archive a contemporary event on Twitter, I suggest taking a look at Dr Chiara Zuanni’s “Italian Museums and Twitter: an Analysis of Museum Week 2016” (Zuanni 2017).
End of Part I.
Part II to follow, including:
Collaborative and grassroots collecting
Vicarious and secondary trauma
Documentation of decisions and actions
Arvanitis, K. (2019) ‘The “Manchester Together Archive”: researching and developing a museum practice of spontaneous memorials’, Museum and Society, 17(3), 510-532 DOI: https://doi.org/10.29311/mas.v17i3.3203.
Besley, J. and Were G. (2014) ‘Remembering the Queensland Floods: Community Collecting in the Wake of Natural Disaster’, in Ian Convery, Gerard Corsane and Peter Davis (eds) Displaced Heritage: Responses to Disaster, Trauma, and Loss, 41-50, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.
Gardner, J.B. and Henry, S.M. (2002) ‘September 11 and the Mourning After: Reflections on Collecting and Interpreting the History of Tragedy’, The Public Historian, 24 (3) 37-52.
Museum Development North West and Kavanagh, J. (2019) Contemporary Collecting Toolkit (link to PDF).
Miles, E., Cordner, S. and Kavanagh, J. (eds) (2020) Contemporary collecting An ethical toolkit for museum practitioners (link to PDF).
Santino, J. (ed) (2006) Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death, New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Schwartz, P., Broadaway, W., Arnold, E.S., Ware, A.M. and Domingo J. (2018) ‘Rapid- Response Collecting after the Pulse Nightclub Massacre’, The Public Historian, 40 (1), 105-114.
Shayt, D.H. (2006) ‘Artifacts of Disaster: Creating the Smithsonian’s Katrina Collection’, Technology and Culture, 47 (2) 357-368.
Zuanni, C. (2017) ‘Italian Museums and Twitter: an analysis of Museum Week 2016’. Archeostorie. Journal of Public Archaeology, 1, 119-133. DOI: https://doi.org/10.23821/2017_4c
Dr Kostas Arvanitis is Senior Lecturer in Museology at the Institute for Cultural Practices, University of Manchester. His work focuses on digital heritage, digital cultural engagement and archives of spontaneous memorials.