“Elephant in the room”: Reflections on silence and silencing in memory institutions’ work practices

By Quoc-Tan Tran (University of Hamburg)

At the beginning of my research in the POEM (Participatory memory practices) network, one of the intriguing questions I had in mind was: How memory institutions, particularly museums and libraries, are trying to reverse processes of exclusion and othering, and offering ways to include marginalised voices and celebrate difference? This “inclusion” question has been raised several times at different phases of my research: when I did the literature review, when I did my secondment and fieldwork in Glasgow, and each of every time I gathered data and thought how to thoroughly interpret my qualitative data sets. (It sounds like a very daunting venture into participatory memory practices!)

In December 2019, I was fortunate enough to take a one-month secondment in Uppsala, Sweden, and did part of my research at the Department of ALM, Uppsala University, a partner within the POEM Consortium. I presented the idea of “assembling infrastructures” in a regularly-held research seminar in the department and received an expected blast of useful feedback. I conducted some semi-structured and conversational interviews with the staff of Uppsala University Library; some of them are also responsible for managing the Alvin, a platform for digital collections and digitised cultural heritage run by the Library. I also talked with some memory studies scholars, one among them comes from the Department of Modern Languages. We had a discussion on Jay Winter’s forms of commemoration, the upcoming MSA (Memory Studies Association) conference in Charlottesville, and Viet Thanh Nguyen—the Pulitzer winner who receives an honorary doctorate from the Uppsala University in the following month. (When I heard the news, my response was, “Is he really coming here for the ceremony in January? But the day turns dark at 3.”) All of those meetings and discussions pushed me to think further on the matter of giving power to under-represented voices, and how this could contribute to the redress of silences.

But first of all, what do I mean by “silence”? To make it clear which domains of knowledge are concerned, I categorise different dimensions of silence into three types: physical (void of sound), psychological (indifference, in-activeness, no response), and social (omission, exclusion, marginalisation). While looking at GLAM everyday practices, I use the notion of silence in a social sense: aspects of unfairness towards marginal users: under-representation, exclusion, omission. I aim at gaining empirical insights into how institutions perceive “silence” and “silencing” from their everyday practices. What are the gaps between the upper-management’s strategies and the actual practices of everyday staff? Do these gaps lead to other kinds of silence and silencing? Or, will getting insight into the gaps help us better understand the attitudes towards: (1) including different voices, and (2) redressing the silence?

Secondly, a “silence act” can be intentional or unintentional. Silence is not only about indifference, or ignorance (from a pedagogical stance, to be ignorant is to engage in a conscious state of not-paying-attention); silence can refer to the intended action of not listening to, or trying to solve, something. Let us think a bit on the proverbial “elephant in the room.” There is something over there—a huge creature, but no one does anything about it. Everyone is facing a blank silence. We can see how people react when the social media staff of a museum posts something a little uncomfortable on its Twitter or Instagram channel: museum users go silent, museum bosses keep silencing the unexpected act (censoring here would be more appropriate) of publishing sensitive content, the partners and other stakeholders do not want to talk about it. And still, there’s a problem that needs to be solved, an issue that needs to be addressed. There exists an apparent gap between the envisioned socially inclusive potential futures and the present understanding of to what extent the institution wants participation or social inclusion to be involved in its staff’s everyday practices.

The unsettling topic that they post is “the elephant”. “The room” refers to the digital public sphere that operates and constantly makes interaction around that social media channel. Every one of us can choose not to talk about it, but the elephant is still there. And the paradox is that many people have been asking the room to be more transparent.

In the working world of cultural heritage, silence and silencing are not new phenomena which pop up from nowhere and suddenly become trendy thanks to the emergence of digital and social media, giving new layers of existence to now-become buzzwords such as “inclusion,” “social inequality,” and “marginalised people.” People know about it; they know that silence exists where ever there is a cultural authority with their assumed power of choosing or naming things.
Within the scope of this article, I am not going to discuss, or argue for the emerging social roles of memory institutions in presenting more inclusive, and equitable societies. I want rather to highlight the importance of silence and silencing in today’s memory work and connect my draft thoughts to suggest two things: first, institutions do have the option to care—and more importantly, care for people; second, institutions can make the right prioritisation, to allow minor voices to be heard, right at the “back-end” side, by designing digital systems that speak to priorities of care, by forming knowledge models that are in line with public concerns, and making digital tools that help improve the inclusion of different voices.

My final remark is that cultural institutions, especially those who position themselves at the forefront of the social equality battle, should be aware of the silence and silencing—being made either explicitly/intentionally or implicitly/unintentionally)—that are going on in their work practices. They can take a moment to breathe and decide which practical steps they should take to mitigate the harmful consequences of silence or silencing processes. On the one hand, to have a clear problem analysis and right prioritisation. On the other, to assume a greater social role by allowing excluded voices to be heard. By facilitating open conversations and redressing silences, memory institutions can help build common ground and common vocabularies around differences, identity, and otherness, and contribute to a healthier, more equitable society.

Quoc-Tan Tran is a POEM fellow, based at the Institute of European Ethnology/Cultural Anthropology, University of Hamburg (Germany). He used to be a bookworm and devoted librarian. His main areas of research include STS infrastructure, digital cultural heritage and affective engagement. He can be reached at quoc-tan.tran@uni-hamburg.de. Follow him on Twitter @qtantran


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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 764859.