What do we talk about when we talk about memory? Memory work in museum community engagement activities

By Linnea Wallen (Queen Margaret University – Edinburgh)

The sociologist Jeffrey K. Olick argues for the ubiquitous presence of memory across societies and within individuals, as well as for the many forms that memory can take as he writes “… ’memory’ occurs in public and in private, at the tops of societies and at the bottoms, as reminiscence and as commemoration, as personal testimonials and as national narratives… each of these forms is important” (1999, p. 346). Implied in Olick’s argument is also memory as an active practice – of memory work. Recent research on participatory memory work presents a framework used to understand strategies and practices of public memory institutions, such as museums, and of individuals and groups in including diverse memories and voices into public memory work (European Commission, 2021). Community engagement work within museums is one forum in which participatory memory work practices are enacted to generate a more socially inclusive and representative memory of the past and present.

To understand what the future of participatory memory work is in a community engagement context, it is necessary to first question what ‘memory work’ is. Memory work is a term understood to refer to a range of practices across disciplines – ranging from memory retrieval techniques (Ceci & Loftus, 1994), the working through of challenging past experiences (Ricoeur, 2004), to the overall understanding that the past is shaped by memories (Rhodes, 2021). The definition of memory work I draw on in my research, and which – in turn – have shaped the questions I ask in my interviews, are based on Marshall’s (2019, p. 1661) definition of memory work as ‘processes of activating, eliciting, reflecting, framing, articulating, maintaining, investing, communicating and “performing” memory’. Perceiving memory work through this definition allows me to position it as both a social and individual, self-reflective, practice which aligns both with Olick’s view of memory as multifaceted and of memory work as an active practice outside of solely an individual’s engagement with their own memories, also taking into consideration how they can generate memories with, through and for others.

Often when I tell people that my PhD research is about memory work in museum community engagement activities, people respond ‘oh that’s interesting – what do you mean?’. After over a year of reading hundreds of books and papers and writing thousands of words about memory in its many conceptualisations, it is easy to become complacent in the belief that everyone has spent as much time thinking about what memory ‘is’ as I have. Both before I started conducting interviews, as well as throughout my data generation phase so far, have I been repeatedly made aware that so is not the case. In fact, for every ‘oh that’s interesting – what do you mean?’, I have had an equal number of people saying ‘oh that’s an interesting question – I’ve never really thought about it before’ when I have asked what they understand memory to be early on in their interview.

The view of what memory ‘is’ varies both between people and contexts (Simons and Chabris, 2011; Wake, Green & Zajac, 2020) as well as between academic disciplines (Keightley, 2010). The majority of the studies in the area of the understanding of memory focus on how the general public’s perception of memory is different to scientific explanations of how memory works. Although it is virtually a truism amongst memory scholars that memory is a reconstructive process and not an archive where perfectly objective and accurate memories are stored and which can be retrieved in that same condition, the majority of the general public do not share this understanding (Simons and Chabris, 2011). It has also been found that people who you would assume to have a good understanding of memory and how it works, often do not – as has been concluded in studies focusing on investigative interviewers in law enforcement (Dodier, Tomas, Payoux & Elissalde, 2019) and teachers (Firth, 2021). Most of these studies focus on memory processes – its unreliability depending on people’s motives and biases – and not necessarily on the understanding of the concept of memory itself, therefore raising the question ‘what do we talk about when we talk about memory?’.

Talking about the nature of memory, or people’s understanding of, not only how it works, but what it is, is fundamentally challenging and a constant reflexive exercise. I discovered early on that it proved to be difficult to speak about how people ‘work with memory’, as our ideas of the nature of memory were vastly different. Despite me having considered this when writing my interview guide and having made the decision to ask the question ‘what do you understand memory to be?’ early on, I found that many of my subsequent questions still relied on a certain extent of agreement regarding what memory is and what forms it can take. There is still a lot of consideration behind the decision of whether to introduce alternative ideas of memory to participants in the interview or not to do so – with the ultimate hesitation being that I am skewing the conversation to get the answers that I want. At the same time, it is challenging when the person you are talking to have either never considered, or disagrees with, a particular ‘type’ of memory being memory at all.

I have found that the majority of participants have no quarrel with understanding memory as ‘things you remember from your past’ or ‘recalling facts’. However, as we venture into conversations regarding where memory exists, if at all, in the museum, the answers start to move in vastly different directions. To try and explore alternative perspectives on memory without putting words in people’s mouths, I sometimes ask ‘would you say that memories can exist outside of the mind?’. Sometimes the question was met with ‘yes, they exist in the artefacts/environment/stories because…’ and sometimes initially a ‘no, I don’t think so because that wouldn’t be memory’, to the same person half an hour later contradicting their earlier statement when saying ‘I mean, of course, memories also exist in the objects…’. Partially this change of view is likely related to the fact that we do not tend to reflect much upon the concept of memory in everyday life (unless you are studying it, that is). In turn, this can be seen as an invitation to consider the benefit of reflection, of contradicting yourself and of offering the opportunity to explain again.

Earlier this year, I spent a week at the first of three museums I am working with for my research interviewing the staff and volunteers as well as taking part in their day-to-day activities. I made the decision not to share my interview questions with the participants before the interviews, which generated some interesting on-the-spot answers to some fairly abstract and challenging questions. However, on numerous occasions, someone I had interviewed came up to me a few days later and said ‘I was thinking more about what I think memory is last night and…’ followed by observations and reflections that both confirmed and challenged my – and their previous – understanding of the topic. As reflection is beneficial in interview situations (Keightley, Pickering and Allett, 2012), I intend to return to the museum again for follow-up interviews to gather an understanding of how their ‘in the moment’ view of the nature of memory shaped the way they understood what they do as being ‘memory work’. For if memory is, indeed, ‘things you remember from your past’ those previous conversations are likely to have shaped the way they perceive memory in the present. By questioning the idea that we are all on the same page in conversations about memory and that our ideas remain unchanged after having had the opportunity to reflect we can open up new avenues of understanding what participating in memory work looks like not merely in a practical sense, but also in a conceptual sense.

If, as Olick argues, memory exist in various forms and ways, how memory is actively engaged with is of interest in gauging how those forms of memory are shaped. Understanding what we talk about when we talk about memory is fundamental to the future of participatory memory work, and if we are to enquire into how its actors perceive themselves as working with memory, we must take care to consider what memory means in any given instance (Keightley, 2010). In so doing, we can gain a better understanding of what engagement with memory looks like in museum community engagement activities and how memory is drawn on in museums’ position in the past, present and future. With that, we can further consider who contributes to public memory and in what ways, which can inform how socially inclusive and participatory memory work practices can be supported.


Contact information:  
Linnea Wallen is a PhD candidate in Public Sociology and Psychology at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. Her research focuses on the conceptualisation and use of memory in museum community engagement work. Contact her at lwallen@qmu.ac.uk or on Twitter: @linneawallens.



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