In September the Collecting Social Photo project was presented at an international workshop in Manchester, Collecting, Documenting and Using Archives of Spontaneous Memorials. Representatives from several countries in Europe had gathered to share experiences from collecting initiatives around spontaneous memorials. The workshop was facilitated by Kostas Arvanitis, Senior Lecturer in Museology, Institute for Cultural Practices, University of Manchester, and Maria Arias, PhD Student and Project Assistant, Institute for Cultural Practices, University of Manchester.
Kajsa Hartig and Elisabeth Boogh from the Collecting Social Photo team were invited to present the two collecting initiatives, Documentation 14:53 and #openstockholm, about the terrorist attack at Drottninggatan in Stockholm in 2017. The initiatives were performed by the Stockholm County Museum, in collaboration with the Stockholm City Museum – also represented at the workshop, and the Nordic Museum/Nordiska museet. Both initiatives were developed as case studies within the ongoing research project.
During the two days of the workshop several issues were discussed. In focus were the reasons for museums and archives to document and collect spontaneous memorials created by the public as a response to terrorist attacks and other traumatic events in the recent years. The role of the digital archive was also discussed, as a continuation of the physical memorial itself.
The collecting initiatives represented at the workshop were some of the most violent and traumatic events in Europe in the past years, Bataclan, Paris (2015), Nice (2016), Barcelona (2017) and Brussels (2016). From the UK the documentation of spontaneous memorials from the Shoreham Airshow disaster in 2015 was presented, as well as from the bombings at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in 2017.
Methods and issues
During the workshop methods for collecting spontaneous memorials were discussed, when and how to document and what to collect. The experiences shared among the participants showed that the very act of collecting is affecting the memorial itself, and this has to be considered and planned for in detail in order to respect the memorial, as well as the affected families’ and the public’s wishes and needs. In some cases the objects that were to be collected and removed from the memorial site, were replaced with fresh flowers in order to minimize the physical effect collecting had on the memorial.
The timing for collecting is also central, whether to collect immediately after an event or to let some time pass. At the same time as this is an issue for museums and archives to decide, this decision is also depending on many circumstances such as politics, reactions from society, and even weather. Several projects show that collecting and documentation has to be performed during an extended period of time in order for museums and archives to be able to collect and document extensively.
Most cases presented during the workshop showed that collecting objects and text documents from the memorial sites was most common. In some cases everything from the site was collected, and in others there were selections made. The Collecting Social Photo project was unique in the way that main focus was on collecting digital visual expressions from social media.
Some of the memorial archives and collections that were presented had also been digitized and disseminated online, either through rather traditional collections interfaces, or, as for example in the case of the archives from Barcelona and La Rambla, as interactive data visualisations.
Digitizing raises several issues, such as can we provide special access to the archives for families affected by the attack? How do we categorize the content in order to make sense of the collection and provide a context? How do we visualize in order to provide a relevant and useful experience of the content online? And which role does the digitized collection play in society afterwards? As trauma often is passed on to next generations, is it beneficial to provide access in order for those affected to be able to process? Can we compare to the effects of war?
One example of 3D scanning was presented, a scanning of the entire memorial site in Nice. This also opens up questions of how we can use digital tools and methods to document spontaneous memorials. Should museums and archives provide VR-experience for audiences to be able to re-visit the site?
Another important incentive to digitize could be that as not all people affected are from the town, digitizing and disseminating online can provide possibilities for healing and understanding traumatic events.
As a consequence of the many issues around collecting of spontaneous memorials, all workshop participants expressed the need for strategic work methods and routines, as well as being prepared for unexpected issues.
Some of the participants did collect entire spontaneous memorials. These efforts have proved to be costly and has in the long term often generated new expenses in terms of staff resources, packaging material, digitizing etc. expenses that are not covered by regular budgets as these new collections are unexpected acquirements. But even those who didn’t collect entire memorials expressed concerns over how to finance such rapid response collecting initiatives that involve both collection of objects and thorough documentation, and that raises needs for dissemination through digitizing of objects and possibly new web interfaces.
Collecting as politics
Several of the participants mentioned that local politicians had expressed wishes for the collecting initiative to be made. In some cases even requested collecting of everything from the memorial site. This raises a central question: Are museums/archives autonomous to make decisions around the collecting of spontaneous memorials? There are obviously different situations in different cities and countries, however requests from politicians as well as communities can put social pressure on organisations.
Some of the archives presented at the workshop had also been digitized, or as in the case of the Collecting Social Photo initiative, the material was digitally born. There are different ways of publishing the digitized material and a few examples are:
The Stockholm County Museum collection of digital photography from Stockholm, 2017:
The Nordic Museum/Nordiska museet collection from Stockholm, 2017:
Barcelona Memorial for La Rambla
Manchester Together Archive
Paris, Hommages aux victimes des attentats de 2015
Whatever digital archives are used for they need to provide a stable infrastructure. This is the experience from the Collecting Social Photo project, without infrastructure and user friendly interfaces, collecting here and now is very difficult.
As social media is part of the ongoing memorialization these expressions should be brought into the archives. However, as current databases can not fit all digital objects/collections and they can’t give a proper experience, bringing in digital reactions from social media into the collections can be difficult. There are several issues involved, such as the complexity of the digital photograph as the Collecting Social Photo project has written about in previous blog posts. Other issues concern the user’s experience of the spontaneous memorial once it has been digitized and accessed online. What experience do museums and archives wish to facilitate? How can we connect the digital archive and a permanent memorial?
The final discussions during the workshop highlighted the importance of further research around archiving spontaneous memorials. For example:
- Museums and archives need to understand the complex character of spontaneous memorials, as expressions of personal and collective grief but also as a place for protest. As the collecting initiatives presented at the workshop show, the memorials might include political and religious references as well as propaganda.
- Museums and archives also need to become aware of the specific conditions under which spontaneous memorials are collected. Collecting takes place outside under the eyes of the public. The circumstances are often strongly emotional. The work of the archivist or museum staff are being integrated into the commemoration process.
- There is a need to understand the status of the objects in society and to the families involved.
- It is sensitive material, but is there a point in time when it is not sensitive anymore? It is known that archives and collections are shifting status, but what does it mean in the case of spontaneous memorials?
- How should we consider the total sum of these documents. Do the documents cross fertilize each other? In this case place and date is central, not type of document. The documents function as a system.
- As the Collecting Social Photo project also has discovered is the case with social media photography, collecting of spontaneous memorials need to be collected quickly because of the fragile (and temporal!) nature of the material.
- Should there, or can there, be a timeframe for collecting?
- Should museums and archives collect from every terrorist attack? Or is it more important to collect the first? How would this then be perceived by the bereaved?
For the Collecting Social Photo project it has been a valuable experience to participate in the workshop, as it has put our collecting initiatives around the terrorist attack in Stockholm 2017 in the perspective of a European context. The conclusions from the workshop will also be brought into the final analysis of the Collecting Social Photo case studies.
Kajsa Hartig and Elisabeth Boogh