Liza Potts, MATRIX Director of User Experience Design Projects, recently traveled to Paris, France in order to perform research and planning work for an upcoming project centered on the emerging idea of participatory memory.
Participatory memory examines the ways in which everyday people memorialize events outside of the officially sanctioned observations. Instead of accepting what government or authoritarian sources proclaim about “what really happened,” there is a rising tendency for people to add their own imprint to these spaces, sharing their own recollections of past events— especially the tragic. Participating within these official and often unofficial spaces, everyday people can offer additional commentary about the significance and meaning of those events. While these spaces may be seen as outside of the more “official” or sanctioned activities, there is great value in understanding how people react, inscribe, and cope within these spaces of memory.
Paris is a city that bursts with examples of this kind of activity— and for good reason. The city contains public spaces that house memories of tragic events, including the tunnel where Princess Diana was killed, the grave sites of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, and memorials for several air crashes. There are also many signs of commemoration, whether it is marking spaces on the Eifel Tower or leaving behind a padlock signifying a romantic relationship on one of the city’s many bridges. Paris has cultivated a culture where active participation in contributing to public memorials is expected and somewhat accepted. The city is filled with spaces in which citizens and visitors have felt comfortable contributing to memorials: whether that be leaving flowers at a grave site, spray painting a messages to a lost idol, or leaving a kiss to a literary hero.
Although these creations of participatory memory are exciting and useful in revealing a new depth to our public remembrance of what happened at these sites, they are also temporary. Time and nature are not kind to chalked messages, taped up photos, or bouquets of roses. And government officials are increasingly investing more money in “cleaning up” these memorial sites. (At last count, the amount of money invested in “restoring” the Princess Diana memorial was over €60,000).
Potts is working on a way to digitally preserve these types of participatory memory activities. Her project focuses on ways to make connections between the physical spaces where these memories are being documented and a new digital space where those same memories could be preserved and shared. She hopes to build an interface that would allow contributors to these memorial sites to share their memories online and then explore the collective memorial through space (“How is this space physically constructed? What does this space look like?”) and time (“How does my memory fit into what others have contributed before me?”). Potts plans on leading a researched study abroad to Paris next summer that will work with students to address these questions and design and test an appropriate user experience.
Potts’ project in participatory memory fits in well with her work at MATRIX and with MATRIX’s larger commitment to the digital humanities and cultural heritage. Although MATRIX has worked to create archives previously, Potts’ attempt to create what she terms a “participatory archive” that digitally documents constantly changing, intrinsically transient, and inherently non-digital objects is a fairly new concept and one that pushes boundaries in the digital humanities. We are excited about this project and look forward to benefiting from the lessons learned about archiving participatory memory.