Media and cultural memory – day one

So here we are on day one of the Iamhist conference, being held at the University of Copenhagen, on the theme of ‘media and cultural memory’. It’s so broad a theme that practically anything could be made to fit somehow, so long as it covers the media and history – for what is history but cultural memory in any case?

09.45 – Sitting on a bench on the immaculately clean and clean-cut university campus, glorious weather abounding. Have breakfasted with fellow inmates at the comically plain hotel (rooms just above prison cell status, but not much). Now for a Iamhist council meeting, once I have grasped the cryptic directions given to me.

14.10 – The council was what council meetings have a tendency to be. Now after lunch in the sunshine we are looking to kick off the conference with formal introductions, just as soon as the chaos in the registration queue is sorted out … and we’re ready.

14.15 – The dean of faculty of humanities hasn’t heard of Nordisk. So much for Danish cultural memory …

14.25 – Roundtable on memory and museums with Thomas Christensen (Danish Film Institute), Raye Farr (US Holocaust Memorial Museum), Suzanne Bardgett (Imperial War Museum).

15.25 – Christensen economically gives same presentation as he did in Bologna. The mechanics of sustaining film archives in a digital age. What is a digital object/original? “History can only be truly trusted if the primary documents survive unaltered”. That’s subtle – you can write history with digital surrogates, but our archives and museums must preserve the originals, or we have no history worth writing.

That’s sort of right. But film archiving is all about copying. I guess it’s that we must always be able to determine provenance – the memory of what the object (now digital) once was.

15.45 – Much discussion of importance of capturing first person testimony, but I wonder if our compulsion for collecting oral history is greater than the actual wish we have to consult this. Ultimately the only memories we have are our own.

16.45 – Parallel session on radio and sound history, and Foucault gets his first mention. It won’t be the last.

16.20 – And now Derrida. The speaker asks Whither spectrality? Whither transindividualtion? Search me. I have Archive Fever on my bookshelves but I don’t know of any archivist who has read it.

16.40 – LARM audiovisual research project, which is generating one million hours of Danish radio. Wow. Might there be a case for having too much memory? Recordings from 1931 onwards. Aims to stream sounds to researchers to their own computers and mobiles. 3.35M euros project grant.

Power of radio to give illusion of proximity to an event. How are they overcoming the copyright issues? (It’s for HE users only, and covered by licence) And how extensively do they expect it to be used?

17.05 – Third speaker from this same project on how to deal methodologically with radio recordings that no longer exist. When secondary sources (scripts etc) become primary sources.

Intriguing observation – analogue archives offer potentially infinite information, digital archives are closer to a finite amount of information.

Fascinating project. I hope it gets the use to match its potential. Researchers struggle so much with audio archives – more so than film. It’s the curse of the time-based medium, it takes time to listen to it.

17.45 – Looking forward to this – Stephen Badsey on Media, Memory, and the Transformation of First World War History. Keynote given in memory of the late Phil Taylor, a great historian of media and propaganda.

20.55 – It was a terrific talk from Steve Badsey (ex IWM and Sandhurst, now at Wolverhampton). On military history v cultural history, and pretty withering about the latter. Essentially military historians have revised all the sentimental ideas about WWI (the pity of war, lions led by donkeys etc), but until recently cultural historians have been more interested in the myth than the reality, while the popular idea remains rooted in poets and O What a Lovely War.

It’s rare to hear a talk which would go down as effectively with a general audience as with an academic one. Some gems I noted down:

  • Think of all those who did well out of the war: Hollywood producers, Irish nationalists, British women over 30 (who got the vote)
  • There were two Western Fronts – the one of literary/cultural theory, and the one of military history
  • Not everyone appreciates the fact as yet that you can be interested in military history and yet not be a murderous psychopath
  • For many soldiers their frontline experience was better than they knew at home, and with the risk of violent death possibly less

Also he spoke about the increased appreciation of visual media (including film) as evidence, a heartening trend that has grown as access has grown. We archivists just have to keep on making more available.

Good chats over dinner about access to scholarly journals online, repairs to the Little Mermaid, Foyle’s War, the necessity of having Journey’s End on DVD, and the possibility of newsreel footage proving that the Titanic never sank …

More on the morrow in another post.

2 responses

  1. Thanks for your live blogging of this conference. The relationship between media and memory is the core business of Iamhist while it wants to promote a deeper understanding of the past. But what about the impact of technology on historiography as a profession and a science today? Maybe you can figure out what participants think of this issue which seems to linger in the background of the conference.

  2. It’s an omnipresent but largely unspoken theme, certainly. There may be more on this this afternoon (day 2) with some papers on new media.

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