Media and cultural memory – day three

I have two definitions of history which I keep coming back to in my mind.

1. History is what was known once but has been forgotten.

2. History is the present’s interpretation of the past.

Time and again historical questions, interpretations and hypotheses involve trying to recover something that was common knowledge. Equally, history can only be seen through our ever-changing eyes. The history we understand now is not what those tomorrow will understand.

All of which makes the idea of history and cultural memory a bit nebulous. If history is about forgetfulness and re-interpretation, then remembrance has little to with it, and the memories of others are theirs alone.

But we press on.

Day three of the Iamhist conference on the above theme, and the last day for me, though conference and events continue to Sunday. Nothing among the 9am parallel sessions immediately grabs me, but I think I’ll go for New Media, New Memory – three papers piquantly bringing together pirate radio, the Bible, and the Tea Party.

10.20 – Efficient paper from David Dault on ideologically-biased Bible commentaries (e.g. explaining that the invitation to share all your goods is not an invitation to communism) which seemed to belong to a different conference entirely.

Chirpy paper by A.W. Badenoch on pirate radio, mostly a critique of The Boat that Rocked for misremembering Radio Caroline. Do films ever remember anything correctly? What is a correct memory anyway?

Katy Scrogin on the Tea Party’s use of new media to disremember. Depressing account of ideology run riot. History as the past reinterpreted by the present in extremis. Or a denial of any sort of history at all. I guess their belief in interpretation overriding historical fact makes them cultural theorists of a kind.

You fear that the media have failed, because fundamentally they cannot communicate truth. But rather they ably reflect human fallibility.

I need to escape into the past. I need a paper on newsreels.

12.25 – Somewhat disappointing paper on Swedish newsreels which announced work to come rather than work done. Lively paper by Scott Anthony on iconography of Imperial Airways, though not quite sure how it connects with memory.

Jo Fox gave authoritative, clear paper on the self-myth making of the British documentary movement, revisiting their 1930s’ work as an ideal for engaging with the working man and helping to change society. They were driven to myth and overstatement because they were arguing their case in the face of a sceptical comissioning body (Ministry of Information) which was probably more interested in results. Did they really believe documentary would be fundamental to building post-war Britain? Such vanity.

13.15 – Now this is going to be fun – keynote from Richard Howells on the Titanic and modern memory. Just what’s needed at this stage of things – a star turn.

17.50 – An entertaining deconstruction of all things Titanic, pointing out that in historical terms its sinking is little more than a footnote, but in mythological terms it retains huge importance. The myth-building began almost as soon as it sank (witness the fakery in newsreel from the time), and has changed according to need, from early patriotic interpretation, to nationalist (the Nazi film version), to liberated Rose in James Cameron’s avowedly historically accurate version.

We learned lots about Titanic merchandise, including teatowels, sinking bathpugs, and cheese. Our ‘memories’ (there are no surviving survivors) are all so post-modern, it’s too easy to forget that there was a real tragedy, with real people dying.

From multimedia myth to memories of cinemagoing, using evidence from the time or derived after the event though interviews. I chaired a session with microhistories from Guy Barefoot (Leicester), Lies Van de Vijver (Ghent) and Kathleen Lotze (Antwerp), all fine examples of what sometimes gets called the new cinema history – empirical evidence, databases, sociological questions, films as something seen by people. Right up the Bioscope’s street.

17.20 – I’m now journeying back to find that street once more. Maybe more thoughts later.

20.20 (UK time) – Back home (Gatwick is starting to feel like home). Do I have any more thoughts? Cultural memory is a con, at least where history of the usual sort is concerned. Like personal memory, it’s about what a society wants to have happened rather than what did. Of course history is all about interpretation in any case, but not the interpretation by society. History is made by historians – by people who know what they are doing. That’s why bodies like Iamhist are important and why conferences such as this are important. They are essential means for discovering the truth. It is good to explore cultural myths and memories, but the truth is our anchor.

And now I’m going settle down with my newspaper and read all about the sorry end of The News of the World.

Good night.

Media and cultural memory – day two

And here we are on day two of the Iamhist conference, on the theme of Media and cultural memory. First up is a parallel session on Memory and World War I, right up my street and I’m chairing it. Best to put down the Blackberry – it won’t look so good.

10.55 – Three interesting papers on memory and World War I, each in its way looking at how the visual archive has served as commemorative evidence. Sheena Scott on fleeting images of disabled soldiers in French cinema of 1920s/30s. Are there so few because the French repressed it or because it didn’t appeal to a filmgoing public? There is nothing like Lucky Star in the US.

Roel vande Winkel on With Our Troops on the Yser (1928/29), war footage repurposed by Flemish nationalists for propagandist ends, with emphasis of gruesome death that you wouldn’t get in commercial cinema.

Leen Engelen on the interesting theme of picture postcards of Edith Cavell and Belgian-born heroine, also executed by the Germans, Gabrielle Page. Statues as one form of visual commemoration turned into another, postcards.

11.20 – Another session, another war – now it’s WW2. Brian Petersen on Danish resistance movies – made after the war, fairly obviously. Particularly Three Years After (1948) on a disillusioned former resistance fighter. A commercial flop for telling audiences what they did not wish to hear.

Wendy Burke on heroes and villains in Dutch war-themed films 1962-1986. Refreshing to have someone from one country speaking about another. It would be interesting to have a rule for film conferences saying that no one can give a paper about their home nation. What new things we might learn.

Here film moves from ideas of goed (good, noble) and fout (bad, collaborationist) to the grey area where many actually lived. Yet there were no Dutch films about the war 1951-61 and only two in the 1960s. The Silent Raid (1962) has all Dutch working collaboratively for the resistance. Long wait til Soldier of Orange (1977) which shows a more complex picture of resistance and collaboration. Some have to collaborate to avoid worse for themselves or loved ones. It took over 30 years for Dutch film to face up to such truths. We can accept more the further we are away from it, in place and time. Inevitably.

Ilse Raaijmakers on commemoration of the war in Dutch newspapers. Dutch had no recent experience of war so had to learn for new the art of commemoration. They established a national liberation day which no one much followed, so they stopped it being a public holiday in 1954, at which point everyone (insofar as newspapers can mean everyone) protested. So newspapers drove it to become a national holiday again in 1955.

13.05 – Things going well so far. So many pitfalls with the theme of memory, let alone the yawning vagueness of cultural memory, but Iamhist types know how to steer through such territory.

13.20 – Now for keynote from Christine Becker, winner of Iamhist book prize for It’s the Pictures that Got Small, a really excellent work on film stars keeping their careers going on US 1950s TV. Yours truly was one of the judges so I know. Do read it. Wise, revelatory, comprehensively researched and a pleasure to read.

Gee, she talks even more quickly than I do when giving papers. And she’s speeding up …

Entertaining account of the research process focussing on the perils and pleasures of using interview material. Eternal watchfulness needed, but sometimes people do actually speak the verifiable truth. Also the challenges of dealing with those who didn’t want to remember.

A good talk. Sort of a masterclass on conducting research and turning it into publication. I think it will have inspired an audience member or two.

14.30 – Now three papers on new media history. First up, Berber Hagedoorn on Dutch multi-platform TV and history. Focus on rescreening of archival TV – catch-up, online archives, open media platforms (YouTube) etc.

Example of In Europe – TV series, website, virtual atlas, blog, radio broadcasts, user contributions. TV keeps the memories alive, archives on their own don’t. Discuss.

Nice, optimistic paper.

14.50 – Krisitan Handberg offers us the phrase “digital yesterland”. Who will thank him?

Agh, Yesterland exists – it’s a virtual theme park.

The retro boom of today. An obsession with the past beyond the domain of history. Is there more to the past than history? I must ponder this.

Retro is always a gesture, never total recall. It’s us playing with the past.

Perhaps we look so much to the past because we no longer look to the future.

15.15 – Sian Barber on EU Screen, the TV equivalent to European Film Gateway reported on last week. Aims to offer 35,000 open access items from European TV. That’s what 5M euros buys you. I’m greatly impressed by these ambitious, idealistic, rigorous projects, but I don’t know who they are for. Has anyone asked for a selective portal to European archival TV? Is this creating a shared heritage that doesn’t exist, or does it exist only we haven’t thought about it much, or will it now have to exist because we have created a platform for it?

16.20 – How politely the Danes are addressing us all in English. At the end of paper sessions they ask questions of one another in a foreign tongue when in their own land.

16.25 – Danish filmmaker Neils Vest introduces his documentary about Copenhagen’s squatters’ ‘free city’ Christiania.

To live outside the law you must be honest, as the great man sang.

18.55 – Hmm, the free life looks like it has about as much hassle as the unfree one, and they sing such terrible songs. Now by a canal listening to Danish trad jazz band play ‘It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing’. And now it’s time for supper and society.


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.

Iamhist in Copenhagen

If it’s Tuesday it must be Copenhagen. Yes, your jet-setting scribe had no sooner returned from Bologna then he was off on his professional travels once again, this time to attend the Iamhist conference (Iamhist being the International Association for Media and History), on the engrossing theme of ‘media and cultural memory’. Some of it will touch on silent film subjects, some of it will relate to general film history, and other bits probably won’t have all that much relevance at all but, heck, we’ll report on them anyway. It’s all knowledge.

So, as before, I’ll be doing live blogging on the conference with my trusty Blackberry, updating what will be daily posts with relevant stuff as it happens. So expect posts on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Information on the conference, with the provisional programme, is here.

I hope you’ll enjoy following it all.