Friday, April 11, 2008

"Healing Wounds, Opening Wounds" - keynote address by Edward Linenthal

Edward Linenthal, Journal of American History and Professor of History, Indiana University
Keynote Address (click here for video excerpts from this speech)

Healing Wounds, Opening Wounds: the Burdens of Remembrance

As we deal with sacred sites of remembrance, issues of what is remembered and how it is remembered, have always been at the forefront of the questions asked. Linenthal brings up two topics these questions also need to address when looking at sites of remembrance: language and remembering sites that have been officially forgotten. I will just comment on his points made on the use of language at sacred sites.

He gets us to think of words used in remembering, memorializing, and interpreting events and the challenge they can be to work with. For instance:

Massacre vs. battle
Disaster, catastrophe, carnage, incident-what do they imply
Riot vs. resistance
Kill vs. murder
Lives lost-as if they can be found?
Impact of violence vs. futility of violence
Heros vs. victims

He asked, Do we not challenge the remembering of a ‘felt history’ and allow for language that is more in tune with what the major stakeholders need to hear? Alternatively, do we push the issue of language, especially with terms and definitions? How important is it for people visiting these sites to struggle with these terms especially in smaller spaces of interpretation? In many ways, this piggy backs the topic that has been floating on H-Public asking should all sites be “sites of conscience” or I would even ask “sites of controversy?” When it comes down to language and semantics, for many sites there is no way to escape controversy. What is a riot to one group is a resistance to another, etc.….

He also goes on to what I think is a provocative question: Are there spatial aspects to memorials and the use of “controversial language”? Can you use one type of language directly at the sacred site and a different set of words to describe the same event meters away? And if you can, how do arrive at the numerical number that puts a physical distance between a site and a memory that makes it ‘ok’ to make the interpretation of the site more critical and less “felt”?

As he stated, language can be defiling and the use of personal space can be defiling, and asks, “Is it ok to bruise a few feelings?” Since he posed no answer to this I thought it would be interesting to hear what others feel on this topic: When and how does our professional integrity stay fast or become flexible?

Kelly Britt

(Denise Meringolo also writes about Linenthal's speech on this blog.)

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