Return to Sender on tour

by Elizabeth Benjamin


March and April have been busy here at Return to Sender with two opportunities to showcase the prototype in its early form.

Part 1: Taking Europeana to the US!

In March I had the exciting opportunity to present the early results of our Europeana project at the conference of the American Comparative Literature Association, in Washington, DC. This took the form of a paper in the seminar on The Artistic Praxis of Digital Space, and builds upon some work I’m doing on Francophone representations of cultural memory, with a particular focus on WWI. Through this paper, I situated our map within established, national representations of WWI, problematising the notion of government sanctioned, and therefore politicised versions of cultural memory. This was then contrasted with the international and arguably more democratic approach of the Europeana archives on which our current project is based. During the talk I showed some images and initial results of the map, while we were finalising the demo for later workshop use.

Some questions posed during this paper included the following:

  • Does the digitally curated memory space impose homogenisation of experiences and cultural forms or the de-valuation of historical artistic processes and praxis?
  • On the other hand, what is the potential of these sites for increased accessibility and pedagogical potential?
  • Does the interface constitute a complete consumerisation of memory, or an inclusive practice of increased accessibility?
  • How can we use digital media to innovate the teaching of cultural memory?

The two sites of comparison were the French government’s Chemins de mémoire and Centenaire. Some interesting conclusions could be drawn through the three sites (including Europeana/Return to Sender).

Fig. 1: Chemins de mémoire’s interactive map function.

Chemins de mémoire’s pedagogical potential can mostly be seen through the bringing together of information (inwards), and the linking to external and further sources (outwards) but also the interactive nature of certain elements, especially the map (one of our sources of inspiration for Return to Sender), which allows for a sense of micro/macro perspectives on a particular theme or type of memory. The echoing of familiar web-based interfaces (such as Google Maps, and to some extent Instagram/Pinterest) allows for increased accessibility to the subject in question, namely conflict and memory narratives. A section on ‘mémoire partagée’ (shared memory/remembrance) allows for a lessening of the potential negativity surrounding nationalised mediation of memory on top of the technological medium. The digitally curated memory space through Chemins de mémoire imposes a certain level of homogenisation of experiences and cultural forms, in the standardisation and rendering consistent of sources, including to fit the website’s aesthetic (e.g. all of the memory sites are presented in uniform boxes, with same information). In this case I would not argue that the site de-values historical artistic processes and praxis, but it does adapt content to suit its agenda and aesthetic, which has its potential dangers, culturally speaking. The opening up of pedagogical potential, within and beyond French Studies, perhaps outweighs this latter problem. An issue noted with this site is that the map element often suffers from maintenance problems – with long periods in which it has not worked, and even moments where it seems to have disappeared – lending the site issues with ongoing narratives of memory.

Fig. 2: Centenaire’s ‘drop-down’ structure.

Centenaire is less obviously accessible than Chemins de mémoire, most notably in that it does not have the map element, but has its own advantages of presentation. Its very visual drop-downs allow for rapid snapshots of the content, giving a very fluid, scan-able but modular setup. The site has a dedicated ‘educational space’, including ‘educational services’, ‘examples of school projects’ and ‘educational resources’. While this site does not so much homogenise the memory of war, its potential weak spot is hidden in its heterogeneity – most notably through its collections of collections, which somehow aestheticise violence as well as rendering the memoryscape more consumable.

Fig. 3: Europeana’s curated collections.

The Europeana archive shares some of these issues, which has presented some challenges for the creation of our digital tool. The project has so far exposed a number of problems in this kind of work, with consequences on the perception of these archives and artefacts. These include:

  • Different levels of collation, from individuals contributing directly to Europeana, through to physical (often local) archives and up to national or international digital aggregators;
  • Difficulties in finding physical (i.e. able to be plotted on our map) locations for digital collaborations (who may not have a singular address) or individual contributors (whose locations should not be made public);
  • Specific search terms and queries used, often yielding huge variations in the number of results;
  • Reusability, and the issue of copyright versus creative commons.

These various issues are to some extent inevitable in the current state of digital archives. International collaborations and user contributions create a wealth of accessible data and a fantastic resource for research, particularly the more personal narratives from user-generated content. But the different ways data is entered, accessed and retrieved reveal the politics of metadata. It seems often that it’s not just about what you know but how you know.

Drawing these together with our experience of the Europeana archive, we can see a number of tensions. On the one hand, when objects are only present in physical archives, they often get ‘lost’, either literally, through not being seen or displayed, or virtually, precisely through not being available in digital form. On the other hand, websites (particularly Chemins de mémoire) are subject to technical difficulties, maintenance requirements etc. so share faults – and can never really replace physical archives. But they do work together nicely, particularly the latter with its invitation to ‘walk the paths of memory’ by visiting the sites in person. In highlighting that perhaps the digital and physical spaces will always be intertwined in this respect, we are reminded of the ‘tourism’ element of Chemins de mémoire, in that it is supposed to invite you to visit in person, but also to create your own memoryscapes through its digital form.

This paper also gave us the opportunity to give a sneak peek of our own platform (below) – to be further developed in our demonstration at Solent University, Southampton, in April. Tune into the next blog post to read more, and see more pictures!

Fig. 4: Early prototype of the Return to Sender map interface.


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