What is “Memorial Worlds”?

I first created and used the analytic framework “Memorial Worlds” as I was researching the use of public space for commemorative purposes. Public memorials are visual representations of narratives that are important to a society; their construction and utilization provide important indicators of the social discourse at specific times and the social groups who attain the power to control that discourse. Public monuments and memorials are works of art that are similar in some ways to the production and consumption of all forms of artwork. Howard Becker states that art is publicly produced and consumed as a result of “art worlds” that serve “complex cooperative networks” (pg. 1).  Artwork exists because different groups of people assume specific bundles of tasks and either accept or negotiate conventions that dictate the form, materials and abstractions that create those works. The conventions also “regulate the relations between artists and audiences, specifying the rights and obligations of both” (p. 29). In some ways, commemorative conventions also regulate the relations of memorial producers and receivers. When public art memorials exist in public space, the portrayed person or event represents an essential component in an official narrative. Kenneth Foote claims that the typology of an event determines whether the physical landscape is marked by commemoration. Events that cause community shame are frequently either rectified or obliterated; the absence of a marker is demonstration of society’s attempt to eliminate the event from social discourse. Other types of events, those essential to the community narrative, require markers of remembrance that commemorate the site as either sacred or designated.

These public memorials purport to represent a community’s interpretation of a significant event or person. Yet, differing experiences and perspectives of social ruptures create heterogeneous, conflicting commemorative communities. It is virtually impossible for a public memorial to represent community consensus; the existence of a memorial, as well as its form and location, reflect the perspectives of those who gain power in the commemorative process. Unlike Becker’s cooperative ‘art worlds’, I have found that the competing perspectives and conflicting intentions are reflected in groups that form “Memorial Worlds”: the Lost, the Invisibles, the Bereaved, the Survivors, the Creators, the Interpreters, the Agents, the Perpetrators, and the Gatekeepers.  Not every memorial will include all of these groups, and some individuals may be defined as members of multiple categories (e.g. Bereaved and Creator).

Over the past several years, I have realized that my “memorial worlds” framework is useful in the broader study of commemorations.

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