Thursday, March 1, 2012

Preserving Collective Memory

I just returned from the conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) and am busy digesting much of what was discussed.  While the conference is designed for museum professionals, as an artist working with Jewish themes there is much that applies to what I do.  One of the fun aspects of this conference is that it is a bit like a progressive dinner only with museums as fodder.  We often went to as many as three museums in a day with meetings in each as well as an opportunity to tour the exhibitions. 

This year the conference was in the Detroit area which has a large Jewish population although primarily in the surrounding suburbs. We spent much of our time visiting the uniquely Jewish institutions in the area, but also focused on other ethnic populations that are equally well represented in Detroit.

We began the event with a visit to the Motown Museum where our guide spoke about the Motown sound.  The “Motown sound” is reverberation, an echo effect best created in a bathroom where they once in fact recorded, but abandoned due to competing demands for its use.  They later recreated that sound in the garage where the many Motown recordings that we know were made and which still exists for visitors.

When we later visited the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, our guide, a beautiful woman in dreadlocks and African dress, met us under a high domed ceiling.  There she dramatically pointed out the meaning of an inlaid pattern on the floor as her voice reverberated to the ceiling.  We looked at each other and mouthed, “the Motown sound”.  I suspect someone “echoed” that in the design as they captured it too well for it to be purely accidental. 

The Wright Museum is the world’s largest institution focused on the African American experience.  Also in Detroit is the Arab American National Museum, the first museum of its kind, that focuses on the story of Arabs who came to the US and contributed to the American story.  With a local Arab population of 30,000, they serve both to reflect their experience and make it accessible to the larger population. Each of these museums focuses on a specific ethnicity and tells the story from their perspective, a reminder that while we may have shared experiences, history is viewed through many eyes that may experience and witness different parts of the story. 

At one of the sessions they spoke of museums as creating generational collective memory.  I was intrigued by that concept as much of what I am working on in the Jewish Identity and Legacy project relates to memory and legacy.  To take that concept further is the question of what is “collective memory”?  Is it the memory of the dominant culture or is it also represented uniquely through museums focusing on a specific ethnicity, be it black, Arab or Jewish?  And where do those “collective memories” meet?  Is there a nexus for all of them from which we each mine the fertile soil of an ethnic culture within a broader culture?  These are questions that are somewhat unique to the US with its mix of cultures.  If museums are in fact dealing with “generational” memory then curators play a role in both preserving past generational memory and capturing shifts in generational memory over time.

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