The first provocative article I read in the new year was Should we erase painful memories?. The author, Alison Winter, interrogates the role that memory has in the creation of our selves, and how trauma can affect our personalities and experiences of life – and what it could mean for our private and social selves if we are able to block traumatic memories. She writes (emphasis mine):
In 2002, psychiatrist Roger Pitman of Harvard took a group of 31 volunteers from the emergency rooms at Massachusetts General Hospital, all people who had suffered some traumatic event, and for 10 days treated some with a placebo and the rest with propranolol [a beta blocker]. Those who received propranolol later had no stressful physical response to reminders of the original trauma, while almost half of the others did. Should those E.R. patients have been worried about the possible legal implications of taking the drug? Could one claim to be as good a witness once one’s memory had been altered by propranolol? And in a civil suit, could the defense argue that less harm had been done, since the plaintiff had avoided much of the emotional damage that an undrugged victim would have suffered? Attorneys did indeed ask about the implications for witness testimony, damages, and more generally, a devaluation of harm to victims of crime. One legal scholar framed this as a choice between protecting memory “authenticity” (a category he used with some skepticism) and “freedom of memory.” Protecting “authenticity” could not be done without sacrificing our freedom to control our own minds, including our acts of recall.
I find these fascinating issues. Even though memory is by its very nature fallible, I know I would be loathe to let someone manipulate my own memories in any way for fear of what else might be lost, including my sense of self. This, too, is something Winter touches on.
These worries draw their force from a deep-seated attachment to two related beliefs: first, that we are, in some ambiguous but important way, the accretion of our life experiences; and second, that those life experiences are perfectly preserved even if our ability to remember them is far from perfect. When Alzheimer’s disease patients lose significant amounts of memory, dismayed friends often say that their very selves have crumbled or faded away and that in some literal way they are “no longer themselves.”
The thought here is not that people believe their memories are perfect — far from it. Common understandings of memory centrally involve the idea that memories are unreliable, fickle and capricious. But there is another belief about memory that has been articulated by many figures in memory research: that in some fundamental way, secreted within us are perfect records of past experiences, even if we might never access them consciously.
It’s interesting stuff.
But why am I writing about this on a museum technology blog? Well, maybe it’s because museums are themselves a memory device, but as I read the article I found myself thinking about museum objects and their ‘memories’. Like our own memories, we know that our understandings and interpretations of artifacts are “unreliable, fickle and capricious.” They change with time, and with new information. However, there is also a sense that our objects contain within them some perfect record of their past – and through them, our own past – even if they cannot be accessed.
The article had one sentence in particular, written about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that caught my attention:
Emotions associated with a past event can be stored independently of the “data” of the event itself, so that someone with amnesia about a particular event that took place, for instance, at a certain location could feel an echo of the emotion associated with that location in spite of not recalling what happened.
This idea, of the split between the emotion of an event and its “data” or the information about what actually occurred, could be an interesting metaphor for museum collections in our current technological context. How often are our artifacts and their related data stored and read together? As collections databases move online and (ideally) become open and usable in new contexts from the ones that we have to date imagined them, then surely we need to ensure that the data memory of the object is as accurate as possible to allow for interrogation, and even a sense of authenticity – to ensure that it can be a credible witness to the object’s known history? Although the authentic object is not available for investigation online, maybe authentic data could be, if museum object files were digitised as PDF’s and put online (where possible – obviously taking into account privacy concerns and copyright issues etc), and historical changes to collection records were made public.
After all, as in the case of the patients who were treated with propranolol in the aftermath of a trauma, I wonder how trustworthy any interrogation of our collections and artifacts through their online data can be if part of the associated memory is wiped away, and we are left only with a sanitised and safe version? At the moment, in all collection databases that I can think of,** the collection record is more an acknowledgement of what is in a collection (ie we have this object, and it is important because…), rather than a usable resource that tracks the known history of the object and its associated data. As much as there is a tacit agreement within the sector that objects are polysemic and always open to reinterpretation, the way collection data is made available to the public is still largely sterilised. It is untraumatic, but also difficult to interrogate.
How much more interesting could online collections be if it was possible to see not only when an object was made, but when it was acquired and by whom (and even why). The sense of being able to look through a collection and discover that under one director, the emphasis was on collecting modern art objects, whilst another oversaw the collecting primarily of contemporary ceramics could provide different and incredibly interesting stories about our museums and their collections. Instead of needing to tell stories about our objects, to some extent, the data might begin to be able to speak for itself and make possible new kinds of stories.
And thus I wonder whether museums should be making public the full informational histories of their objects. Doing so would obviously require a significant amount of resources, and would in fact require a major rethink about the role of the museum website. Putting this kind of documentation online would expose the fact that museums don’t always get things right, and there is vulnerability in that. But it could also make possible a more full interrogation of our objects and collections. The museum website could become as significant an asset as our physical buildings, but for entirely different reasons.
Or we can continue to erase the painful memories of our collections data, and show only the cleanest and most current interpretative information… But museum objects often have very long memories, and it strikes me as a shame that we only get to see the short-term and generally agreed-upon ones online, rather than the murky and more traumatic aspects of their pasts.
What do you think?
**If there are any museums that do currently make public and highlight changes to the collection record, it would be great to hear about them.