Stuff in Boston

There’s a post up at History@Work about the Boston Marathon bombing memorial. It’s written by Matthew Barlow, who’s very interested in space, which IMHO is a good perspective from which to approach such a subject. Memorial Mania came to mind, not simply because this memorial is exactly the sort of thing Doss would’ve included, but because observations about the intensely digital and personalized mediation of events arise in the case of this memorial.* The impact of, say, TV broadcasts has been hashed over for a few decades now; everybody recording, texting, and tweeting is a comparatively fresh phenomenon, and there is a real difference (albeit not a sea change) between 2010 and 2013.

Barlow brings up the question of a memorial’s meaning once it has been dismantled, and its future life in a repository:

It seems to me that the memorial is only that memorial when it’s whole. The entire site has been carefully curated by city workers, as well as some locals whom I’ve seen moving items around so that the general organization of the memorial remained intact. Either way, disembodied in some basement, with running shoes, baseball caps, placards, chalkboards, and photographs catalogued and placed in plastic bags and archival boxes, all these items will be is what they are, rather than the intensely powerful statement they were when they were carefully arranged and curated at the northwest corner of Copley Square.

Two points leap to mind. First, this is what archivists do. Second, mediation is unavoidable.

In reverse order, Barlow points out that the memorial was “curated.” That term has become contested in recent years. Should we celebrate the ability of the masses to engage in activities formerly reserved for the elites? (The public historian in me says yes, absolutely.) Should we be wary of the anti-intellectual implications behind assertions that training is not beneficial? (The graduate student in me says yes, absolutely.) But regardless of the word used, and the source of authority of the people engaging in the activity, the memorial didn’t just happen. People brought stuff, and then other people futzed with the display. They city allowed it to grow, and relocated it when required. Conscious mediation is part of the story of the memorial, and one potential side benefit of plunking material in an archives is that it becomes obvious that mediation has occurred.

This brings me back to my first point. Barlow is concerned that materials in an archives will lose their meaning. To a certain extent, that is unavoidable. Preserved artifacts won’t serve the same purpose as a public memorial, and inevitably will not serve the same public. Context matters. But archivists know that. The job is all about looking at the whole and picking out the important material, the artifacts (and other records: never forget those iPhone images) that will allow future historians (and students and curious Bostonians and whoever) to interpret a particular moment.

This is a good example of why archives need to be concerned with more than text, and need to be seen as concerned with more than text. Because this stuff matters–not just the fact of a memorial, but the stuff.

* And the event it memorializes. Bostonians on Facebook were my initial source of information: they were able to communicate that they were fine, and a bit of what was happening. I found out that the manhunt had heated up when friends reported hearing gunshots and explosions. Community has a way of warping space, with mixed results. I like being able to maintain ties with people I care about. I am also aware that my community did not just happen. (Friends from college are people I only met because we were sufficiently privileged to attend a SLAC.) Something equally noteworthy occurring at the same time in Wyoming or Argentina or Zimbabwe or just a couple miles away wouldn’t make it onto my radar, just as a function of the geographic spread of my community.

One thought on “Stuff in Boston

  1. Hey, thanks for reading. I could go on for years on the use and abuse of the term “curate” (like, here, for example,, it’s become a pretty much meaningless term, but, what are you going to do when writing of the memorial? As for archivists, indeed, it is what they do, sort of. In a box, stored in the City of Boston archives, those artefacts are shorn of their meaning, they are just someone’s running shoes that were left behind on Boylston St. in commemoration, and even if the artefacts are put on display again (at, say, the Boston Public Library across the street), they then require mediation for context. Of course, this is how history works, but my larger point in that blog post was about the immediacy of commemoration and memorialisation: these artefacts only had meaning in situ, there they were part of this emodied (and strangely moving) whole. There’s a comment on my own blog in response to this ( that points this out. I don’t have the answer, Brian (the commenter) suggests that perhaps these kinds of things work so well because they are temporary and ephemeral and are then gone? I think it’s a point worth considering.

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