Contemplating commemoration in a digital world
The act of remembrance is complex. It can be a pure expression of love and appreciation and in parallel a contradictory and multi-faceted message of mamae (pain), loss, pride, and frustration. What happens when the commemoration of a person is undertaken in the digital realm? What are the ethics around protecting and sharing these examples of oftentimes personal self-expression? Or when the physical commemorations are cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances such as a natural disaster or in our current case a pandemic?
Online Cenotaph is a military database that acknowledges New Zealand service personnel and enables the public to contribute notes, images and data into each individual record. Over the past five years the database, that consists of 235,000 records (and counting), has received more than 100,000 contributions. Every record with added information, images and notes has been activated by these contributions. However, the research potential of this collective memorialisation has yet to be harnessed by researchers and curators alike. I am interested in how we can enable this resource to be used in a way that deepens our understanding of commemoration and memorialisation in New Zealand.
Commemoration at Tāmaki Paenga Hira
Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira is responsible for the perpetual commemoration of the service personnel of the Auckland Province. Online Cenotaph enables our visitors to further understand the individual impact that war has had on our nation. It provides an outlet for expression and helps connect our visitors to the past. Online Cenotaph is only one part of the Museum’s ongoing commemorative programme. The Museum includes war collections, physical war memorials and galleries exploring conflict and peacekeeping. It provides education programmes as well as tours led by volunteers through our war galleries. The Museum also hosts regular commemorative events and manages formal commemorative protocols when welcoming dignitaries.
The ethics of sharing
Throughout my time with Online Cenotaph I have struggled with how we uphold the mana (authority / prestige) of our contributors without exploiting their vulnerability. We have therefore avoided the wholesale posting of personal notes and messages as this feels like we are breaking the trust of our contributors.
While our contributors grant the Museum a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive, license to reproduce, modify or use the material posted under a Creative Commons license, it is unlikely they expect Auckland Museum to use their messages, of sometimes grief and pain, for the benefit of promoting a database. We need to ensure that people continue to feel safe to express themselves.
Wider Museum use
The personal messages and images shared on Online Cenotaph help to highlight the ripple effect one service person’s experience can have across time, space and generations. This is not something that can be captured by the letters and war diaries or objects held within our physical collections as they act as a snapshot in time. Online Cenotaph helps to supplement the narrative and arguably increase the mana of these taonga held in our collections — by continuing the narrative into today. However, this aspect of our digital collection is not currently leveraged by our curatorial staff. We are now starting to explore how these messages of remembrance could be appropriately used by our curatorial staff, educators and exhibitions teams. Is it reasonable for us to consider the personal messages left by whanau, comrades and researchers as a time capsule not to be disturbed for say a hundred years? Is that enough time for the pain of loss to be mediated? Or has the immediacy of the connected world we live in, lessened this settling period to five years or ten?
Personal messages left on Online Cenotaph have been read during commemorative events and have sat comfortably alongside readings from the archives. These readings have helped to return the audience’s focus to the individual. This is especially impactful when the collective loss cannot be fathomed by the audience. However, these commemorative events are ephemeral in nature. The voices echo through our Hall of Memories for but a moment in time. The Museum has yet to explore ways in which these digital contributions can be included in our exhibitions, research and public programmes.
This article was originally published on Medium.com.
Cite this article
Contemplating commemoration in a digital world. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 20 April 2020. Updated: 20 April 2020.