When we think about memory in an educational context, we might recall cramming dates, people, places, formulas, vocabulary, and mnemonic devices into our heads so that we would excel on the seemingly countless examinations. However, memory should also serve a more essential purpose in an educational setting, which is to have students analyze, reflect, contextualize, and present moments from our personal and collective identities. Memory is largely subjective, which means that everyone remembers and expresses memories in a unique manner. We might remember things similarly and objectively such as that America was attacked on September 11th, 2001, June 6, 1944 was D-Day, or that Napoleon was the Emperor of France from 1804 to 1814. However, we each bring a specific association to the event, person, place, and time in question. In other words, experiential learning combines both experience and education, a combination of the subjective and objective, which informs how we perceive and relate to certain memories. Therefore, one individual, upon reflecting on September 11th, 2001, will have a different memory of it than their classmate because they experienced different memories. For example, someone who lived in New York City will have a fairly different account of the tragic course of events than someone who was across the country at the time. A WWII Veteran will have a different recollection of D-Day than a young history scholar. Both of these dates might have been unique in that it was someone’s birthday, or anniversary, which has an entirely different emotional association. A person thinking about Napoleon’s conquests might also remember their first dog, a French Bulldog named Napoleon, or that the first date they went on with their wife was at a patisserie where they shared a sweet slice of custard known as a napoleon.
Since the first artist put pigment to surface, memories have been vividly recorded. Throughout history, works of art have expressed a wealth of personal and collective memories. For example, paintings such as Raphael’s The School of Athens (1509-1511) contain symbolism, recognizable figures, and narrative information that is both well known and open for interpretation. Viewing works of art evoke specific memories depending upon a multitude of factors including (but not limited to) where they were seen, when they were seen, the context of viewing, and what about the work relates most to the viewer. Many artists throughout history have relied on their own memory of the past, present, and future to create their works of art, like Raphael did in his imagined scene.
Contemporary artists Krzysztof Wodiczko, Ofri Cnaani, Maya Lin, Natali Bravo-Barbee, and Do Ho Suh all make works of art where the subject matter reflects and presents personal and/or collective memories. Wodiczko’s multi-media projects such as Abraham Lincoln War Memorial (2012) transform public spaces into sites of collective memory and historical memorialization. In Abraham Lincoln War Memorial, each projection of a soldier provided a different account about the toll war has had on the individual. We all know the facts about past, present, and current wars (cramming for those history exams!), however, the personalized recollections provide alternative and intimate insights into these widely known events. While text books teach us the what/where/when/why/who of past and current events, we learn about the social and emotional aspects of war through Wodiczko’s installations (more about his work in relation to memory has previously been discussed in an earlier post).
Ofri Cnaani’s Moon Guardians (2013) reflected memories from historical residents in New York City’s Meatpacking District. As a result of gentrification, the neighborhood has changed from a working class, immigrant, and avant-garde community to a high-end shopping mall and cultural scene for the rich and famous. Cnaani projected videos of a butcher, a drag queen, an art gallerist, and an elderly couple, that could no longer afford to live there. Each former resident recalled the memories they had while living in the Meatpacking District. The videos provided a diverse and vibrant narrative of the neighborhood’s rich history and the personal lives it impacted (read more about Moon Guardians in this prior post).
Maya Lin’s most famous works are large scale memorials that pay tribute to such subjects like the soldiers who lost their lives in the Vietnam War, women’s contributions to higher education, and nature (much of her work is environmentally themed, addressing concern for the depletion of natural resources and land). Lin’s memorials are important sites for a variety of people. They provide a cathartic, solemn, and efficacious reactions depending on how the individual remembers the victim or event that is being memorialized. Many of the family and friends of soldiers who lost their lives in the Vietnam War return to the site of Lin’s Vietnam War memorial each year. For them, the memorial itself becomes a place where memories are formed and live on.
Do Ho Suh’s Rubbing/Loving (2016) utilized drawing and creative rubbing techniques to memorialize the apartment and studio where the artist lived and worked for eighteen years. The flat was the first and the last place the Suh lived in New York City and he began his career as an artist while living there. The building was slated for the market and would eventually be renovated, so Suh’s act of creating a life-size rubbing of his apartment became the only physical traces that remained. Most of us remember our childhood rooms, our first college dorms, apartments, or houses. These are uniquely personal memories for a variety of reasons, whether it be social, emotional, or physical. A person’s room is arguably the most intimate place that exists in their life. By sharing his apartment with the public, Suh is asking us to recall our own feelings and perceptions of what home means to us.
Natali Bravo-Barbee‘s practice as a photographer is, in essence, to capture memories at specific moments in time. Bravo-Barbee’s photographic process of making cyanotypes, explores the intricate memories that are conjured from material objects. She does this by arranging and composing still lifes from personal articles of clothing or objects from her families past, which speak to her intersectional identity as a woman, an immigrant, and an artist. Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1993), stated that when left to its own devices, the mind begins to hallucinate. Therefore, we need objects to help give direction and purpose to our lives by stabilizing the mind. He describes objects as having positive and negative consequences on our personal lives and amongst the culture we are a part of. Objects give us power, they become extensions of ourselves, and remind us of social interactions and other moments in our lives. They can also become an addiction or a crutch for us to get by more easily. Bravo-Barbee’s works of art show us how personal objects have the power to hold and exhibit memories and express a sense of self.
In the educational environment, students should be encouraged to share and reflect upon their memories and past experiences. Sharing how one perceives a moment in time is inspiring and can spur an in depth conversation, which builds empathy and a greater understanding of our personal and collective identities. We all remember differently and our interpretations of these memories adds to the richness of our culture and intersectionality as a society. Making art is a great way to contextualize our memories and express them to others. Good motivating questions for students of all ages to begin the creative process are “when was a time when you felt sad?” “when was there a moment that you felt powerless?” “who’d like tell us about a time you helped someone in need,” and “what is one thing that you can’t live without?” These questions open the door for personalized reflections that are rooted in each student’s memory. The results will be empowering because recalling specific memories enables deep connections to be made in relation to the students’ lives.
Mihaly Cslkszentmlhalyl, “Why We Need Things.” In History from Things, essays on Material Culture, edited by Steven Lubar and W.David Kingery, (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993,) pps. 20-29.