Thursday, 12 February 2015



Vera Brittain as a Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse (1915)
With the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of WWI just behind us, I often find myself reflecting on the way Testament of Youth - a WWI auto-ethnography by acclaimed novelist, pacifist and feminist,Vera Brittain - transformed my nostalgic enthrallment with the War into a consciousness of the political and ethical implications of cultural heritage sites - implications that are, as I have since discovered, a condition of their very existence. Having been long fascinated by the uniquely alluring literariness of the Great War, during my previous MA I brought to Brittain’s memoir an emotionally charged admiration for Rupert Brooke’s collection of WWI sonnets - a poetic project that ennobled the British cause through its linguistic beautifying of both death and the soldiers’ exploits.While in no way ignorant to the horrific actualities of the War, I undoubtedly experienced the intended affect of the sentimentalized visual field that Brooke created in his sonnets, deeming their narratives of honour and patriotism sufficient justifications for, and triumphant immortalizations of,WWI’s fallen. So when I first encountered Testament of Youth’s incredulity towards Brooke’s poems, I was both unnerved and intrigued.

Rupert Brooke (1913)
For Brittain, the poems - consoling and poignant as they may be - were dishonest elucidations of history, sheathing the horrors of war in euphemisms that were as beautiful and impenetrable as language could allow (Fussell, 220). They exalted violence, destruction, death, and the arguably insubstantial cause for which a generation suffered, assimilating the unique and tragic circumstances of each and every wartime experience into an overarching romantic narrative about heroism and sacrifice. To rely on these aggrandizing narratives for a consolatory understanding of the War was to psychologically turn away from the dead. And for Brittain - who lost her fiance (Roland Leighton), brother (Edward Brittain), and two friends (Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow)- forgetting the dead was not only undesirable on the part of the mourner, but actually precarious for society moving forward. In collective cultural consciousness, violence would be valourized, suffering would be justified, if not forgotten, and the questionability of the cause would remain unexamined, leaving European society susceptible to repeatedly engaging in similar atrocities, the ultimate implication being that their future was entirely dependent upon how effectively they remembered their dead. Brittain, I think, believed that for individuals and societies to heal from the trauma of WWI, they had to continually move forward with their ghosts, and in my understanding this prescribed mode of healing involves a revolutionizing of the traditional “work of mourning.”

Brittain's fiance Roland Leighton
The contemporary body of thought on mourning is remarkably extensive, but what matters most is its general challenging of Freud’s seminal 1917 essay,“Mourning and Melancholia,” in which Freud claimed that for mourning to be successful, the griever had to emotionally detach from the lost person and reattach to a substitute. Unsuccessful mourning, marked by a resistance to substitution and a subsequent disinterest in the world, he pathologized as melancholia. Up until quite recently,Western conceptions of grief were still very much informed by this theory of consolation via substitution. Grief was considered to be a finite pain, one that was worked through and eventually alleviated through a cognitive erasure of the dead. But if Brittain’s memoir is any indication, for those who have experienced loss an end to grieving equates a relinquishing of love - which is as impossible as it is unwanted. And while this unbreakable bond with the deceased was once regarded as detrimental to the mourner, newer theories (like R. Clifton Spargo’s) suggest that it is conceivable to harbour that love and resume life. In fact, retaining that connection is arguably the only way for a mourner to truly reconcile with their loss.

Brittain's brother Edward Brittain
With Brittain’s memoir seemingly informing my research in Museum Studies, I am interested in the way cultural institutions are enabling mourners to maintain this trans-corporeal connection. The 9/11 Memorial Museum’s Beam Signing in Foundation Hall proved to be an interesting case study. Each table allows visitors to use their finger to handwrite a message of remembrance onto a digital touchscreen. Immediately upon submission, the messages are projected onto a 24 foot screen, overlaid with a world map to illustrate the boundlessness of 9/11’s impact.

Interactive Beam Signing in Foundation Hall
Jordan Fearon, in an interesting dissertation about mourning and social media, suggests that mourners keep faith with their dead through “post death rituals” (20).“The ritual,” she suggests,“must be identified in some manner as separate from the norm, establishing the sanctity of the event. Second, a core symbolic act must be completed.The third component is time to absorb the meaning of the act and the relationship with the deceased. [And] finally, it concludes with a return to normalcy” (20). In essence, the interactive tables in Foundation Hall can be said to encourage this very ritual.The tables exist in a designated space, constituting their use as an “event [that] is separate from the ordinary” (Fearon, 20). The inscription of a digital message to a loved one is the core ritual - an expression of grief - and having completed it, the individual is able to reflect on what they have done before returning to life outside of the Museum.With the incorporation of these tables, the Museum seems to have acknowledged the conceptual shift regarding a mourner’s need to maintain a trans-corporeal connection. It has provided the means for a mourner to cathartically work towards a reconciliation with what they have lost - to carry on with their ghosts in tow.

Have you encountered installations such as the Beam Signing? And if so, how effective was it? Can museums carry out the cultural work that is often prescribed to memorials? How effective are they at commemoration? In what ways are they limited?

Editor's Note: Kasey Ball is a first year MMst student with an MA in Literature at McGill University and BAH in Literature at Queen's University. This research was for a paper titled "Attenuating Distortion: New Media & The Redemption Of The 9/11 Memorial Museum" that looked at the various ways the 9/11 Museum was attempting to minimize the experience of distortion for mourners. If you are a Museum Studies student engaged in research for a work, volunteer, or school project that you would like to share, please contact Robin Nelson.

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