12/2/08

Memory Institutions

Thanks to everyone who provided some thoughtful comments on my last post about cultural heritage collections.  I’m still moving in the direction of defining my own universe of what I will consider as “cultural heritage” collections – but it may also mean that I have to craft a my own name for it.

But before I move on, I wanted to poke a little at an alternative to “cultural heritage” that has also been floated as a collective term for the kinds of institutions that I’m interested in — memory institutions.

Lorcan Dempsey described memory institutions as:

Archives, libraries and museums are memory institutions: they organise the European cultural and intellectual record. Their collections contain the memory of peoples, communities, institutions and individuals, the scientific and cultural heritage, and the products throughout time of our imagination, craft and learning. They join us to our ancestors and are our legacy to future generations. They are used by the child, the scholar, and the citizen, by the business person, the tourist and the learner. These in turn are creating the heritage of the future. Memory institutions contribute directly and indirectly to prosperity through support for learning, commerce, tourism, and personal fulfilment.

In the paper linked above, Dempsey doesn’t provide any sources for his ideas about memory institutions – I’m guessing that it may have been inspired by the discussions in scholarly communities about history, memory and culture and the emergence in the U.S. of digital projects like American Memory (followed by a series of state-level “memory” projects).  Like “cultural heritage” there are few clearly stated definitions for “memory institutions.” Birger Hjørland identifies “memory institution” as a metaphor for many kinds of institutions that create collections of materials, particularly cultural heritage materials.   Both Dempsey and Hjørland suggest that the need for such a term is driven by an increasing focus on digital materials that is jostling traditional institutional definitions.

Like cultural heritage,  memory institution has been picked up by lots of other authors without much fuss about what it could or should mean.  I’m haven’t seen any obvious difference yet when one term is used over the other – or if they are even equivalent terms (or if a cultural heritage institution is a kind of memory institution, or vice versa).  Dempsey says that having the right word is a sign of maturity – the concurrent use of LAM, ALM, “cultural heritage” and “memory institutions” suggests that the community’s ideas about convergence are still fluid.

Culture vs. Memory

On my post about cultural heritage,  Jo and Shawn pointed out the dangers of trying to pin down definitions of culture – the deep scholarship that’s considered  that question; the socially bound understandings of culture, etc. etc. Talking about “memory institutions” might seem like a safe way to avoid these pitfalls, but it comes with a whole host of other problems.   As a metaphor “memory” conjures up our personal experience with memory – it’s what’s in our head, it maybe short or long-term, you might have a better memory than me (highly possible).  What is harder to understand is how memory works on a  collective level.  (see also Hjørland on “exosomatic memory“).  We all carry some trace of individual memories that somehow add up to a larger schema that’s shared by other people – or at least would be recognized by other people as a shared memory.

The problems of understanding individual memory and collective memory seem to map nicely on top of the item-level metadata/collection-level metadata issues we’re exploring in the CIMR research group. Just as collective memory is more than just the sum of all our individual memories, collections are more than just the sum of all the items contained in them.  These distinctions could also be helpful when looking at the difference between collections created by an individual – say the Gardener Collection – verses those created by an institution (e.g. the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) or more broadly by a community of practice (a library, archive or museum).

Institutions vs. Collections

Since my last post, I’ve also been thinking about how to abstract away from collections as defined by their institutional/professional home – don’t library collections share some of the same essential features of archival collections when viewed though an archival lens? (or maybe that’s the question – what features do they share?) While there are many references to cultural heritage collections, there seem to be fewer mentions of memory collections – it’s almost always memory institutions.  (although, I admit, it is difficult to cut through the “American Memory Collection” noise in a organic Google search – relying on Google Scholar for this assertion).  Maybe it is a little easier for us to anthropomorphize an institution over a collection, whereas it is easier to see “cultural heritage” as a kind of collection as well as a kind of institution.

One thing this exploration hasn’t done is move me any closer to being able to point to a clearly understood domain.  Like cultural heritage, the domain of memory institutions also is fairly wide open for interpretation.  Perhaps by combining some of charateristics of entities identified as “cultural heritage” with those identified as “memory” a clearer picture will emerge.  But the way still seems clear to move ahead with defining a domain of my choosing (or as people are encouraging me to do, something more like a subset of that larger domain).