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Carlton, P. (2016). From Ashes to Ashé: Digital Disaster Archives as Memorials. In Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, pp. 755-756.
From Ashes to Ashé: Digital Disaster Archives as Memorials

From Ashes to Ashé: Digital Disaster Archives as Memorials

The rapid proliferations of digital archives that develop in response to, and often in the immediate aftermath of, globalized, catastrophic events are not only repositories for historical documentation and collective memories, but are also spaces where rituals of mourning and formations of subject identity can be critically examined. This poster presents close and distanced readings of the mission statements and selected verbal and visual elements of four disaster archives/memorials: The September 11 Documentary Project; The National September 11 Memorial Museum; Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive and WBUR Oral History Project; and UC QuakeStudies.

Optimally, the disaster memorial archive aggregates and displays artifacts of mourning, recovery, and a diversity of shared memories while simultaneously facilitating a sense of public agency and participation in the community’s collective wellbeing. As evidenced by the expansion of local cultural heritage archives and crowdsourced collection development, collections of local, private memories co-exist with other documents of official or journalistic origins. Archivists Joan Schwartz and Terry Cook are among many who discuss the paradigm shifts in the archive profession that have been initiated by postmodern ideas and facilitated by the affordances of digitization (Schwartz and Cook, 2002). Contemporary archives reach into the local constituencies and beyond in the increasingly global and interdisciplinary network of digital archives (McKemmish and Gilliland, 2004: 84).

Notwithstanding the stated missions of disaster archives to provide an open-source archive that facilitates the participation by all constituents and interested public, the archival affinity for historical truth and broad representation of its public can sometimes work against public mourning and recovery. As one of my research questions, I explore whether the archival affinity for historical truth and broad representation of its public can co-exist with public mourning and recovery. Modern archives were traditionally associated with progressive and positivist concepts of history whereas memory was associated with unstable sensory triggers and artifices (including rhetorical applications). Postmodern influences and recordings of 20th and 21st century witnesses to and survivors of war crimes and other atrocities have influenced the policies and heuristics used by archivists and historians to critically assess and incorporate individual and collective memories of previously marginalized populations in the archive.

Although skepticism towards the evidentiary value of collective memory has abated, the tasks of balancing memories with official accounts are, nevertheless, complicated. The eventual selection, classification, and creation of policies for access and long-term preservation are negotiable products―an outcome of the balance of power between the public and the archive, and also between the digital media and technical platforms. From my research that triangulates data from my critical analysis of the purpose and functionality of disaster archives, and field studies, I coded themes and abstracted dimensions of private and public mourning, formations of subject identity (such as witness, victim, first responder, or “other”), and evidence of ethics and personal judgment used to create archival policies and collections. The refinements of these dimensions and data visualizations are represented in the poster.

Beyond the discovery of relationships between these dimensions and attaining insight into, if not a solution to, whether the historical and memorializing functions can seamlessly merge in the disaster archive, this poster also rationalizes the interdisciplinary methods of ethnographic and social science research as applied to humanities issues and, conversely, assumes a humanities perspective in critiquing the technical infrastructures of the reviewed disaster archive/memorials. The digital disaster archive promotes the active outreach and mobilization of local communities and establishes models for building resilience to the globalized man-made and naturally caused disasters.

The aesthetics of the archive—the database structure and narratives told within—is also an ethical decision. Sharon Daniel (2007: 150) describes these collaborative spaces (archives, in general) as “dialogic spaces in which the acts of writing, imaging, storytelling, and political statement are a collective production, a process rooted in social interaction and dialogue that produces a narrative without authorial consistency.” The narratives emerging from the disaster archive/memorials convey an urgency to rebuild and perhaps, redefine the rituals of mourning and civic responsibility to others. It is the intent of this poster to illustrate the narrative arc of my research, highlighting the areas of interest for digital humanists, including the construction of an ethical and aesthetic database, and to illuminate patterns of online memorialization in disaster archives.

  1. 1. Daniel, S. (2007). Database: An Aesthetics of Dignity. In Vesna, V. (ed.) Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow. University of Minnesota Press, pp. 150.
  2. 2. Library of Congress. (2002). September 11, 2001, Documentary Project. [Online] Available at: https://www.loc.gov/collections/september-11th-2001-documentary-project/about-this-collection/ (Accessed 03 March 16).
  3. 3. MacNeil, H. (2012). What finding aids do: archival description as rhetorical genre in traditional and web-based environments. Archival Science: International Journal on Recorded Information, Academic OneFile, EBSCOhost, 4: 485.
  4. 4. Marathon.neu.edu. (2016). Our Marathon. [Online] Available at: http://marathon.neu.edu/ (Accessed 3 Mar. 2016).
  5. 5. National September 11 Memorial and Museum | World Trade Center Memorial. (2015). 9/11 Memorial.org. [Online] Available at: http://www.911memorial.org/. (Accessed 03 March 16).
  6. 6. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning. (2002). The September 11 Digital Archive: Saving the Histories of September 11, 2001. [Online] Available at: http://911digitalarchive.org/ (Accessed 03 March 16).
  7. 7. Schwartz, J, and Cook, T. (2002). Archives, records, and power: the making of modern memory. Archival Science, Library, Information Science and Technology Abstracts, EBSCOhost, 2(1-2): 1-19.
  8. 8. UC QuakeStudies | UC CEISMIC Canterbury Earthquakes Digital Archive. (2011). UC QuakeStudies. [Online] Available at: https://quakestudies.canterbury.ac.nz/ (Accessed 03 March 16).