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Venturing into a new but familiar discipline at the 7th Annual Memory Studies Association conference

As a sociologist whose research has been rooted in exploring & documenting educational inequalities, particularly as it pertains to Black girls & women, my current research project: 'the source of the stream: centring the enslaved Africans who built Penrhyn castle' has shifted my focus & it now intersects with the disciplines of history, heritage & memory. I have always been interested in history & I have incorporated some elements into my previous work, e.g. charting the historical development & formation of the modern English education system or the origins of the anti-Black gendered racism & classism a.k.a. misogynoir (Bailey, 2021) that Black girls & women endure. In terms of heritage, I have recently been a collaborator on projects with the National Trust which have allowed me to gain insight into the culture & heritage sector.

However, when it comes to the study of memory, this was completely new to me. Memories were not something I had ever really considered in an academic way. Even though we all have memories which are passed down over generations or created from new experiences, they can be personal &/or collective, local &/or global & are enshrined in societal, family, & community narratives, shaping how we relate to the world & others. But, as I began my current research project, it became pretty clear that it was & had to be a key feature within it. Perhaps the influences of my mentors & their work with history, heritage & memory within a social scientific paradigm may have rubbed off on me because, I have grown more & more intrigued by the key role of memory in everything- but especially how it underpins, influences & constructs history & heritage in different places & spaces.

Why I wanted to attend MSA

As a researcher through & through, when I don’t fully understand something & I want or need to, I find ways to learn so that I can confidently apply the new knowledge in my own work. This is why the Memory Studies Association (MSA) conference (3- 7 July 2023) was the perfect opportunity to immerse myself in an intense & detailed introduction to an area which was new as an academic discipline, but familiar in an everyday sense. I was especially drawn to MSA’s conference theme: ‘Communities & Change’ which aimed to facilitate “discussions around heritage, the post-industrial, public memory, migration, social justice & human rights, exploring connections between local, national & transnational memories”. This directly spoke to the aims of my research where I explore & highlight the hidden histories of enslaved African people in Jamaica, & the deep connections with Penrhyn castle in North Wales, in order to keep their immense contributions alive in the public memory of (British) slavery.

The conference’s location in Newcastle, the North East of England, also attracted me as I had never visited but always wanted to. I was also aware of its industrial past which MSA framed & included as a central part of the conference. I again saw similarities between the North of Wales- where Penrhyn castle is located, which has a mining past &, like Newcastle, also “has a strong record of local activism & heritage driven by regional change & deindustrialisation.” Lastly, I decided to submit an abstract to present a paper reflecting & sharing a summary of the progress from the first year of my project. This conference acted as a good deadline, as well as encouragement to do so for a specialist audience (& myself). Fortunately, my paper was accepted!

April-Louise outside the main MSA conference building

MSA's conference programme

I had signed up to a pre-conference Methodologies workshop which involved a tour of Newcastle’s Quayside which was led by Dr Andy Clark who was really passionate & knowledgeable. He provided a rich introduction to Newcastle’s industrial past & post-industrial present. At one point in the tour when talking about the pivotal role of the River Tyne (which flows into the north sea) to transport goods around the world, Dr Clark also mentioned Newcastle & Gateshead’s (often overlooked) historical links to the transatlantic slave trade which provided a great deal of wealth to its development. This wasn’t a surprise, but refreshing to hear an acknowledgement of the immense sacrifices of enslaved African men, women & children, & how Newcastle, like every other British city, town & village gained a lot from the transatlantic slave trade (take a look at Cotton Capital to see what I mean). We were also treated to knowledge about the protected status of Tyne Kittiwakes & the reason behind the bird excrement everywhere! After lunch, & to complete the workshop, the group split into two groups. I was in the group discussing ethical approaches to memory studies when doing community-based work, & I learnt so much about ways to lessen the power dynamic & exploitative nature of academic research to gain trust, build rapport & factor in ethical reciprocity in communities. I will be incorporating this into the next years of my research.


Key Learning points

To be honest, there were so many standout moments during the MSA conference like the keynotes by Professor Indira Chowdhury reflecting on her role & career as an oral historian; the plenary roundtable with Professor Michael Rothberg, Professor A. Dirk Moses, Dr Gülsah Stapel & Dr Mirjam Brusius, chaired by Professor Jeffrey Olick about “the centrality of Holocaust memory & how that dominance relates to memories of other past injustices'' in Germany. As a participant in different sessions, I was introduced to how to use a range of materials & textures as a method to provide glimpses of the past, memories & landscapes; reminded of the importance of monuments to hegemonic memory/narratives as well as the role & power of whiteness to uphold, celebrate, recognise, determine, reproduce & erase certain memories; & the ways museums & heritage sites in America confront & grapple with how to “tell the stories of the enslaved” & the “affective inequality” (Lynch, 2010) still embedded in these spaces & places. I learnt about the role & power of artwork in different forms such as murals to celebrate & document collective, marginalised memories. I learnt about the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (not to be confused with sites of memory) & the amazing work being done by many like Lebogang Marishane at Constitution Hill in South Africa & Pierre Clavor Irakoze at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. I was reminded about the need to preserve feminist, queer & intersectional memory as activism & that if individuals & groups from these communities don’t do it, who will in a meaningful, considerate & truthful way?

Presenting a paper at MSA

The presentation of my paper titled ‘A work in Progress: Centring the enslaved Africans who built Penrhyn castle’ went really well. In the allocated time of 15 minutes (happy to report I kept to time!), I introduced the audience to my research via highlighting my positionality, the journey to doing this research, as well as my methodology which is underpinned by the theories, concepts & frameworks of Decolonisation (Fanon, 1963), Critical Fabulation (Hartman, 2008), Critical Race Theory’s counterstorytelling (Solorzano & Bernal, 2001) & Black Feminist Memory Work (Ohito, 2021). I shared why an Ethics of Care & Love (Gilligan, 1982; Lorde, 1988; Collins,1990; Nash, 2011) has become paramount & how I employ this within my research, & I finished off by discussing the progress of my fieldwork as well as the next stages. As mentioned previously, presenting my paper at MSA was a great opportunity to bring my research progress & reflections together in a meaningful way, to share my insights while practising my public speaking & gaining constructive feedback. It was also lovely to learn about the fascinating research of my co-presenters.

April-Louise presenting her paper at her MSA session

Witnessing & experiencing the power of storytelling & art in film, exhibitions & illustration

Over the course of the week, I was able to watch two powerful documentary film screenings. The first was The Jewish Wedding: Approaching memory through old home movies directed by Annet Huisman following the story of Dr Eyal Boers’ grandparents' wedding video, which became a catalyst for his father & aunts to retrace & journey back over the path that their parents (Eyal’s grandparents) took when fleeing from persecution in the Netherlands, & across Europe, briefly ending up in Jamaica! It was really beautiful & compelling & affirmed my own research, particularly the powerful role of documentary film & personal memories as a way to educate & connect with a wider audience & phenomena. The second documentary was Iorram (Boat Song) directed by Dr Alastair Cole about a fishing community in Scotland's Outer Hebrides where he contrasted the past, via oral history interview recordings, with the present, via film footage of present-day fishermen in the same community who were continuing to work in what has now become a small & dying industry. I loved hearing the Gaelic language (English subtitles aided with my understanding) which we learnt was also dying out as less people in the community became fishermen & therefore no longer spoke it. I really enjoyed the conversations with the directors/academics after, which enhanced the screenings & I was able to gain firsthand insights including motivations, reflections & advice.

If all of that wasn’t amazing enough, I was able to take in two brilliant exhibitions. The first was by Dr Henna Asikainen titled ‘Future Pasts’ & the second was called ‘Wayfinder’ by Larry Achiampong. I was inspired by 'Future Pasts', which was centred around nature, landscapes & Hadrian’s Wall, as it brings migrants together to walk, talk, forage & share their sense of belonging in their new, North-East England home & the exhibition captured it in a visual, thought-provoking way. Shout out to Beverly Prevatt Goldstein for the reminder at Asikainen's exhibition Q&A that, "Black people are part of the DNA of these lands & have been here since Roman times". Check out the amazing work that her & her team are doing with the African Lives in Northern England Project. Next time I visit Newcastle, I will certainly be going on one of her walking tours to uncover the diverse past & (Black) community memories!

An installation in Dr Asikainen's 'Future Pasts' exhibition

Another installation in Dr Asikainen's 'Future Pasts' exhibition which reads "THEY HAVE PILLAGED THE WORLD".

Larry's use of storytelling in 'Wayfinder' was brilliant! He used a young Black girl as the main character who engages in time & space travel, weaving in Larry’s (the artist) Ghanaian heritage as a starting point & a way to provocatively interrogate & critique the living legacies of colonisation, which are embedded in class, gender & popular culture. I was loving the vibrant, bold colours, the nod to afrofutrism, & the overall. unapologetic centring of Blackness.

The main character in the 'Wayfinder' exhibition

An installation at Larry Achiampong's 'Wayfinder' exhibition. The writing on the black board at front of picture reads "OUR LIVES ARE POLITICAL BECAUSE OUR BODIES ARE"

Both exhibitions really spoke to what I am trying to explore in my current research like, the central role of identity/ positionality, place, space, community & collective memory. It also showed me some of the ways to effectively present my findings with a combination of visual, audio, written & physical mediums.

One of my favourite moments at the conference was being randomly allured by the rhythmic beats from an awesome Spotify playlist towards a colourful caravan (which was so much bigger inside like a Tardis), & being treated to cake, tea & a story- of my own choosing- by Curious Monkey Theatre company’s artistic director & joint CEO, Amy Golding. I chose a story called ‘Live a Little’ about the unlikely friendship between Barbara & Zainab, & I got to return the favour by telling them my own story about a girl whose name becomes a key, connecting her to a castle in North Wales (familiar much?) As I told my story, a super-talented artist illustrated the interaction & visualised the story onto his blank canvas. I was given the finished drawing after to take away & keep forever. This beautiful illustration is now framed & proudly perched on a shelf in my office to remind me of the amazing work that the Curious Monkey Theatre company does in the community, my time at the MSA conference & the power of storytelling, the connections it can create & the education it can foster!

The Curious Monkey Theatre company caravan

April-Louise inside the Curious Monkey's caravan with Amy & the (unnamed) amazing illustrator

Marinating in new knowledge & gratitude

I can write so much more, but I won’t- partly because I am still marinating upon all the

richness I was exposed to at such an engaging, inspiring, interactive, diverse, stimulating, edutaining conference. I enjoyed getting to deep dive into understanding the interdisciplinary, glocal study of memory along with getting a feel of Gateshead & Newcastle- BIG UP Chinatown, Dumpling & Bun & the Angel of the North, to name a few attractions I enjoyed!

April-Louise at the Angel of the North statue in Gateshead

Thank you to the MSA conference’s organising committee for the wonderful opportunity to learn, connect & grow (intellectually). I hope that I will be at next year’s conference in Lima, Peru, showcasing how I have incorporated all my learning into my ongoing research!

April-Louise waiting for the train home from the MSA conference


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