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Telling stories, bearing witness: Public memorials and oral history

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Alison Atkinson-PhillipsORCiD


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Public memorials have long been understood as serving a political and pedagogic function. However, while traditional memorials (including those using non-traditional forms) are designed for mourners left behind, an emerging genre of public memorials commemorates lived experiences of loss and trauma. These are painful experiences that are often connected to the stories of a relatively recent (post)settler-colonial past. They include stories of child abuse, rape, forced separation of families and loss of land. Such memorials rarely 'stand alone', either physically or metaphorically. Survivors and their supporters have often had to work hard to bring these challenging and marginalised histories into the public sphere, and have engaged with a wide range of memory practices. This paper explores the ways memorials to lived experience draw on and interact with oral history work in order to 'bear witness' to the stories of survivors. While these memorials, in common with traditional memorials, usually serve a mourning and healing role for survivors, this paper is focused on their political function as testimony. The paper draws on ongoing research into Australia memorials that commemorate lived experiences of loss and trauma. Using two Australian case studies, I consider the layers of meaning created when oral histories are used in commemorative projects, and the way physical memory spaces can create space for storytelling

Publication metadata

Author(s): Atkinson-Phillips A

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Oral History Australia Journal

Year: 2016

Volume: 38

Pages: 43-50

Print publication date: 12/04/2016

Acceptance date: 12/03/2016

ISSN (print): 2208-4541

Publisher: Oral History Australia, Inc.