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Conference general report – “Debating the Concept of Slow Memory”

Conference general report – “Debating the Concept of Slow Memory”

First In-Person conference of the COST Action CA20105

On June 6, 2022, about sixty members of the COST Action on Slow Memory, which now has 38 member countries, met for the first time in person to discuss their research interests, to get to know each other as individuals, and to begin to figure out what this concept might mean for memory studies and remembrance practices.

We had chosen the Isle of Portland in southern England as a meeting place due the multiple ways in which slow memory can be evoked here. Portland is an island where stone has been mined since antiquity and which is known from iconic buildings such as London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral or the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. The landscape is beautiful with a high level of biodiversity, but pockmarked by former stone quarries, wartime fortifications, and Cold War-era military installations. Portland is situated on the Jurassic Coast, which is a UNESCO World Heritage area due to its richness in fossils. It was there that the discovery of a giant ammonite led scientists to understand the concept of species extinction. Unlike other parts of Dorset, Portland is not affluent, is mostly working class and has many social challenges due to an aging population and high poverty rates, especially since the large Navy Port was closed in the 1990s. For all these reasons, the island is rich in “slow memories” – people recall their mining heritage, their everyday life of fishing, swimming and diving, their connections with local flora and fauna, and many stories about what makes up Portland’s unique identity. So there was something here to kindle the interest of each one of our Working Groups.

Though we had planned some roundtables with thought-provoking talks by key Action members (more on these later!), a lot of our time was spend walking across the island, going to the local museum, seeing the famous light house (the Portland Bill), learning about medicinal plants from a traditional herbalist, doing yoga or carving stone. All of these activities were opportunities to get to know one another and to talk about slow memory as our conversations and surroundings evoked thinking about it. This way of organising the conference was not only very pleasant, it also addressed a core concern of our Action: the idea that we have to slow down our own research methods, as well as ways of working together, in order to counter the acceleration of academia and thereby make it possible to holistically address the concepts we are interested in.

Lest this description makes our meeting sound like a vacation, rest assured that lots of focused discussions took place. The Working Groups each met two to three times (see below for their reports), we held workshops on oral history, “Re-Framing Remembering”, and Collaborative Data Analysis, and Podcasting, had a meeting to consider the themes that cut across all WGs (language, education and oral history), and we had practical planning meetings on podcasts, publications, and training schools. In one session, Co-Chairs from the working groups presented case studies of how slow memory might be considered within their areas: Joanna Wawrzyniak (WG1) spoke about abandoned industrial sites in Armenia, Steven Brown (WG2) discussed the privatization of memory practices in health care, Sarah Gensburger (WG3) took stock of survey data from a slow memory perspective, Vjeran Pavlakovic (WG4) took a visual perspective, showcasing his research on murals in post-conflict settings, and Stef Craps (WG5) helped us learn about “glacial grieving”. Of course, we also took care of the formal requirements of a COST Action by holding a Management Committee meeting, which then morphed into a high-powered debate about the slow memory concept. We received productive prompts for this from MC members Ruramisai Charumbira (Switzerland), Kim Groop (Finland), Deniz Gundogan Ibrisim (Turkey), and Ann Rigney (Netherlands).

Perhaps the most memorable part of the Portland conference was the slow memory gifting circle, which was organised by Katerina Kralova (Czech Republic). One night after dinner we all sat in a large circle, drew a number from a bag and, one-by-one, we each received a gift that had been brought by another participant. There was a broad range – from highly thought-provoking gifts (givers sometimes provided lengthy explanations of how the item made them think about slow memory), to books about climate change, to the relatively straightforward slowing-down-related items (candles, hand cream), to national delicacies (Serbian schnaps or English jam), to the downright silly (sweets that you can’t eat fast because they stick to your teeth). At any rate, we laughed a lot and it was a fun way think about our joint interests.

The overall goal of the meeting was to move closer to a joint understanding of slow memory. We certainly did not arrive at a single definition, but we did put on the table many important ideas and connections, and developed ways of moving forward over the next three years. What I found personally most meaningful was that we built a community and a sense this was the beginning of a conversation and that we did not have to rush to pin down answers and outcomes. We can move slowly because we will meet again next year in Aarhus.

WG Conference reports

(c) Jenny Wüstenberg.

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