The Mellon Fellowship: Urban Memoryscapes

The Urban Memoryscapes project, led by Mellon Research Fellow for 2014-2015 Naomi Roux, examined the means by which collective and public memory in inscribed and contested in urban space.

Urban Memoryscapes is located at the intersection of urbanism, memory studies, public history and visual culture, and sought to consider the potential for the form of the city and the nature of urban experience to inform memory work that is politically and ethically engaged, allowing for productive conflict and multiplicity. This research built on previous work Naomi has completed focusing on a number of South African case studies, including Kliptown, Soweto; inner city neighbourhoods in Johannesburg; and most recently, Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape.

In many of these and other cases, large-scale, ambitious projects of urban transformation have been met with resistance or outright rejection. The tensions between large-scale material transformations driven by the state and the self-identified needs and desires of urban residents play out in particular ways in the arena of memory and heritage: a field intrinsically linked to questions of identity, place-making, and constructions of “community”. In any process of memory-making, particular narratives are excluded from public representation. Yet, occluded memories find their way into public space by alternative means, often ephemerally or performatively.

How can such dispersed, performative or embodied modes of representing and staging collective memory inform alternative practices of public memory in urban spaces?

What is at stake when “officially” designated sites of memory, including museums, monuments and memorials, fail to function as intended? How are such spaces and their representations contested?

Finally, what are the possibilities for a practice of urban public memory that is participatory, multivalent, and acknowledges the presence of intertwined, often conflicting narratives rooted in the physical forms and spaces of the city?