salvage memory project

Many of my students will acknowledge quite readily that they find archives to be dead spaces, filled with meaningless documents detailing the lives of people who no longer matter (if they ever did at all). They will scoff, turning up their noses at the classist nature of the archival project (and to a certain extent, they’d be right), and they will turn back to the present, putting the stories of the past out of sight and out of mind. There is no meaning to be found there.

But not all of my students are like this. There are some whose lives are transformed by their forays into the archives. Reading the letters that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians wrote to Joey Smallwood, one student was suddenly overcome on discovering a family member’s signature and wept; another found a family signature on a petition about an issue that they had never known about. Yet another student was profoundly affected when she discovered, during the course of her research into a mother’s search for good medical care for her ailing ten year son, that the son had died less than a year after the letter was written. These were real people. They lived. They loved. They lost. They died. And their stories mattered. And they still matter.

And in many cases, these letters, often written on cheap lined paper with a blue pen, are all that remain. And they remain only because Smallwood cared enough about his own posterity not only to keep them all, but to ensure that they would have a formal home in the university’s archives. They remain, that is, because someone cared enough to keep them.

Over the past year, a team of volunteers has been carefully creating an archive. Japan’s Memory Salvage Project has gathered some 750 000 photos found in the debris after last year’s devastating earthquakes and tsunami. Painstakingly, they’ve washed, cleaned and digitised them. And now, these photos are travelling – an archive of memories, stories, and images. Where possible, the photos have been returned to family members. But in some cases, these photos – some too badly decayed to be saved – are all that remain.

The project’s website includes amazing photographs detailing the process of gathering, cleaning, reproducing and now exhibiting these photos.

From the project’s website:

“We all take photographs. A few special ones are cherished, and the rest forgotten. We take pictures when we are having fun, when we want immortalize a moment shared with another person. The photographs you see here were also taken under those circumstances. The depth of emotion might vary from snap to snap, but each one captures a point in time that somebody wanted to keep.

What are we supposed to feel and think when we look at these pictures?
Should we be happy that they were found at all, or sad that they will never be returned to their owners? Or should we simply mourn for the dead? The more I struggle to find answers, the more missing pieces I seem to find.

But without looking at the pictures, I don’t think we’ll see anything at all.”

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