UI symposium Against Amnesia: Archives, Evidence and Social Justice draws top scholars

Against Amnesia: Archives, Evidence and Social Justice

Iowa City — Thursday, March 1 – Saturday, March 3

Still from ‘Dawson City: Frozen Time’

Human memory is a tricky thing. It’s all too brief: How well can you recall your grandmother’s voice? Did your best friend in elementary school have green eyes or blue? It’s fickle, too: Your high school locker combination may be etched in stone while your ATM card PIN continually eludes you. And it’s notoriously unreliable: Studies have shown that even the clearest memories formed during high-stress events are often flat out incorrect, and that each time you bring an old memory to the surface, you risk smudging it as you refile it again.

So humanity begins to archive. It starts small, on a personal level — a flower pressed in a wallet, a horde of birthday cards from your mother, the saved voicemail from your best friend — but, as a society, as a species, it grows. Across a wide variety of disciplines, the question of how we remember, and how we will be remembered, has long been a topic of exploration, from public obsession with the fate of the Library of Alexandria to the ongoing question of whether we can or should truly and completely archive the internet.

We are obsessed with finding new and better ways to indelibly catalog our past.

At the beginning of March, the University of Iowa’s Obermann Center Humanities Symposium and the Provost’s Global Forum (including the Joel Barkan lecture) are joining forces to dig deep into this issue of archiving. Against Amnesia: Archives, Evidence and Social Justice draws together top scholars from across the country (and farther afield, including British Columbia and South Africa) to discuss what we save, why we save it and how it helps define us.

The events of the symposium are all free and open to the public. Although Jennifer New, associate director of the Obermann Center, noted that the bulk of their symposium audience each year comes from grad students and faculty on campus, she’s excited about the broader reach possible with this program.

“Given the cross-disciplinary nature of this, it’s going to be very accessible,” New said.

She encourages people to look closely at all of the speakers, because the wide scope of subject areas covered really offers something for everyone.

The symposium kicks off on Thursday, March 1 with a presentation from Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professor Bill Morrison called “Consider the Source.” Morrison, an experimental filmmaker who draws on archival material, will start at the very beginning of his process to examine how the story told by a completed work can be affected by one’s relationship to the source material. He will be screening his 2016 film Dawson City: Frozen Time later that evening.

From there, the event will branch off into a multitude of disciplines. New is excited by Trudy Peterson, presenting on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — an unassuming but fascinating woman with countless formidable tales to share. New also mentioned the art installation and discussion from Jacqueline Wernimont and Rachel Williams at MERGE on Saturday.

“I’m not even positive what Jacqueline is going to show,” said New, “because she does such dynamic work.”

The Joel Barkan Memorial Keynote Lecture, central to the weekend of events, will take place on Friday, March 2 at 7:30 p.m. William Pretzer will present “A Darker Presence: Interpretive Goals and Collecting Strategies in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.” Pretzer, co-curator of one of the inaugural exhibits at that Smithsonian branch (A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond), serves as the museum’s senior curator of history. His lecture includes the story of building the museum’s collection, which faced many obstacles, including the challenge of convincing donors that their precious family object memories would be treated with honor and carefully preserved.

The study of archives and archiving can seem like a niche consideration of interest only to museum curators and librarians. But it cuts to the core of humanity. Which stories we choose to tell and whose past we choose to preserve are powerful reflections on how we define ourselves as a society. This broad swathe of interdisciplinary and multicultural archive studies, itself impeccably curated by the Obermann Center, both speaks to and embodies that truth.

Schedule — Against Amnesia: Archives, Evidence and Social Justice

Thursday, March 1

12:30 p.m. E220 Adler Journalism Building, Artist talk by Bill Morrison, Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professor: “Consider the Source”
4 p.m. Old Capitol Museum Senate Chambers, Trudy Huskamp Peterson: “Best When Used By: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights”—Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professorship Keynote Lecture
5:30 p.m. Old Capitol Museum, First Floor, Opening Reception
7:30 p.m. Voxman Music Building Recital Hall, Bill Morrison: Film Screening and Q&A—Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professor

Friday, March 2

9 a.m. MERGE (136 S Dubuque St.), “Teaching with Archives: An Interactive Conversation”
10:15 a.m. MERGE, Marie Kruger and Debora Matthews: “Living Archives: Constitution Hill in Johannesburg/South Africa”
12:15 p.m. MERGE, Adam Khalil: “Counter-Archive: Filming Your Way Out of the Past”—Light lunch provided
1:30 p.m. Iowa City Public Library, Johanna Schoen: “Documenting the History of Women’s Reproductive Health: Sterilization and Abortion In and Outside the Archive”
3 p.m. Iowa City Public Library, Sheri Parks: “Direct Descendant in the Archives—A Scholarly and Emotional African American Family History”
4:15 p.m. Iowa City Public Library, Lisa Schlesinger and John Rapson: “Immigration, the Arts, and the Archive”
7:30 p.m. Shambaugh Auditorium, UI Main Library, William Pretzer: “A Darker Presence: Interpretive Goals and Collecting Strategies in the National Museum of African American History and Culture”—Joel Barkan Memorial Keynote Lecture

Saturday, March 3

9:30 a.m. MERGE, Sarah Dupont and Gerry Lawson: “Whose Nation? Whose Archives? Indigeneity in Canada”
11 a.m. MERGE, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon: “Colonial Histories and Digital Possibilities: The Digital Archive of the Early Caribbean”
1:30 p.m. MERGE, Bethany Wiggin: “Building Data Refuge in an Era of Fake News”
3 p.m. MERGE, Where Art and Humanities Meet in the Archives
4:30 p.m. MERGE, Collective Reflections on Archives
5 p.m. MERGE, Gallery Tour and Closing Reception

Genevieve Trainor, arts editor at Little Village, is most excited for “Immigration, the Arts and the Archive” on Friday afternoon. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 236.

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