Public sense memories

History is generally considered to be what’s written down; how we describe the past. In the 21st century, many industrialised, postcolonial nations are now reconsidering historical accounts, and opening public venues to more historical perspectives—for instance, in Australia, the perspective of Indigenous peoples.

As we do so, we ought to consider the other ways, beyond literal storytelling, in which culture constructs and experiences history, that is, public memory: the things “we all” remember. Public memory isn’t just linguistic or verbal; it consists of multisensory experiences threaded through public and private spaces. The most obvious example, in many nations, are historical monuments and public architecture–not just the look of a large government building, but the echoing sound of the atrium, the feel of marble and tile underfoot. These are part of the unmistakable weight of importance these structures were designed to impart; we associate importance with those sensory experiences, and tend to discount experiences that don’t share the same affect. No monuments, or rather, no sense of monumentality—no history.

If we take sounds as an example of sense memory, we can see that “pure” sounds, not attached to images, are also part of our public memory: from the songs that recur at different holidays, to the simple fact of the languages and accents we are used to hearing around ourselves in daily life. Then there are now vanished sounds we remember, fondly or otherwise: the school bells from one room schoolhouses; mangles echoing across the suburbs on a Saturday afternoon; even the sounds of war. The last example reminds us that sensory triggers are powerful resurrectors of individual memory; the most evident example is lived trauma, and the flashbacks that can be caused by a smell or a sound. A war veteran might be triggered into reliving the past by the sound of fireworks or a certain sort of alarm – as would happen to my own grandmother, who lived through the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

We don’t think of public sounds as having that same effect on us; the trigger of a past memory is a deeply personal thing. In fact, though, the sense memories we think of as a shared past—the anthems, the mangles, the school bells—are those memories for which “we,” for a certain value of we, are more likely to have a personal sense of recognition and importance.

“Other sense memories, shared by only a few or by marginalised populations, are thus not included into the range of sense memories we make public. In other words, at the risk of stating the obvious, all sensory experiences are personal ones; public sensory experiences, and thus public sense memories, are those sensory experiences that “we” all have in common. In defining them this way, of course, we are also defining who “we” are—and thus who is not included in the public “we.”

What are some of the specific sense memories that are excluded from our public sensorium? Is it possible to expand the public sensorium to include them, as a general public experience, thus changing not only the stories we tell about the past, but how we understand it? One way to do this is to focus on individual experiences of those sense memories, and to discover which of those can and should be expanded to become more generally experienced. Of course, we must do this with respect, and by extending agency and the authorship of stories to those individuals.

This Is My Heritage was an exhibition at Queensland Museum in Brisbane. It was co-curated by Michael Aird and Mandana Mapar; first put on in 2015 at the Museum, it travelled to other public museums in Queensland over the next several years. It arose out of a stated desire from the Museum to figure out a way to better “engage” the “public” with the considerable number of Indigenous Australian artefacts in their collections, in an ethical, historically accurate, and socially responsible way.

The initial difficulty the Museum faced in conceptualising this show came from framing “the public” and “the Indigenous community” as two separate entities. In the end, thanks in particular to Aird, the key to mounting the show came from finding a way to get rid of those categories, by focusing instead on the specific experience of particular individuals as they encountered the Museum’s collections.  In its final form, This Is My Heritage in its invited a dozen Queensland Indigenous creatives into their collection. They were given access to the Queensland Museum’s collected Indigenous materials, and asked to find one that “spoke” to them across time, in collaboration with the Museum’s curatorial staff. The show itself consists of photos of the artists holding their chosen objects, along with the attendant stories they tell about the moment of their encountering the object.

Chenoa Deemal
Photo: Mick Richards
“In several cases, those stories revolve around sense memories evoked by the objects—not just individual, but familial or community memories. The story of these memories evoked the sensory experience of the objects, and of the experiences in which the object was used. Shared widely, this form of storytelling, rooted in sense memory, is more affective to a “general public” than simple, traditional visual display of the objects themselves in a museum setting.

Rory O’Connor, director of the Yugambeh Museum, has suggested that every Australian should know ten words in language—it doesn’t matter, he says, which language, or which words; just knowing and using some words in everyday life reinforces the simple presence and importance of Indigenous language. I’d suggest that part of that reinforcement is the power of hearing certain language-sounds around in the air. There is a difference between sounds we make an effort to make and to hear—unavoidable, when they are new to us—and sounds that have become part of the sensory furniture. In New Zealand, meetings and speeches often open with a tikanga, or greeting; one common tikanga is known by many people, who will speak along with it in the automatic hesitant murmur common to most large groups speaking or singing in unison. The sonic effect of common use, of something everyone is used to hearing, is unmistakable. To hear a piece of Indigenous language that has the same sonic affect as an anthem at a football game—what does it say about our public life, and the way we sense it?

What “common” sensory experiences, the furniture that ought to be part of our daily life, is the public sensorium missing? To discover these experiences, to make public space for them and to give them weight, is a crucial part of the movement towards an open, pluralistic, truly just social fabric.


Seth EllisSeth Ellis is a narrative artist and interface designer; he has worked with libraries, museums and galleries on their collections and exhibitions, most recently the Museum of Brisbane and the State Library of Queensland, where he was the 2019 Mittelheuser scholar-in-residence.

His research is centred on the access to and use of archival materials in collections, particularly sound materials, by members of the public. His own projects have shown in galleries, streets, symposia and festivals throughout the U.S., Europe, and Australia.

Seth is Senior Lecturer at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University.

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