Sites of Memory, University of Birmingham, 17 February 2013

AiW Guest Rebecca Jones

Is memory imagination or plagiarism? Are artists curators or creators of memory? Is memory determined by audience? Do we remember or embroider? – these were some of the questions we sought to explore in a one-day conference and workshop called Sites of Memory, at the University of Birmingham on February 17th 2013.

Osun Grove in Osogbo, Nigeria

Osun Grove in Osogbo, Nigeria

The conference was the first in a series of postgraduate research conferences and workshops we’re hosting this year, the next being ‘Going Local: African Texts and Cultures’ on May 27th 2013. Sites of Memory was motivated by our desire to explore in detail a topic that lurks within a great deal of arts and humanities research, including our own. Though the name of the conference plays on Pierre Nora’s ‘lieux de memoire,’ the conference was designed not to pay homage to Nora in particular, but to explore the relationship between ‘sites’ (texts, objects, bodies) and memory more broadly.

Africanist Dr Jan-Georg Deutsch from Oxford University opened the conference with a discussion of remembrance at three sites of slave memory in East Africa, and, reflecting on the constant re-constitution of memory, insisted “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood”. The following twelve papers from researchers from institutions across the UK and Ireland explored the way memory works in monuments, film, literature, Ancient Egyptian graffiti, language and even in the nostalgic practices of home bread baking.

Though Tom Penfold and I, the organisers of the conference, are post-graduates based in the Department of African Studies and Anthropology at the University of Birmingham, the conference was designed to go beyond African Studies, and so was both inter-disciplinary and global in scope. Nonetheless, the day retained a strongly Africanist flavour, with two papers exploring African sites of memory (in Timbuktu and Ancient Egypt), and a number of workshops led by Africanist scholars. It was interesting to see how African Studies could be made an integral part of a conference without the conference being explicitly Africanist; it’d be exciting in future to see African Studies being more mainstream in this way – and Europe provincialized – in other conferences.

We also wanted to experiment with ways of encouraging participation in the conference beyond the traditional speaker-audience format. To this end, we held workshops in the afternoon, led by senior academic researchers and artists working across a variety of disciplines: Dr Jonathan Reinarz, Professor Karin Barber, Dr Stewart Brown, Joanna Rossiter and Dr Benedetta Rossi. They encouraged all participants, not just those who had given papers, to discuss each other’s ideas about memory. Dr Jonathan Reinarz, Director of the History of Medicine unit at the University of Birmingham, took his group on an informal tour of the University of Birmingham’s Lapworth Museum of Geology, while Joanna Rossiter, author of the novel The Sea Change, led a creative writing workshop, asking participants to think about ways of narrating their own memories. Feedback suggests the participants found these workshops useful, and a different way of engaging with the ideas presented in the more traditional panels-based part of the conference, so we hope to build on this format further in our next conference, ‘Going Local’.

We also tweeted 15,000 characters’ worth of tweets about the conference, live-tweeting from our account @SitesofMemory. We were a little sceptical as to whether this would be anything more than a novelty. But in fact, it has created an archive of snippets of each speaker’s papers, and a number of speakers, audience members and other interested people interacted with us during the day. Again, this is something we’d like to build on for ‘Going Local’ (follow our account @GoingLocal now if you’re interested), and we’d be eager to hear your thoughts on how Twitter and other social media can be used effectively during conferences, or whether you think they’re just a gimmick?

Professor Philip Schwyzer from the University of Exeter concluded the day with a talk on ‘Putting the Past in its Place’, drawing on his timely research on the remains of Richard III, and their deployment as a site of cultural memory. Overall, Sites of Memory suggested that memory is more a comment on the future than the past. Though Jan-Georg Deutsch was right to question, in a comment to the audience after the morning’s papers, why there has been an explosion of interest in memory studies, and whether papers as disparate as those we heard that morning really had anything to say to each other, the conference also showed that it is possible to read texts alongside bodies and objects, without needing too much translation between disciplines and ways of reading. It also left us wondering whether there are ‘Africanist’ ways of reading sites (and texts) of memory, or whether we are always understanding memory in the implicitly global (Western?) frameworks we explored during the conference.


The call for papers for the next conference in our series, ‘Going Local: African Texts and Cultures’, is open now, and we’d like to strongly encourage all readers of Africa in Words to consider submitting a paper. We’ll be looking at the way the ‘local’ is constituted in African texts and cultures, and how/whether we can use the ‘local’ as a theoretical framework. The closing date for submissions for ‘Going Local’ is April 15th. Please check our website for more information.


Rebecca Jones

Rebecca Jones is a doctoral student at the Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham , where she is researching Yoruba-and English-language  travel writing in Nigeria from the early twentieth century to the present day. Her doctoral research spans newspapers, novels, local history  writing and internet-based travelogues. She is also a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, working on a project looking at everyday religious encounters, social identities and tolerance in southwest Nigeria. She spends a serious amount of time watching Nollywood films in the name of  “language training”.

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