Bringing Light to Forgotten Narratives Through the Placing Memory Project
Students work with faculty and staff to create an interactive digital map of Southwestern’s campus.
November 07, 2023
November 07, 2023
Have you ever walked around Southwestern’s campus and noticed and thought about the historical plaques, statues, or building names? If your answer was no, you’re not alone - I hadn’t stopped to read the signs until I began working on the Placing Memory project.
The Placing Memory project is an interactive place-based digital map investigating Southwestern’s history from a non-institutionalized, student-centered lens. Places, spaces, and communities that once existed and now do not (or currently exist but don’t have a space of their own) are concretely recognized on the website. Additionally, on the site, some named spaces and permanent infrastructures currently memorialized in the physical landscape of Southwestern are critically analyzed and questioned.
This research began last summer when eleven Southwestern students, including myself, worked on the project intensely for eight weeks. We were recruited by Professor of Communication Studies Bob Bednar, who advised and initiated the project after gaining a “Reframing the Institutional Saga” grant from the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education and Council of Independent Colleges (NetVUE/CIC). The broader purpose of this grant was to target long-standing private universities with complex histories that need to be actively analyzed, spoken about, and reckoned with - a category that Southwestern fits into perfectly.
In addition to Bednar, we also had immense support from the Head of Distinctive Collections and Archives Megan Firestone. Most students on the research team were communication studies students in some way and used to analyzing contemporary culture, so virtually all of us had yet to perform hands-on archival research before. With Firestone’s expertise and assistance, we were trained in archival research and handling. We took this knowledge and put it to good use throughout the summer: we looked through photographs, scrapbooks, Board minutes, and Megaphone editions, many of which were over 100 years old! To me, the archival work was like being a detective: putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, decoding the meaning of the messages they left behind, all to add to a pile of myriad other clues that together tell us a little bit more about Southwestern’s past.
As student researchers, we did this work so that it could then be translated into a user-friendly medium: the digital map itself. When you look at the website, you will notice that there is not one “correct” way to use the Placing Memory site. You can browse the map and click on individual location-based pins to see what’s remembered there; you can follow themes if you’d like to learn about multiple remembrance places of one specific topic; you can scroll through all the entries currently posted, too. Firestone points to the importance of this design, saying, “We’ve always had a lot of the photographs here in the collection. But, now that they’re on the site and have this story around them, there’s a certain engagement that just seeing them in a box could never replicate.”
Because there is not one way to approach Southwestern’s nuanced history, the site is, in its infrastructure, designed to be open-ended. It’s designed to feature infinite student voices from an endless amount of intersectional perspectives and lived experiences. It’s not intended to tell you what to think but rather to tell you to think about things you probably walk past every day - the things that are physically memorialized within the landscape and what has been looked over.
In thinking about how the project impacted him personally, Shawn Maganda ’25 said, “Through the process and outcome, I gained a much clearer understanding of my place as a minority on campus by identifying the evolving definitions of what it means to celebrate diversity in the student body over time.”
If the project works the way we want it to, these initial noticings from community members should snowball into more noticings: how did we get here, where are we going, and how are we going to build the future based on that past? The ten initial research members and I now see Southwestern as an actively created, multifaceted space haunted by the past that has never been reckoned with.
“Placing Memory challenges the notion that history is solely the story of a select few and instead emphasizes the importance of recognizing the diverse voices and perspectives that have shaped our community,” Bettina Castillo ’24 explained. “In doing so, we honor the legacies of those who paved the way for greater inclusivity and equality at Southwestern.”
This summer research was a high-impact project for us student researchers to execute the work, and it delivered on that promise. We relied on one another throughout the research process, asking each other questions and looking for clues that may have helped one another in their research topics. I argue that what was produced in this project will also have an impact on the greater Southwestern community.
“I would say the most impactful portion of this project was feeling connected to something bigger than myself,” Hannah Jury ’24 said. “I loved the feeling of exploring a place that I have called home for the past several years in a new way and learning about the complex legacy that those who came before me have left.”
A key facet of the project’s open-ended nature is that it has space left to continue over time. All of the team members ask you to investigate the website and consider it in tandem with your lived experiences with Southwestern. There is no possible way that in eight weeks, eleven students addressed the entirety of Southwestern’s history and how it should be remembered. So, if you notice a place or space not currently remembered, we ask that you give us your feedback. And if you’re a current student interested in this work, know that you too can participate as soon as next summer, when a new group of students will work to expand the project even further.
“I think Placing Memory is a more honest and complex internal self-reflection about what Southwestern means, what Southwestern has been, and who Southwestern is for,” Bendar remarked. “I hope people connected to Southwestern engage with the site and use it as a tool to start conversations about who is remembered and who is forgotten–because everybody who has been here isn’t represented in this commemorative landscape, and they should be.”