"Once there was...:" Public space, memory work, and the stories 10 year olds tell

Authors: Melina Patterson*, University of Mary Washington
Topics: Cultural Geography, Urban Geography, Qualitative Research
Keywords: children, public memory, qualitative methods
Session Type: Paper
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Public memory is often understood as national in scope, and as constructed by state, media, or public actors via formal and informal sites of commemoration. Because children are not seen as citizens or as members of the public, their “memory work” is not often the subject of research. This paper focuses on how elementary school students construct shared, but contested, historical narratives of (and in) an urban park. These students spend time each week in a 100-acre park that has several sites memorializing neighborhood or regional history. Drawing on mental mapping and walking interviews conducted with about a hundred 5th graders over three years, this paper explores how young people tell stories about the history of the park, especially the commemorative sites. These sites include a house that dates to when the land was part of a plantation, buildings (and remnants of buildings) from its early days as a private (white-only) amusement park, a mysterious pyramid of rocks, and a memorial to a family who died (by violence) in 2006. While both mental mapping and walking interviews are participatory, they produced different kinds of stories, showing how being in a place demands a different kind of memory work than drawing a place does. However, in both settings, the memory work young people perform suggests that they desire recognition as members of the public, as people who know (and debate) history, who police (and transgress) social norms around commemorative sites, and as people who occupy the spaces of public memory.

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