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Alison Atkinson-Phillips

Public memorials have long been understood as serving a political and pedagogic function. However, while traditional memorials (including those using non-traditional forms) are designed for mourners left behind, public memorials are increasingly used to commemorate and lament loss or trauma, rather than death. Such memorials are often instigated by survivors in acts of what Gomez-Barris has termed acts of ‘witness citizenship’. In an Australian, post-colonial context, public memorials have brought stories of child abuse, rape, forced separation of families and loss of land, into the public realm, both physically and metaphorically. Rather than mourning death and acting as an expanded grave site, non-death memorials can be understood as testimony, in the sense explored by Rosanne Kennedy and Tikka Jan Wilson, as an address and appeal to community. This chapter draws on ongoing PhD research into memorials that commemorate non-death loss and trauma. Using case studies from the Australian context, I offer examples of the ways such memorials both make use of existing narrative testimony and themselves ‘bear witness’. These examples offer insights into the strategies survivors of trauma and human rights abuses use to claim the right to speak and to have their stories heard within the framework of dominant national and post-national identity narratives.


Alison Atkinson-Phillips


Public memorials play an increasing role in the repertoire of commemorative practices through which societies attempt to come to terms with difficult or uncomfortable pasts. Increasingly, memorials are also used to acknowledge lived experiences of loss and trauma. This represents a shift in the kinds of experiences memorials can be expected to acknowledge and challenges ideas of what a memorial is and what it does. This chapter draws on research conducted within Australia, and considers three examples of memorials that are influenced by transitional justice approaches to truth-telling, and which are used to bring difficult stories of child abuse, forced separation of families and loss of land into the public sphere. Using a narrative therapy approach, this chapter considers the relationships of power that allow such stories to be told in particular ways. These examples offer insights into the strategies survivors of human rights abuses and their supporters use to claim the right to speak and to have their stories heard, and the ways such testimony is constrained. At their best, memorials to lived experience are part of an arsenal of tools available to survivors and their supporters to bear witness to difficult pasts. The materiality of the memorial form can be helpful in assisting such histories to be absorbed into mainstream narratives.