The Construction of Memory at Duke and in Durham: Using Memory Studies (2016-2017)


Most universities have yet to engage in a deep examination and public acknowledgement of their complex histories. Duke could be among the leaders in this area, fostering a deep and broad rethinking of the past and a positive plan for establishing a fuller physical and interpretive account of its history. What stories are missing from campus and should be told?

Sponsored by the Duke Human Rights Center @ the Franklin Humanities Institute and The Pauli Murray Project, The Construction of Memory at Duke and in Durham is led by a diverse group that will use Duke’s campus and Pauli Murray’s home as laboratories for the telling of a more complete and complex history.

This project team will mine memory studies to ask how, why and where people use the past for contemporary meaning; how the Duke campus and Durham’s Pauli Murray house currently embody and tell their stories; and how this team can help chart a deeper engagement with history at both sites. We are particularly interested in how to tell difficult stories of slavery, segregation and inequality through new sites and interpretive plans. The problem at the core of our inquiry is how to address a difficult past in an intentional, informed and constructive way, to foster learning and dialogue around issues like race and difference.

Project Description

One project team will delve into Duke history and how it is reflected on campus. We will do this through the Memory Bandits class as well as a Spring 2017 team registered through independent studies. What are the existing sites of memory and what stories do they tell? The team will conduct site visits to compelling memorials to assess how they operate, what conversations they foster and what stories they tell (or leave out). This will allow us to devise a rubric for how we evaluate specific questions, including aesthetics, inclusion and representation. We will summarize our work with a proposal to the Duke community for how to expand and deepen Duke’s memory map, including a draft interpretive plan to be discussed for inclusion into classes, orientation and campus tours. We will promote these ideas through our project website, op eds and other media as well as direct submission to the Provost.

A second project team will engage in a public humanities challenge around researching the possibilities created by designing an interpretive vision for the Pauli Murray house as a site of conscience. Informed by the work of theologian Johann Baptist Metz, we are asking how we can paint “dangerous memories” on the historical landscape of Durham. Key questions include how museums and historic sites shift the public’s understanding of the American experience by confronting familiar narratives and the primacy of the white, male point of view. Currently, no other site in the United States is taking on this challenge. We will also look at what strategies can be learned by looking at other cultural institutions, science museums and arts organizations whose goals include shifting paradigms and questioning previous interpretations. This team will also examine how newly discovered histories change us. We will look at the science of cognition and recent developments in the field of visitor studies to evaluate potential interpretive and educational strategies. 

Anticipated Outcomes

Memory map, story bank, summary of model memory sites, action plan for the Duke community; expanded civil/human rights activism map, written materials about the lessons learned from other sites, framework for an interpretive plan for the Murray Center

Related Courses

Memory Bandits (Fall 2016)

Politics of Memory (CulAnth 403S/History/ICS) (Spring 2017)


Fall 2016 – Summer 2017

Team Outcomes to Date

Constructing Memory at Duke: How Do We Create a More Inclusive Physical Campus That Reflects Both the Degradation and the Dignity of Our Duke Ancestors?

Constructing Memory at Duke: Duke’s First Labor Union

Dangerous Memories: Conversations around the Past, Social Justice and Constructing University Memory (speaker series addressing the challenges of dealing with difficult or hidden histories on American university campuses); Dr. Brenda Allen, “Begin with a Clock: How Brown University Addressed Its Connection to Slavery,” February 7, 2017

This Team in the News

Dangerous Memories: Facing the Past, Making the Future Series

Diana Dai and Matthew Sebastian Receive Human Rights Center Grants

The Franklin Humanities Institute provides additional support for this project.

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Alison Adcock, School of Medicine - Psychiatry & Behavioral Science and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience*
Alison Adcock, School of Medicine - Psychiatry & Behavioral Science and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience
Robin Kirk, Trinity - Cultural Anthropology*
Barbara Lau, John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute
Amy McDonald, Duke Libraries & Informational Technology
Naomi Nelson, Duke Libraries & Informational Technology - Rubenstein Library
Irene Silverblatt, Trinity - Cultural Anthropology*
Patrick Stawski, Duke Libraries & Informational Technology

Graduate Team Members

Matthew Sebastian, Cultural Anthropology

Undergraduate Team Members

Hadeel Abdelhy
Natalia Espinosa
Catherine Farmer, Mechanical Engineering
Mary Aline Fertin
Mumbi Kanyogo
Christine Kinyua, Public Policy Studies (AB)
Jair Oballe
Elle Winfield
Helen Yu

Community Team Members

Tim Stallmann, Counter Cartographies/SAVAS

* denotes team leader