Studying media and memory at our nation's war museums

By Christina M. Smith, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Communication
Assistant Professor Christina M. Smith

My research explores the persuasive impact of images, from historical WWII photographs to contemporary videos produced by soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both cases, I investigate how the images are circulated, consumed, and challenged by multiple publics. As a scholar of visual rhetoric, I’m interested in how these forms of persuasion challenge contemporary understandings of rhetorical discourse and civic engagement.

My dissertation project entitled “The YouTube War as Visual Vernacular Rhetoric,” examined soldier-produced and official, military-produced videos posted on YouTube. Using a combination of rhetorical and critical/cultural approaches to analyze these texts, I argued that the ubiquity of digital technology on the modern battlefield created unscripted ways for soldiers and the American public to deliberate war and conflict.

Audience members watch "Beyond All Boundaries" at the National WWII Museum

Analysis of visual texts has been an ongoing theme in my scholarship. More recently, my research has investigated the changing forms of public memory and commemoration brought about by digital media at museums, monuments, and other historic sites. These commemorative spaces construct and reinforce collective national memory of important events such as war and conflict. Official museum and memorial spaces tend to privilege nationalism and patriotism in the representation of historical events, people, and places.

Connections between digital mediation, embodiment, and ‘authenticity’ are especially relevant in museums that claim some form of ‘official’ memorializing.

My current project examines public memory through case studies of the National WWI, WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War Museums. In particular, I am focusing on the increased mediation of public memory via digital mechanisms such as kiosks, films, and other multi-media “experiences.” For example, promotion of Tom Hanks’ film “Beyond all Boundaries” at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans highlights how the film utilizes “multi-layered environments” consisting of a combination of live and archival footage, material objects that appear onstage, a “mammoth panoramic screen,” and seats that physically respond to action on screen.

All these elements are advertised as helping the viewer to “understand, as never before, the price of our precious freedom” (film trailer). Hanks and other museum personnel contend that the various mediums of the film create a unique, and arguably more “authentic” memory of WWII. Connections between digital mediation, embodiment, and “authenticity” are especially relevant in museums that claim some form of “official” memorializing.

Thus, in exploring each museum, I’ll be looking for the ways in which the moving images, interactive features, and material objects present in each museum’s overall display coalesce to reinforce dominant notions of public memory.

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© Spring 2015 / Volume 19 / Number 1 / Bi-annual