Memento Mori

By Nathan Nye

The lighting was bad. The photos were going to be weird. My camera wasn’t focusing as finely as I’d like. The black velvet backdrop was absorbing all the light. This death mask was going to look way too yellow.

The thought of my subject brought me out of my internal photographic rant.

My camera was aimed at a death mask. Or more accurately, a plaster impression of the death mask of William Preston Few, the first president of Duke University.

I was helping get ready for a Team Kenan exhibit centered around memorials. We wanted to explore how we decide to remember and what we decide to remember. The ideas I was exposed to in that time have stayed with me, and they’ve been very present this month as many sectors of Duke have come together for the “Week of Remembrance” an effort headed by the Coalition to Preserve Memory. CPM’s president graciously gave us some insight into their work for the blog, and I wanted to follow up with my own thoughts about memory.

The most common narrative thread around the remembrance of tragic loss is emotional. We crave catharsis for ourselves. We want a way to honor victims. The second most common thread is preventative. We remember so that we can ensure that these tragedies can be prevented in the future.

The third, and most interesting part of memory to me is the political angle. How do we exclude or expand who or what is remembered to suit a publically digestible version of events? How does this change over time?

For instance, the social conventions of the time didn’t allow post-Holcaust narratives to include the stories of the gay men who were imprisoned in “extermination through work” programs. And even after the camps were liberated and closed, these men were still classified as criminals by the government. It wasn’t until 2002 that the German government officially recognized and apologized to the lesbian women and gay men for their persecution in Nazi Germany. Over time we’ve expanded the narrative to include many other groups persecuted under German national socialism, and have had to adapt our memorialization.

What happens when the populace’s version of memorial clashes with the national story image? One of the best examples of this is the Vietnam War Memorial Wall. The minimalist, austere structure of reflective stone, etched with the names of those lost in the conflict overwhelms the viewer. It’s intent is not to glorify war or create any nationalist statement. The architects on the committee selected it unanimously for its bold vision of what memorialization could look like. Others were horrified. Former Senator Jim Webb called it a “nihilistic slab of stone.” Another opponent called it a “black gash of shame.” As the public (particularly the intellectual community) turned against the Vietnam war and looked back with waning pride, their version of memory was not nationalist, but mournful.

These decisions reflect the push and pull of history.  Through these examples we can see that creating a narrative and a representation of that narrative for tragic events can be a form of socio-political mediation. A form of change. Our attitudes are reflected in our choices and our choices are constantly adjusting to cultural norms. Memory is not a static, and neither are memorials.

I tried to remember this as I photographed Few’s death mask. This was a memorial his family, Duke, and the University Archivist had decided was worthwhile. I thought about the fact that I would never want my grandfather’s face after death remembered forever. Time’s change. Memory changes, and that change has meaning.