What, if anything, will be the material heritage and memorial legacy of the grassroots activism of the #MeToo movement? Starting in the US in the late 2000s and becoming viral from October 2017, a movement highlighted and challenged the sexual harassment and abuse of women (but also increasingly men and children too). The movement aimed to publicly protest, denounce and debate abuse and harassment. It spread worldwide via social media via the hashtag #MeToo. As well as online activity, marches and other public demonstrations have taken place.
However, I’m specifically interested in this protest movement from an archaeodeath perspective. When will victims – both survivors and those that have died – of sexual harassment and abuse receive a legacy in terms of material culture, memorials, museum displays and other material heritage? And will these material dimensions focus on early 21st century abuse and harassment, or will they attempt to connect back through time to consider the history of such practices and behaviours through the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed might they chart the history of abuse and harassment to the early modern, medieval and ancient world, perhaps even prehistory?
It’s already well-recognised that few women and children receive public memorials and heritage dimensions, as reported here for the UK. Indeed, there are so few memorials to historical female personages that those that do occur are exceptional. One I’ve discussed on this blog relates to Kidwelly and Gwenllian. While I’ve been critical of their dimensions, the 1100th anniversary of Aethelflaed’s death is a further important example of recent female commemoration all too rare. One established female memorial of high prominence is Norwich Cathedral’s grave of Edith Cavell, shot by the Germans for spying. Yet these remain exceptions and almost saint-like individuals in their characterisation, if not saints themselves. Ordinary women rarely get public memorials.
So if memorials to famous personalities of the female gender – the group overwhelmingly most affected by sexual violence, abuse and harassment – are so scarce, how are we to expect there to be a #MeToo sea change in memorialisation, as both protest and commemoration? There are two potential models for #MeToo commemoration I’m aware of.
Memorials to Comfort Women
Well, there are already hints, framed about proto-#MeToo themes and specific aspects of abuse, regarding what might transpire. So while not specifically related to the #MeToo movement, it seems part of a broader change of attitudes to contemporary abuse and harassment could lead to fresh memorials.
First up, I refer to cases where there is public memorial recognition of historic abuse, at least in the context of wartime enforced prostitution by the Japanese. I refer to the ‘comfort women’ and, in particular, to the San Francisco Comfort Women Memorial unveiled just before the #MeToo movement took off, in September 2017 (see image above courtesy of Wikimedia Commons). It rapidly became a focus of controversial and political disputes with the Japanese city of Osaka and it is notable that its form is careful not to display acts of violence.
Likewise, Taiwan has also constructed a memorial to comfort women of the Second World War, with a bronze statue of a woman with arms raised in resistance. This joins an existing museum to the subject in Taiwan. See also a fabulous and disturbing discussion of Korean and Taiwanese memorials to comfort women here, and how their gazes operate.
Unlike #MeToo, this relates to a specific historical and wartime abuse of women. Furthermore, the real test will be when Japan raises memorials itself to these women, and when other countries with other histories of sexual slavery and abuse, recognise these practices in their museums and other heritage spaces, as well as through memorials.
The key point for potential #MeToo memorials is that they take over conventional media: public, formal art with statuary as their focus, and visualise the resistance of women, and stoic resistance/mourning of women, who were the focus of abuse. If this mode of commemoration transpires, #MeToo will join conventional public environments with powerful statuary of women.
Loud Fences – Protesting and Commemorating against Paedophile Priests
Both protest and memorial, another very different potential model for #MeToo commemoration is the phenomenon of ‘loud fences’. With roots in votive ribbon deposition and with parallels to the memorial dimensions of love-locks and coin-trees, the first loud fence accrued at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia in 2015. It is an ‘ephemeral monument’, with multi-coloured ribbons tied to the railings of the cathedral yard through hundreds of individual acts. The aim was to both protest and commemorate the victims of child abuse by the Catholic clergy. This became a global phenomenon from 2015 to 2017, when the Ballarat memorial was removed by church authorities. Indeed, there is a paper on this subject in the International Journal of Heritage Studies.
The key point here is that, like #MeToo on social media, the loud fences went global and ‘viral’ – popping up all over the work on the fences of cathedrals and churches unrelated to the Ballart church and clerical abuse. Unlike public art, they facilitate many individual acts of remembrance in ephemeral form. Also unlike public art, it has taken on a digital form: via social media through this Facebook group. If such practices are more broadly adopted, #MeToo will be memorialised through small ephemeral accumulations of materials and more permanent digital repositories of stories and memorial expressions.
Reflections on #MeToo Memorialisation
While #MeToo has been a global phenomenon, and in particular has grown via digital environments and social media in particular, it is likely to develop diverse material manifestations and more enduring archived digital repositories in coming years. If the comfort women memorials and the loud fences are anything to go by, we might see public memorialisation through statuary but also the contrastive protest and votive medium of less formal ‘ephemeral’ monuments developing to protest the institutions responsible for cultivating sexual violence and abuse. I wonder which heritage sites will become a focus in each specific country and region, were this to happen?
What we can also say is that it will take time before communities feel that the victims of sexual crimes – murder and rape, abuse, harassment – including children, adult women and adult men, should be materialised in public memorials. There remains a reluctance to let these crimes haunt public environments, presumably because it will be as unsettling to some as #MeToo is online. This will have to contend undoubtedly with how those abused and exploited as sex workers, as the wider public, are incorporated into the memorialisation as well
If they are to occur, the form and character of such sensitive memorials will take a long time to decide. Indeed, disputes over what is an appropriate medium might mean many never happen. Traditional public spaces might receive permanent memorials of stone and bronze, juxtaposed with memorials to peace and to war. Yet equally, it might be the institutions that cultivated or perpetuated abuse, where the memorials might emerge, formally and informally. The desire to give a material ‘voice’ to long-suffering groups could lead – as with so many memorial practices in the West – to a plethora of manifestations on a spectrum between portable items (ribbons) and more established permanent lithic memorial strategies.
Maybe #MeToo dimensions will also surface in pre-existing media; even personal gravestones, memorials and digital media memorials? I also wonder whether peace memorials – gardens, groves, rough stones, abstract art – might provide inspiration for meditative and contemplative spaces that memorialise the victims of abuse and harassment? Perhaps we will see a mixture of these aspects alongside ‘loud fences’ and ‘statues’.
Whatever their form, permanent or temporary, I suspect the #MeToo movement and related specific memorials to people who have suffered from sexual abuse, will acquire a diverse range of material manifestations in public spaces worldwide, including in parts of heritage places and spaces. To date, most heritage narratives are complicit in being silent on sexual abuse and harassment. After all, this doesn’t simply apply to recent abuse, but to the deep human past. In one sense, most holy sites associated with the cult of female saints are essentially #MeToo monuments from the Early Middle Ages, such as the cult of St Melangell, Powys (yes I know this is utterly anachronistic, but I say it anyhow to make you think). How and when memorialisation does take place, this will be a test for how authorities accept, negotiate and manipulate protest. Perhaps some will attempt to create stable and permanent memorials regarding the past and the present of abuse and harassment: the lives it affects and deaths it creates. Others might try to sublimate the memorials into other themes. Whatever happens, memorials will need to focus on victims, but also provide media for ongoing protest and debate.