“Rural. R – u – a – l. Rural.”
My shtick in middle school was forgetting things.
I was the loser who got out in the first round of the county spelling bee because of a stupid five-letter word, lost all of my favorite jackets and lunchboxes in third grade, and had multiple zeros in math class because I continually left my completed homework on the kitchen counter. My memory never was that great, so I would occasionally pass time fruitlessly playing supposed “memory-building” online games.
Not surprisingly, I don’t remember quite why those brain activities drew my attention, but I did remain interested in the brain over time. Although I got over, or forgot, my obsession with my horrific memory, I was still interested in neurological diseases involving the encoding and recollection of events in one’s past, ranging from PTSD to forms of dementia. I am convinced that my memories help me tie everything together: ideas I learn, experiences I have, adolescent passions I’ve (thankfully!) grown out of, communities I am a part of, and people I love can all play roles in the story of my life because of my brain’s uncanny ability to encode, store, and retrieve the cringiest moments of my existence.
I think it’s fascinating (and a bit terrifying?) how we can recall, in often vivid detail, the best and worst times we’ve had with other people and by ourselves. Whenever I think of someone, I inevitably remember the time we spent together, what we last talked about, the expressions on their face, where we were, and what we did during that time. I do believe that part of how I remember people and how others tell me about the things others have done and said (i.e. when my friend Irene tattles what her ‘psycho’ roommate said to a mutual friend) helps me make sense of the various characters and personalities that play a part in my world.
Because of all of this, I find conditions and diseases that affect your memory as shocking, harmful, and deeply personal. In losing our memories, we are losing our experiences and recollection of some of the rawest formative experiences that made us who we are today.
When I was in middle school and my grandfather was diagnosed with dementia, my parents and aunt were overcome with grief. While I knew his condition would be terminal, I did not yet understand the significance of his diagnosis. Of course, everyone including me or my mom (who has the best memory of anyone I know) forgets where the wallet is or what we ate for breakfast occasionally.
I asked my mom, “What’s so bad about him forgetting things sometimes?”
Little did I know how devastating his condition was and how it would affect our family several years later.
Because of the pandemic, it had been months since I had seen my grandfather. My mom saw him occasionally, but the last time any of us saw him in person was when the paramedics wheeled his cyanotic, almost-lifeless, and dreadfully limp body out the front door of his previous care home. Despite their assurances that his blood sugar was “fine” and he was eating “as normal,” he was skinny as a stick and unable to respond to our desperate cries.
The new home was nice, but nothing like his and my grandma’s old house thirty minutes away.
The foyer was sterile but pleasant: a succulent was placed next to the legally-mandated sign-in binder and flyers about elder abuse. The aides were kind but were simply too busy to always sit down and hold a resident’s hand; there were medications to pick up, families to call, and groceries to buy. Some undistinguishable DIRECTV program was playing, a far cry from the Korean channel my grandfather always had on at home. While the other residents were seated at the table, wearing disposable bibs and grabbing their turkey sandwiches, my grandfather’s sat untouched. He just sat there alone, staring at some speck of paint I couldn’t see.
In the car ride on the way home, I couldn’t believe that my previous self could have ever thought of this diagnosis as an insignificant one or “just” something to be tolerated (like when I lost a jacket at school). My grandfather had barely remembered my name, and when he finally did, he couldn’t grasp that I was about to finish college.
Today, fortunately, I learned that our memories can encompass much more than conversations I have with my grandfather. In fact, it may have a much bigger, under-discussed impact on our identity and how we interpret our world. Given its role as a living record of the human experience, and a primary influence on how we interpret the world around us, the concept of memory has been a fascination of philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists alike. It didn’t surprise me when I read in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy about the interdisciplinarity of the study of memory; current efforts to understand the role of memory can involve scientific frameworks and psychological knowledge to redefine our understanding of memory as an institution and agent for change.
What did surprise me, however, was the impact and existence of multiple forms of memory: in addition to the personal form of memory, I learned about the significance of the collective memory of groups of people, as well. A collective group’s memory can be seen as something very powerful: their history. When a group of individuals works together to document their collective memories of a certain point of interest, place, object, person, or concept, they can create so much of the knowledge that makes up our current society and our world as we know it.
This is something we see in many of our institutions of knowledge: namely, museums, libraries, and even universities.
Museums are one of the largest testaments to the impact of memory. Museums can serve as storehouses for memories: in documenting figures, events, and locations that have changed the course of human history, scholars may archive and present ancient records of previous events, interviews with prominent figures and experts, and restore artifacts providing insight into another world. Additionally, one thing that’s important to see is how people remember what they see and learn in these places as well: it’s possible to understand how the memories and knowledge of previous cultures can also affect how we think about our current world and how individuals talk about what goes on around us.
With this in mind, I hesitantly made my first trip (ever!) to the Penn Museum.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I had never heard of the Penn Museum before the reports surrounding the MOVE bombing remains came out. I was horrified that two Penn anthropologists could be so insensitive in handling these unidentified human remains and even dare to include them as an artifact of interest as if they were just a necklace or jewelry from some “exotic” country. The entire scandal caught me by surprise – perhaps I was naïve to think a university institution would never harbor something as horrific as the unidentified remains of one of our Philadelphian neighbors – and as such, I was initially hesitant to go through the large gate on Spruce welcoming pedestrians into the Museum’s courtyard.
The Museum is oddly tranquil and a bit of an architectural anomaly amidst the complex of larger clinical and medical research buildings on 34th St. The Museum’s courtyard is a hidden oasis on an otherwise bustling campus: open tables invite you to relax in front of the Museum’s majestic pool and enjoy the ancient sculptures on display. The trees surrounding the courtyard are carefully maintained, partially blocking out the hustle-and-bustle of the street behind the Museum’s formidable black gates. Last but not least, quietly situated at the rear of the courtyard, the museum’s front entrance promises a journey into the past and a rare commodity in Philadelphia (particularly in summer months): air conditioning. I was surprised to see the museum, as well as the anthropology department, would be situated so far away from the rest of campus and the other social science departments. However, when reflecting upon the Museum’s history, perhaps this location made more sense than I thought.
The Museum was founded in 1877, a year filled with Americans interested in ancient history. With the financial support of a pair of local bankers, John Punit Petters reached out to Penn’s then-provost (Dr. Will Pepper) and offered to lead the University’s first archaeological expeditions. Many of these first expeditions formed the basis of the Museum’s oldest collections.
Unlike most museums I have visited, the Penn Museum has a large focus on research that accompanies its curatorial mission. Many of the museum’s first curators were primarily academics with interests in curation, and today, academic research remains a significant part of curators’ roles. With this in mind, surprisingly, the Penn Museum has not always been focused as much as it is today on public outreach — many exhibitions had been prepared with a scholarly audience in mind.
I was especially interested in how the Penn Museum uses its most versatile spaces: the Special Exhibitions spaces hidden on the Lower and Upper levels of the Museum. As I meandered through the Egypt exhibit, I took a wrong turn and found myself in front of the Penn Anthro department. Without much thought, I impulsively took the Courtyard Elevators to the lower level and stumbled upon The Stories We Wear.
As the elevator doors opened, I was absolutely certain of where I was. Unlike some of the other exhibits, the entrance of The Stories We Wear is marked with a bold, wavy font and a solid black background. The vibrant, colorful Qing Dynasty opera dress added to the exhibit’s unspoken sense of majesty and invited me to learn more about the artifacts and stories shared inside.
The entrance to the exhibit read:
In just a single long hallway, you could see a series of dresses, pieces of armor, symbolic jewelry, and tattooing tools illuminated by glaring LED lights and accompanied with brief descriptions. Instead of presenting its artifacts in chronological order or grouping artifacts by geographic region, the exhibit attempted to highlight a small handful of themes representative of the human experience: Dressing to Rule, Dressing for Ceremony, Dressing to Perform, Dressing for Battle, and Dressing for Work and Play.
“Why clothes? And what motivated you to choose the pieces you did?”
Fortunately, the Lead Exhibition Curator, Prof. Lauren Ristvet — an expert in complex societies, the Middle East, and ritual and performance theory — was willing to answer my questions.
“Clothing and jewelry and tattoos matter,” Prof. Ristvet said in a Zoom interview. “They’re intimately tied to every aspect of life. One of the things we really wanted was to personalize it; we wanted to find ways to make connections to visitors and to think about the types of individuals who would be wearing these costumes. A lot of what we’re playing with is the idea that dress and adornment may give you clues about much larger social structures or ideas at the time. What we wear is very appropriate to certain moments and certain events, so we focused on places where we had full ensembles, and we tried to recreate an individual and tell a story.”
She told me how they felt that it would be more meaningful to create a sense of time and place out of the artifacts.
I couldn’t help but think how important where you were in the world – something as simple as where you spent a Saturday afternoon – could affect what you see, and therefore what you remember. I could clearly see this choice to emphasize both the lives of ancient personae (with the inclusion of the Qing Dynasty dress, Edo period samurai helmet, Native American wedding robe, and Cocléan pendant) and the lives of 20th/21st century Philadelphians (including Grace Kelly’s coral-beaded Hubert de Givenchy gown, and retired Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin’s 2018 jersey).
I asked Ristvet if there was a certain lesson the museum was hoping to impart through the exhibit? I was thinking in particular of the odd juxtaposition of including an Eagles jersey, placed jarringly alongside an ancient Greek statue. What was the point?
She laughed. “I wanted to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. By putting contemporary material in dialogue with the ethnographic material, I wanted [visitors] to see both the ‘strange’ archeological material in ways that are very familiar and to see ‘familiar’ contemporary materials in ways that are very strange.”
“In the Dressing for Battle section, I centered around atypical narratives about battle and war,” Risvet said, clearly proud of the way she had played with people’s expectations. “Each case dealt with war in a slightly more complex way; it was about more than just armor. You may have noticed the Scythian female warrior wearing gold jewelry who was armed with arrows. Soviet archaeologists from the 19th century initially assumed these warriors were men; only 20 or 30 years ago could biological anthropologists perform DNA analysis and realize a large proportion of these warriors were women. Realizing up to 30% of the bodies found in these massive burial sites were women could directly take on the masculine narrative of war.”
To think about the lasting impact one person (or team) could have on the narratives we recorded, internalized, shared for decades, and got wrong, was amazing—and troubling.
I couldn’t help but wonder: where do we get our information? How do historians and scholars store knowledge, share accounts of conversations they have, and pass on their memories and insight to future generations?
I knew that research could start at many places, but the answer dawned on me as I walked through the Penn Museum’s Egypt Galleries and found myself in what I realized was not an exhibition, but a library.
Nestled inside the walls of this institute tasked with storing the memories of our collective past waits another slightly-hidden, and less-visited “memory center.” Cleverly-carved rooftop windows allowed slivers of sunlight to shine into the otherwise dark and shadowy exhibit hall to illuminate the neatly-organized stacks. Of course! The Penn Museum Library was one of the world’s leading libraries archiving discoveries and work in archaeology and anthropology (with a strength in the archaeology of ancient Egypt).
This realization led me to reach out to Dr. Deborah Stewart, the head librarian of the Penn Museum Library. To start, I thought that she could speak to how the Penn Museum Library received and preserved its many volumes.
Even before the Internet, there was just so much information for librarians to (attempt to) archive. The Penn Museum Library quickly grew from Daniel Garrison Brenton’s personal collection of 4,000 books documenting the many languages, history, and cultures of the Americas due to donations from the Museum’s directors, researchers, and members of the Philadelphia community. As early as 1941, the University hired a professional librarian to manage the multiple collections, documents, books, and papers. As soon as the ’60s, the Penn Museum Library outgrew its (current) space in the Penn Museum and was allocated off-site storage alongside the University’s other libraries. Therefore, today with the almost-infinite expanse of knowledge shared on the Internet, it is necessary for people like Dr. Stewart to curate which documents, viewpoints, and sources are kept.
As I walked through the museum’s corridors, trying to find the Penn Museum Library before it closed for the day, I wondered if researchers had some internal curatorial process that lead their research questions and guided their expeditions. Similar to how Dr. Stewart had to select which books, records, or stories were preserved on the Penn Museum Library’s shelves or kept in an off-site storage facility, do the researchers and curators she assists also hand-pick certain ideas or points of view to share?
Given how what people study and the stories they tell can be very personal and revolve around one individual’s history, circumstances, or culture (similar to some of the most notable items in The Stories We Wear), perhaps some stories or perspectives fell through the cracks? If certain stories were not ‘chosen’ or certain individuals’ recounts of large events not recorded by the world’s most prominent scholars of the time, what would happen to those stories?
From my conversations with Prof. Ristvet and Dr. Stewart, I noticed a potential trend: it seemed that knowledge discovered or frameworks built (often by white male scholars in the 19th or 20th centuries) can set a narrative for how their contemporaries interpret and store our past. At first glance, this seems to make perfect sense – and if anything, seems to be the product of a well-oiled academic machine at work. After their knowledge is encoded into “trusted” sources such as textbooks, academic journals, and other scholarly materials, students would study their work and continue academic work, using the work of their teachers as the foundation for future excavations and investigations.
However, this model only works if the knowledge discovered is sound or the frameworks are proven to be robust. Only fairly recently, perhaps due to scientific breakthroughs (as is the case with the female warriors) or social change (with today’s discussions of race), have some of these perceptions and traditional structures been directly challenged.
I was curious to learn: have the knowledge and memories of past researchers also affected how we interpreted another artifact on display in the Museum? An entire exhibit? Even the Penn Museum (or other museums in Philadelphia) as a whole?
Fortunately, Ms. Kate Quinn, a previous Director of Exhibits and Special Programs at the Penn Museum and the current Executive Director of the Michener Art Museum, had an answer.
From hearing this story, I realized how important and necessary it can be to question the previous knowledge we may tie to certain artifacts or memories. Sometimes, unless scholars, curators, and archivists today review the records we have, it is impossible for us to move forward in our understanding of another culture.
It dawned on me that this wasn’t the first time I had seen how modern-day scholars were forced to directly challenge, confront, or even change the false narratives or understandings of previous generations of scholars. Prof. Ristvet’s discussions of the supposedly male warriors clad in gold armor made clear how gender roles could dictate anthropologists’ and archaeologists’ default assumptions, and Dr. Stewart’s concerns about the restrictions of archaic structures being used in 21st-century libraries showed how even the vocabulary and preeminent scholarly knowledge of the past could be restrictive today.
It was clear to me that – if given the right circumstances — some entity, group, or perhaps even person could be dictating the “narrative” or dictating what stories are worth telling. So I dared to ask Ms. Quinn …
After hearing this story, I was speechless. In passing, whenever I saw a family’s last name (such as the Sacklers) or a company name attached to an exhibit, I realized they may have played a presence in the exhibit but never knew the extent of power over knowledge, memories, and interpretation a donor could have. By literally dictating how space was used, it felt as if donors could “play curator” and cherry-pick the specific memories or interpretation of our past a viewer would remember after walking through an exhibit. What kinds of unsaid expectations do these families, groups, or organizations have when funding an artifact, exhibit, or even a wing of a museum?
However, in hindsight, I should not have been so shocked. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the boldness and authority these families have in sharing a specific vision and the audacity of the early archaeologists and anthropologists who stole the artifacts we study today. How were the artifacts that are shown chosen? Are there certain artifacts that we should be seeing in the first place?
Can we take what we learn from an exhibit for granted? With so much selection – well-intentioned and (perhaps?) not – shaping how museums run and what they show, can we trust these institutions?
Regardless if we should, multiple surveys claim a majority of Americans (as high as 80% of those surveyed) highly trust museums as a primary source of reliable information. This is significantly higher than how much Americans trust the news or even universities. If it is indeed possible for a small group of individuals (whether they be well-meaning but misguided academics or an influential family or advocacy group), and so many Americans see and trust museums as trustworthy and believable, can these beloved institutions of knowledge, learning, and memory be exploited?
I dare say yes. So I asked Ms. Quinn, “Have you seen instances of groups of people advocating for a series of beliefs or an interpretation or a specific understanding via relying on a museum’s authority (i.e. presenting their interpretation as a fact)? Or in other words: have people exploited the public’s trust in museums to push an agenda?”
Of course, it is another conversation entirely to ask if a certain institution may (hypothetically) be pushing an agenda (even unconsciously). However, we must not ignore the circumstances of what we are learning. Clearly, doing so can lead to additional insights that clarify the significance of what we study, whether that be forgotten languages or the origins of an ancient necklace, and help us uncover biases or influences that may impact how and why we know something.
Before our time ended, Ms. Quinn had one final story for me detailing her current work at the Michener Art Museum.
It’s common knowledge that information is passed down from generation to generation, whether it be through colloquial means such as word-of-mouth, academic media such as textbooks and university lectures, or even cultural institutions such as the museums we visit. Therefore, as the curators of today’s knowledge, similar to what Ms. Quinn, Dr. Stewart, and Prof. Ristvet are doing, it is our responsibility to challenge the information we learn, store, and share with others: although it’s impossible to question the origins of each piece of information or hand-verify every truth, it is important and immensely helpful to understand the context in which knowledge is created.
Only a few months after last seeing my grandfather, I’m once again amazed (and more than a little horrified) that I once thought memory loss could be so nonconsequential. What we learn and remember can have such a large impact on how we see the world: your understanding of a culture or the past can challenge misconceptions you’ve had, help you make sense of the madness that is today’s world, and even guide decisions you make in the distant (or not-so-distant) future. More importantly, I realized that there is one key factor that allows these institutions to gather, preserve, verify, and share all sorts of memories.
Without the work and primarily the questions of curious, truth-seeking individuals – researchers, activists, and community members alike – it’s impossible for the work currently done in museums and libraries to continue. Perhaps this is why history can be seen as our collective memory: it requires many individuals to come together and ask the key questions necessary to create a robust, living, and flexible record that can be learned and passed on. Our history is the amalgamation of our ideas, our thoughts, our interpretations, and our questions; without the hard work of regular people like the staff of the Penn Museum, the citizens of Philadelphia, and you (yes, even you!), many of the false conceptions and beliefs that declare how we study societies today and the key players who dictate how we think go unchecked.
But what now? How can we get involved? As my Penn Museum mug stares at me from the corner of my desk, I knew that something had to be done but didn’t know what.
Arguably, the best place to start when you’re lost is to start asking questions and to start learning. Not surprisingly, that’s how this entire mess of a “story” started – with a series of pesky questions and unchallenged, underdeveloped ideas. All of the individuals I’ve had the great pleasure of speaking with both put in significant hours studying the world around them and found the right people to talk to – perhaps if you and I did the same, we may eventually break down the walls guarding the false assumptions, irresponsible scholarly practices, and societal constructs governing the narratives we hear.
But at least for today, I felt I’ve asked enough questions. This evening, I have a plane to catch.
Miraculously, all of my courses elected to offer final papers or presentations instead of exams, allowing me to escape the Penn bubble before the Christmas rush. As soon as I get home, the first thing I’ll do (after making myself a crappy latte and taking a twenty-minute post-airport shower) is revive a forgotten hobby of mine from my “memory box.” (Yes, my mom literally calls it that.)
Despite being of legal drinking age, I still have the artistic genius of a five-year-old. Some things never change. In my infinite kindergarten wisdom, despite not knowing a thing about photography (or even owning a camera), I aspired to create a scrapbook detailing my life in case an older, tired, overweight, and depressed version of myself wanted to remember the good ‘ole days. In hindsight, I am very lucky that (1) this phase lasted only a week and (2) my hippocampus1 refused to do its job until this morning.
I normally hate Christmas photos with a passion – my friends would struggle to find a single December-themed photo of me with a genuine smile – but I think I’ll make an exception this year. Despite the presence of the omicron variant, there is a slight possibility that my grandfather and I can see and talk to each other – if only through his bedroom window. Given his hearing loss, my broken Korean, and the elephant in the room (his severe dementia), I probably can’t ask him about his experiences surviving the Vietnam War or debate with him the role museums and history have in determining the fate of democracy. However, I do know that every memory, including the little ones, can matter and change a story. And as suboptimal as this reunion may be, I know I’ll never want to forget the questions he’ll ask and the time we spend together.
First and foremost, I would like to thank the many experts whose ideas, experiences, and words built the foundations of this story. In no particular order, I thank Dr. Alex Pezzatti, Dr. Deborah Stewart, Prof. Lauren Ristvet, Prof. David Eng, Ms. Kate Quinn, and Dr. Elizabeth Grant for their willingness to share their experiences and time. I am forever grateful for their work, without which our society would repeat the mistakes of our collective past and fail to understand the magnitude of the decisions we make today. The work you do establishes a foundation that I can only hope to build upon throughout the course of my academic career.
Next, I would like to thank Prof. Jay Kirk, Managing Editor Chelsey Zhu, and the editorial staff/writers of the Fall 2021 edition of Xfic for their continued support, encouragement, and amazing ideas. Without their help (and many cups of dining hall coffee), this story could not be a reality. Thank you for making my first English class at Penn a memorable one and sticking with this story (and me!) despite the ups and downs.
Last but not least, I would like to thank the many mentors, family members, and friends who have encouraged me to embark on this journey. Most importantly, thank you for giving me a reason to care.