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Dr. Lauren E. Obermark

Expanding the Canon of Memory: A Case Study of the Oklahoma City National
Memorial Museum (RSA 2014)
(This is a work-in-progress; please do not reproduce this paper without permission
from the author.)

Introduction: Historical Museums and Rhetorical Education
In this presentation, I aim to further revive memory as a canon of rhetoric by
systematically laying out what I call a pedagogy of memory. My analysis is rooted
in qualitative data collected at the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum,
which serves as both an educational space for the general public and an explicitly
commemorative space for the victims and survivors of the 1995 Oklahoma City
bombing. The mission statement of the museum emphasizes that that the top two
priorities are remembrance and education, and these priorities point to why the
OKC National Memorial Museum is a particularly relevant site for an exploration
of the pedagogy of memory. Specifically, my analysis theorizes this emerging
pedagogy of memory as: 1) value-driven and often reliant on epideictic rhetoric
and 2) thoughtfully utilizing material rhetoric and multimodal approaches to
remembrance and education.
Finally, I suggest how the pedagogy of memory, in
its frequent commitment to civic engagement, can informand potentially
transformpractices for rhetorical education.

Two other pieces of my theory, cut for time, but Ill gladly answer any questions if youre curious: 3) respectful of
personal connections to an event and frequently collaborative; and 4) constantly evolving as context(s) surrounding
history and memory change.
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To clarify what I mean when I use the term rhetorical education: I should
say that my overriding theoretical framework for the larger project from which I
draw this case study is how instruction in rhetoric, writing, and communication is
linked to citizenship. Rhetorical education in our field is often discussed as a
historical interest or within the purview of the classroom, but I am motivated to
explore diverse present-day practices of extracurricular rhetorical education, and I
suggest that historical museums are especially rich sites for such research since
they are frequently concerned with educating about the past as a way to raise
awareness and advocacy in the present. For instance, with this case study at the
OKC National Memorial Museum, it became clear to me that memory, by its very
nature, is pedagogicalby selecting what is remembered and deciding how that
memory is represented, citizens are taught lessons not just about history but about
how they should participate and engage. Though such an approach can build
toward civic engagement, the frequently didactic nature of value-driven education
can also suppress choices and voices and oversimplify difficult topics (like
trauma), so I will address the potential benefits and drawbacks of connecting
memory and rhetorical education.
Situating My Work
I wont belabor the literature review but suffice it to say, as the formation of
this panel and many others in your RSA program (not to mention the pages of RSQ
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and Rhetoric Review), rhetorical studies has not been immune to what historian Jay
Winter dubbed the memory boom. Which is to say, while some scholars (myself
included) worry about the regression of memory as a canon, over the last fifteen
years or so, we have indeed been talking a lot about memory and in a lot of
different ways. I have included a bibliography on my handout of the various
scholars I find myself frequently in conversation with as I write about rhetoric and
memory. I also find pulling from other disciplines useful to my methods and
theorization, and my larger project finds itself situated in museum studies and
trauma studiesnecessary situating since the museums I research are representing
traumatic events, such as this bombing, war, and slavery. Youll see many of these
names on the bibliography, as well.
My Intervention
Though the recent work of scholars makes headway into expanding memory
as a canon and renewing its usefulness for the 21
century, I want to establish a
rhetorical pedagogy of memory, a direction existing scholarship has not yet moved.
Specifically, my case study of the OKC National Memorial Museum continues to
examine memory as rhetorical, but this is a site of memory that is very much
evolving and constantly (re)created. Accordingly, the present-day and ever-
changing nature of the OKC National Memorial Museum brings rhetorical
education to the forefront of this discussion. The rhetorical work of this site is first
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and foremost committed to educating these guests as citizenscitizens who need
to know about a historic event to enhance their present-day civic awareness. Now
to take a closer look at some of the exhibits at the OKC Museum and how they
inform this emerging pedagogy of memory.
The Pedagogy of Memory and Epideictic Rhetoric: Values and Control in the
Childrens Area
Mission Statement in the Childrens Area
To both honor the memory of the many young victims of the bombing and
connect with and educate even the youngest guests, a substantial Childrens Area
was included in the OKC National Memorial Museum. The Memorial Mission
Statement, adopted on March 26, 1996, states: The Memorial Complex should
have a component designed to meet kids on their level, physically and
cognitively. The component should help children learn and feel something they can
carry with them as they grow and should offer them assurance that the world holds
far more good than bad (my emphasis). This final and moralistic piece of the
mission statement demonstrates memorys strong connection to epideictic rhetoric.
According to the Mission Statement, in the Childrens Area, remembering
the bombing is associated with promoting positive values; namely, the Childrens
Area paints a version of the bombing itself and the future that is full of helpful
people and kindness among humans; my interviews with staff members echo these
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valuessome repeated words that came up in an interview question about the
messages of the museum (and not just referencing the Childrens Area) include
respect, helpfulness, and personal responsibility. Though such values are all
common ones to teach children and certainly do align with events surrounding the
bombing, I also see undeniable danger in highlighting these feel good aspects of
the bombing while avoiding some of more difficult to communicate and
understand parts. With an epideictic approach, the memory of the event is shaped
in a way that is, perhaps, overly optimistic, even misleading. Even more, the
intense institutional control over the memory of the bombing raises further
questions. While freedom of choice is often touted in todays museum education,
memory remains highly controlledindeed this is a tension I have observed in all
my case study museums.
Childrens Book
The theme of good people overpowering the bad people in the world
continues throughout the Childrens Area and much of the museum. For instance,
one of the beginning activities involves reading a large childrens book about the
bombing entitled A Day to Remember, a huge book with sturdy plastic pages and
colorful illustrations that share about the bombing and its aftermath, with a heavy
focus on rebuilding. The obvious goal of this book is to make these young visitors
more familiar with the Oklahoma City Bombing, an event that happened well
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before they were bornand all of this is shared in a decidedly child-friendly way.
Though one goal is just to communicate this basic historical information, epideictic
rhetoric also shapes the pedagogy of memory in this book to provide a value-based
rhetorical education.
In A Day to Remember, memory of the bombing and how Oklahoma City
recovered are linked to positive values, and remembering itself is assumed to be an
act of self-improvement and involvement. In other words, through memory, young
visitors can become better citizens. For example, page five of the book depicts the
actual bombing. The Murrah Building is destroyed and smoking, cars are smashed,
and small fires pop up in various places. In the middle of this chaos, though, there
is a very special tree.
The text on page five reads: Other buildings near the
Murrah Building were also damaged. Windows were broken, and walls fell down.
Glass was everywhere. Cars parked near the building were on fire. Right in the
middle of the burning cars there was a tree that did not fall down. The tree was
badly burned, but it stood tallit SURVIVED! Though this page does offer basic
information about the bombing itself, those details are limited; the building is
named, and the rest of the details are non-specific and could be about nearly any
destructive event. The value of survival/overcoming is the main message here. The
embrace of the epideictic as part of the pedagogy of memory, particularly as it

The Survivor Tree, a stunning and aptly named tree that survived the bombing, has a powerful presence at the
OKC National Memorial Museum, referenced in various exhibits and promotional materials. It is also part of the
memorial itself. Memorial tours meet under this tree and learn its story and significance.
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promotes positive life lessons and values, also illustrates an avoidance of less
easily digestible aspects of a traumatic event. This is a pattern that emerges
throughout my research at historical museums: museums struggle to engage topics
like violence and death in a sustained way because they have (valid) concerns that
this may only depress visitors and deter them from coming at all. Such concern is
not misplaced since American culture generally evades such difficult topics in
educational, as well as social, scenarios. At the OKC National Memorial Museum,
starting a dialogue about the very real loss and violence of this event and what it
can mean for children as they become adults is replaced with an emphasis on the
survival and growth of Oklahoma Cityimportant lessons, to be sure, but ones
that avoid complexity to some extent.
While the connection to values and morals holds promise for the future of
rhetorical education since the development of citizenship is encouraged, the
centrality of epideictic rhetoric in the pedagogy of memory poses risks in terms of
institutional control and simplifying the trauma into a value lesson or overcoming
narrative, further marginalizing the discussion of taboo topics, like death or
terrorism. This is a trend across the museums I have studied, and it does align with
a feature of public discourse, as well: we tend to avoid the hard parts and focus on
the inspirationthose are the stories we like to tell and hear. The Childrens Area
at the OKC National Memorial museum is most concerned with the young guests
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taking away the moral of the story, which is, as articulated in the museums
mission statement: the world holds far more good than bad.
But as the remainder of my presentation will show, there are ways to allow
for choice in terms of content and modes of communicationdirections I see as
promising for the future of rhetorical education.
The Pedagogy of Memory as Material: The Use of Personal Objects and
Photos to Disrupt Narrative Structure in the Gallery of Honor
One of the most powerful sections of the OKC National Memorial Museum
is the Gallery of Honor.
In terms of the design, it breaks from the rest of the
museum because once guests enter the space, they no longer feel like they are in a
museum at all. While the rest of the museum is filled with text, video, audio,
artifacts, and photos, this area is sparse by comparison. Clear boxes cover the
walls, and no other dcor is present. There are 168 boxes; one for each of the
victims. Inside each box is a photograph of the victim along with a representative
personal object. Victims families donated the photos and the objects. Underneath
the boxes are bronze plaques that list all the victims names. Those engraved
plaques are the only words that are part of the actual exhibit. It is a largely silent
space as visitors sit on the bench and take it all in or walk around the room and
peer in the boxes, studying the photos and objects.

The sacred feeling cultivated in this space made me reluctant to take photos, so there are none included in this
section. On the OKCNMM website, you can find a video tour of this gallery.
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This gallery is comparable to a mausoleum, and it initially appears almost
completely removed from educational imperatives. The pedagogy of memory
continues here, though. The introductory placard goes more in depth about the
methods and purpose of this gallery and indicates the underlying pedagogy:
Every person who was killed leaves behind family and friends who
remember the uniqueness of their loved one. It is that individuality
this gallery hopes to recognize. The artifact in each casechosen by
the familyprovides a sense of the lives of their loved ones. It is a
gallery of hobbies and passions, hopes and dreams. It is a gallery of
everyday people and extraordinary loss. It is a gallery of honor.
In other words, this gallery aims to teach visitors by the simultaneously ordinary
and unique examples of those who were lost. Epideictic rhetoric is still powerfully
employed in this gallery and in a more classical way than in the Childrens Area. It
is similar to a eulogy since the overarching goal is to pay homage to the victims of
the tragedy.
But there is new twist to the epideictic rhetoric in the Gallery of Honor. By
simply displaying a photograph and a family-selected representative object, this
gallery demonstrates the power of pedestrian objects. Through material rhetoric,
the tragedy is made to feel more real and relatable to visitors. Specifically, this
gallery reminds them that the victims had families, worked jobs, and had hobbies.
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The rhetorical effect of the pedestrian nature of this gallery is that visitors receive
the message that this could have been anyoneincluding themselves or their loved
ones. The use of material rhetoric to communicate the ordinary, everyday nature of
trauma is an increasingly popular and powerful method of remembrance and
education in history museums. When the trauma is too much (too many lives lost,
too senseless, etc.) to cognitively process, using everyday objects or artifacts to
communicate the enormity of it is common. Pedagogically, such material rhetoric
suggests that to remember and learn about a historical event fully, people must
understand more than just the big picture. They must see these individualized,
real, and ordinary pieces of the experience. Representation needs to go beyond just
the textual narrative of a persons life; seeing an object and/or photo can
effectively increase the educational engagement and understanding.
What is important to me here is how material rhetoricthese pedestrian
objects and family-selected photoscan disrupt the narrative and linear structure
of history and offer new possibilities for communication and interaction among
citizens. These personal belongings and photos are not linked to one another nor
given any sort of context beyond what the introductory placard to the gallery
provides. The strong hand that guided guests through the Childrens Area and
declared particular values to be the right ones is released here, as visitors must
make sense of the objects without much instruction from the museum. The boxes
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combined create powerful, disjointed, non-narratives that remember victims in a
way that is complex and messy, tragic yet ordinary. Such non-linearity and
juxtapositions are productive content in that they push visitors to engage with
structures of communication that are less familiar and often harder to make sense
of. These forms of rhetoric require substantial intellectual work and engagement
from the audiencethey must decide what the objects mean and how they fit (or
do not fit) into the larger narrative structure and value commitments of the
museum. I suggest that in this Gallery the OKC National Memorial Museum
models a modernized approach to rhetorical education. Visitors learn about modes
of discourse and thoughtful, nuanced approaches to communication that have
relevancy far beyond their museum visit.
Conclusion: The Possibilities of Memory for Rhetorical Education
Ultimately, when memory is expanded as a canon, new possibilities emerge
for rhetorical theory. In articulating an emerging pedagogy of memory, we can see
how memory offers meaningful directions for 21
century rhetorical education.
This discussion of the OKC National Memorial Museum illustrates both positive
directions and challenges for rhetorical education. First, when memory is central to
rhetorical education, people are more clearly able to see possibilities for
involvement and civic engagement. For instance, the OKC National Memorial
Museum constantly links its historical work to present-day civic issues, especially
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in an effort to understand the impact of violence, and encourages the public to get
involved through activities like outreach programs at schools and a speaker series
at the museum. With memory as a starting point, creating a dialogueindeed a
dialogue about tough, uncomfortable issuescan be accomplished through such
efforts at rhetorical education. At the same time, though these opportunities for
involvement are promising, they must not be over-controlled by institutional
forces. Rhetorical education can teach people various ways to get involved in their
communities, but there must then be room for freedom of choice and individual
decision about this involvement. The pedagogy of the OKC National is the most
effective when visitors are guided but also allowed room and flexibility, most
observable in the non-directed design of the Gallery of Honor. Accompanying
these possibilities, material rhetoric affects rhetorical education as it demands that
people familiarize themselves with alternative patterns and modes of
communicationwhat can be added to the word? How do certain objects
communicate in ways that words cannot? In an increasingly multimodal society,
these are questions citizens must consider for their own participation in public
discourse. Indeed, further research at modern museums (and, more broadly, other
diverse public sites) can move rhetoricians toward a more developed, robust sense
of what rhetorical education looks like, how it succeeds and fails, and what it can
(and cannot) accomplish in the present day.