Re-remembering Australia: Public memorials sharing difficult knowledge

Alison Atkinson-Phillips


This paper explores a new genre of public memorials: those which commemorate lived experiences of loss and trauma. This work contributes to the growing body of literature on memory work in settler-colonial and transitional justice settings. Transitional justice has become an internationally accepted framework for societies attempting to move from civil conflict to peaceful democracy. While Australia’s (post)settler-colonial context does not fit this description, transitional justice mechanisms have been widely adopted as a means of coming to terms with the nation’s past. I offer four short case studies through which I discuss memorials that acknowledge human rights abuses, and consider the kinds of cultural ‘work’ such memorials are expected to do in the present. Firstly, public memorials are used by marginalised counterpublics to claim a space in the national story. Secondly, they are used to create spaces where survivors of human rights abuses can have their loss acknowledged and be given space to grieve. Thirdly, they are used as acts of witnessing, to speak back into the dominant public sphere. Finally, and more recently, memorials have been created by governments as part of the widespread adoption of transitional justice mechanisms. Such memorials are seen as acts of symbolic reparations and used to respond to claims of past human rights abuse on the part of the state.


memory; human rights; memorial

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