The answer is to leave history

I was in Macau over the weekend for two reasons. First, to attend the graduation of a former Galaxy Entertainment colleague who had gone back to university as a mature student and second to spend some time at the “International Forum on UNESCO Memory of the World (MoW) International Advisory Committee-Working Group “Education and Research”, sponsored by the Macao Foundation and the Macau Documentation and Information Society. Graduations are always good events; all that work being acknowledged by friends and family and the sense of personal accomplishment. Our education is such a large part of our ‘personal history’. This made me remember that education is the wisest move I’ve every made, even when I didn’t do that well. I caught the opening of the MoW conference and then almost all of the first two presentations; Dr. Roslyn Russell, Chair of the International Advisory Committee of UNESCO Memory of the World Programme and then Professor Lothar Jordan, Chair of UNESCO MoW IAC Working Group Education and Research. I returned in the afternoon for a round-table discussion with Dr. Russell, Prof. Jordan and about a dozen others.

Memory of the World – what a great name for a cause and organization. What is it about? I’m going to say it is about capturing, documenting, interpreting and inspiring the memory of people. This particular part of it was focused on ‘documentary heritage’ – the written artifacts of memory. Macau has the well-deserved reputation in the Perl River Delta of being more historically aware and sensitive than either Hong Kong or Guangdong province. Its 400-year history as the final port-of-call in the Portuguese empire has given Macau a magical quality. Now dotted with gleaming fairy-tale casinos and rebranded as the Las Vegas of the East it has ample public funding for remembering its past. Oddly though, we didn’t talk about the specific documents from Macau very much at this forum. Maybe they did in the bit I missed in the morning but I don’t think so. The afternoon discussion was trying to figure out how the Macao Foundation could implement a feasible memory of Macau programme that could become part of the Memory of the World.

“The answer is to leave history”, which is something I’ve heard or read or seen but can’t place at the moment but kept running through my head as I listened to the group of historians, archivists and librarians talk about MoW and Macau. I’m pretty sure what they mean by memory is ‘personal history’ and not place or organizational history. Those memories, which are more personal and only understood once experienced. There was talk of a workshop which didn’t sound appropriate to me so I proposed a series of facilitated conversations about memory in Macau. Right away, this begged the question of who should/would/could attend these facilitated conversations? Should it only be academics, librarians, archivists and other information professionals? We agreed it should be more than just these professionals although they had skills and knowledge about memory, history, archives and documents that would be useful to know and learn. I would want to include people from the performing arts. My experience in Macau is that dancers, poets, playwrights, musicians are frequently mining their own Macau stories for their creative work. I would want the conversations to target identifiable groups; for example, Macau’s secondary school students, woman, recent immigrants, creative artists, academic and information professionals and so on. Two young men had many insightful comments. Inaciso Pangchi Chan from the Macau Heritage Ambassador Association noted that the Macau Archives were essentially inaccessible to the Macau public because the archival materials were frequently in Portuguese and most of the public only speak, read or write Chinese. The Ambassador Association organizes small group tours of 10 or less people for local Macau residents and these are frequently over subscribed showing a real passion for understanding local history in Macau. He noted that over half of Macau’s residents had only recently arrived in Macau and too frequently knew almost nothing about the history of Macau. Most alarmingly many young people in Macau didn’t know where the famous ‘Ruins of St. Paul’ were located, in the early 17th century the largest Catholic Cathedral in Asia. There is very little if any Macau history being taught in the secondary schools. This is due to a lack of teaching materials and there are no secondary school examinations on Macau history. I suspect failing to teach local or recent history is a common failing in many places. Hong Kong suffers from the same lack of local history in its secondary schools. Dr. Sharif Shams Imon from Macau’s Institute for Tourism Studies proposed that there should be some end-result for these conversations, for example, an exhibition or series of seminars. We agreed that this would be a good approach. As with most around the table discussions, the coffee break was lively and gave us a chance to talk in small groups. Hong Kong’s recent experience with national education and the strong public reaction against it was one of the threads. Focusing on ‘correct history’ by the middle and upper classes in Macau was another thread. Whitewashing history happens without people even imagining that they are doing it.

So if the Macao Foundation does try to run facilitated conversations on memory, personal history and the Memory or the World what should they do? I can imagine a series David Gurteen inspired knowledge cafés, Bohm Dialogues and Open Space Technology facilitated events run over a period of 3 to 6 months leading to an exhibition of the created and collected documents. I’ll be interested to see what happens in Macau with Memory of the World over the next 12 months or so. The answer is to leave history.

2 Comments »

  1. Roslyn Russell said

    Thanks for your coverage of the Memory of the World Forum, Bill. As you know, I strongly agreed with your suggestion of a series of facilitated conversations on the Memory of the World and the Memory of Macau – and what a fantastic place it is – that involves all the key stakeholders from across the spectrum of the Macau experience. I am very optimistic that, with the enthusiasm and commitment of those at the Macau Foundation and the Documentation Society, and also people like the two young men you mentioned, along with those of us from the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme who will be working with them in this initiative, we will achieve a very worthwhile outcome that will go a long way towards addressing those issues of low public profile for Macau’s history, and the need for accessible materials with which to interpret it.

  2. John said

    Bill, this is a great post touching on so many important points. When taking up the role of Principal Archivist in Hong Kong, one of the issues I tried to get support for was a collection policy to shape a balanced picture of Hong Kong’s development, one of so many ways to create an appreciation of history as relevant to contemporary life. Until the archival community evolves beyond the single focus of Archives legislation, little will change. Your inclusion of non-professionals in the identification and interpretation of Macau’s history resonates. I hope you’ll blog on progress over time!

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