Professor Jenny Wüstenberg

Nottingham Trent University

Keynote Abstract: “Remembering Extinct Species – Between Business and Memory”

Some our most vexing contemporary challenges could be described in terms of slow memory: when we are not propelled into decisive action by memories of extreme violence, sudden catastrophe, or unexpected triumph, when what is changing happens in a creeping, diffuse, or even invisible manner, we find it extraordinarily difficult to remember, recognize and prioritize it for policy action. Biodiversity loss and what scientists call “the sixth extinction” are a prime example of a slow development that we are struggling to address, though the evidence about its future impact is unequivocal. We are hampered, in other words, both by the “slowness” of change and by the accelerated nature of the political, economic and cultural relationships that we need to activate in order to respond. In this talk, I will outline the concept of slow memory and its operation in contemporary memorial politics, using the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory (MEMO) Project on the Isle of Portland (UK) as a case study. I will discuss the “memory culture of extinction”, which is institutionalized in museums of natural history and elsewhere, as the backdrop against which the effort to build a monument to extinct species is taking place. I will then focus in on the politics surrounding MEMO, which are caught up between arguments about the global relevance of biodiversity and the economic prerogatives of Portland as a peripheral community in an otherwise wealthy region. Portland, with its traditional stone industry, serves as a direct link between our modern cultural practice of monumentalizing that which we deem to be important by “setting it in stone,” and the discovery of fossils that lead to the scientific recognition of the fact of species extinction. And it exemplifies the kinds of power struggles that happen when memory activists endeavour to make a slow-moving process gain traction in accelerating time.