GLAM to the power of “x”: The Future of Memory
By Gionni Di Gravio
[This presentation originally debuted as an address at the annual Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Societies ADFAS Lecture held on Remembrance Day, Monday 11 November 2019, Hunter Theatre, Hunter School of the Performing Arts Lambton Rd, Broadmeadow NSW. A shorter version was also presented to the National Digital Forum 2019, held in Wellington, New Zealand on 20 November 2019.]
Abstract: What do we remember? How do we retain, pass on or even re-discover memories? This lecture takes a look at human expression in all its forms and formats across our region and across thousands of years to the present. It will consider the problems encountered by archivists and GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) professionals in how to handle this material and knowledge, preserve it, and facilitate access into the future.
Let me begin by acknowledging the Aboriginal ancestors of this land, known since 1892 as the Awabakal people, before then, The Newcastle or Lake Macquarie Tribes, and before then, the peoples of Mulubinba or the Mulubinbakal. We welcome their elders past, present, and yet to be to these proceedings tonight.
Thanks very much for the invitation to speak to you, on Remembrance Day, on the topic of memory. As archivist at the University of Newcastle, this is my business, and I see every day the joys and woes caused when memory, collective and personal are either remembered or lost, or ignored. No matter how much you hear the words, we “don’t need the past, let’s just concentrate on the future”, the more we need to understand that we are all made up of memories that have shaped who we are, and we world we live in, so ignoring it will not help us in the future, or hamper us. I will give you a personal and universal view on the topic spanning centuries.
[Slide 1] For those who don’t know, “GLAM” stands for Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums, the repositories of our memories in tangible form. We established a GLAMx in 2016 to invite students into our world as work integrated learning students (or WIL) to connect them with all forms of human expression across 50,000 years. Thus, GLAM to the power of “x” encompasses all possibilities and knowledge capable of a human being with no limits; which takes us into deep time 4.7billion years to the birth of the Earth, galactically in the knowledge of our universe, and beyond.
[Slide 2] This is a black Aztec obsidian mirror. Used by the Aztec priests to see into the future, and access divine knowledge. Purported to have been plundered during the conquest of the Americas, brought to England to find its way into the possession of Queen Elizabeth I’s astrologer, mathematician and polymath, Dr John Dee. He used it, along with other crystal apparatus or scrying stones, to communicate with the angels to obtain divine intelligence, which were termed “Actions with Spirits”. So, why speak with the angels?
[Slide 3] In November 1572, a new star appeared in the constellation of Cassiopeia. Known as Tycho’s supernova (SN1572), it was also observed and recorded by a number of scientists at the time, including Dr John Dee. What made it significant, was that its appearance formed a cross in the heavens, causing astrologers to believe it was God impressing his heavenly mark on the heavens the end of the world was nigh. Dee began his is angelic communications in the late 1570s possibly as a response to uncover God’s design.
[Slide 4] As part of his key he devised the Monas Hieroglyphica, a composite symbol made out of all the symbols for the “planets” and elements, in order to unlock the Universal Book of Nature.
[Slide 5] In Italy, another scientific philosopher, Giordano Bruno was devising similar sigils to unlock eternal diving knowledge, he taught the Art of Memory. He sought such a universal key through his works on memory such as De Umbris Idearum. These renaissance thinkers were obsessed in unlocking unlimited knowledge.
[Slide 6-7] Thomasso Campanella proposed a Utopian “City of the Sun” where all human knowledge was set in public view via seven walls. One third of the book proposed this Utopic vision, two thirds on how to defend it.
[Slide 8] These ideas were inspired by Abbott Johannes Trithemius’ whose work Steganographia, a book of cryptography masquerading as a work of demonic magic, written in 1499, published in 1606, was circulating in manuscript sourced and copied by John Dee. I see this work as the birth of the internet. Access to divine intelligence, using spiritual beings to convey communications from one part of the earth to another. The art of using spirits to communicate over long distances. Satellites are angels. Using the analogy, demons could now be our modern day trolls.
[Slide 9] Dame Frances Yates was the scholar of the Warburg Institute in London, who retraced the ancient Art of Memory in her 1966 landmark work. She illustrated how people remembered things prior to the invention of writing and printing. Memory palaces created, with locations and fantastical imagery to remember anything. There is one illustrated where the god Thoth shows up to tell the king he has invented the art of writing:
“I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters. Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in a great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame of the various arts which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to letters, ‘This invention, O king,’ said Theuth, ‘will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.’ But Thamus replied, ‘Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgctfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practise their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are not part of themselves will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise”
[Slide 10] This recent book from Lynne Kelly “The Memory Code” illustrates the same process but from an Aboriginal perspective.
[Slide 11] Here is our black obsidian mirror of the modern day. A computer screen is our “scrying” stone, and Google are our “angels”, communicating anything we wish across distances, and finding the answers to any question, accessing a universal knowledge, the dreams of the renaissance magicians have now come true.
[Slide 12-14] Cloud Atlas (2012). Archivist records an interview to provide context or corporate historians of the future. The fabricant (or slave) has “no such memories” because, as Newcastle was set up as a gaol within a gaol, the records are not kept with the gaoled, but with the gaolers.
[Slide 15] Here are some of our “oppressed” ancestors at a picnic.’
[Slide 16,17,18,19,20] In 2016 with the help of Professor Marguerite Johnson, we set up the GLAMx lab (in a collaborative project between IT, FEDUA and the Library) to bring students into our world, working with archives across 50,000 years, digitising the NBN Archive, 3D scanning etc and getting real world experience across the GLAM activities of digitisation….
[Slide 21, 22,23] And digitalisation…in other words the possibilities that digitised data opens up such as mapping maps across Google Earth, then mapping resources across those maps that are contextually associated with them, e.g. Snowball images over 1890s maps.
[Slide 24] Deep Time, 6,700-year-old archaeological dig in Newcastle West, on the original location of the Palais Royale. Made national news and triggered a review of the state legislation relating to Aboriginal heritage. The simulation mines our 3D digital objects in living histories data platform, and exports them into a 3D recreation of the dig.
[Slide 26-27-28] Another project involved recreating the Victoria Theatre in Perkins Street of 1891. These are part of the 8 volumes of records uncovered by the Newcastle community locating this guy, Brian Brown, who had them sitting in his garage for the past 30 years. Couldn’t bring himself to destroy them.
[Slide 29] Digital is great, but beware.
According to this documentary the End of Memory (2018)
All human expression has its time limits. E.g., An inscription on stone can last up to 10,000 years,
[Slide 30] On parchment, 1000 years.
[Slide 31] On film, 100 years
[Slide 32] On vinyl, 50 years
[Slide 33] On CD-ROM? 500 years until a French team in 2003 discovered an oxidised particle that could destroy the data on the disc, rendering the CDrom not a solution for our future data.
[Slide 34] Data on a planetary scale – We are kidding ourselves if all this data will be retrievable. There will be data loss at some point. Digitise to communicate, and to make the physical world (whilst looking after the physical things) we live in better. Some things can’t be saved, such film and magnetic tape, but we can retard its disintegration with proper storage conditions.
[Slide 35] Alan Watts warned the IBM engineers as early as 1969 that digitising everything was folly. You would be chasing your tails for the rest of eternity trying to digitise the world. In a talk given to the IBM Systems Group, Alan Watts describes the wiggly world of nature and the net we cast over it. For a transcription see: https://www.organism.earth/library/document/5
“if I’m going to make a big pitch—is that we’ve run into a cultural situation where we’ve confused the symbol with the physical reality, the money with the wealth, and the menu with the dinner. And we’re starving on eating menus”
Don’t confuse the menu with the meal.
[Slide 36-37-38] Obi-wan in the Archives. “If an item does not appear in our records, it doesn’t exist”
[Slide 39] The Time Machine (1960). Have we become the Eloi? “I can learn all about you from books”
[Slide 40] The Time Machine (1960). “Yes, they do tell me all about you.”
[Slide 41- 42] Dream time. GLAMtopia? For us we need proper conservation facilities to look after our physical items, to clean, prepare, repair and rehouse. We need proper storage facilities, with appropriate environmental conditions for each format. We need the ability to digitise anything we need to, and lastly, areas for the community to access this material to engage with it physically or virtually, manipulate data, play around with new ways of bringing it to people. To help solve the myriad of social, environmental and personal problems we and our world face.
[Slide 43] Recipe for the future of memory is to share. Bible and complete works of Plato are all that has come down to us in complete form from the ancient world. Why, because they were copied and shared.
[Slide 44] Personal bit: Dream of polished crater, 1992, my dark black obsidian mirror. This was my “big” dream.
“The philosopher’s stone is a gigantic crater on the surface of the earth, made of a dark stone, like basalt, which has been polished smooth over countless centuries and aeons. Each soul polishes its little bit.”
This is the dream I had on Monday 6th June, 1992 which showed heaven or paradise to be a huge polished dark crater upon the surface of the earth.
“The dream began as a series of fades.
A rather beautiful blonde woman was talking to me. She was discussing things about feminity, life, wisdom in various parts of a house, in doorways. All the while I was not listening but admiring her visually. She became bemused and called to a female friend “Come N.. let us go to bliss…”
I felt like I had blown it. I had stuffed up one of those moments in dreams where a teacher tells you some interesting stuff. In my case the teacher was not an old man with a beard, but a young woman.
Into a room I find myself trying to find a door. The room is full of chairs, trinkets, picture frames, all beautiful and cluttered. The room and objects all belonged to W.E. – an old flatmate. I was frantically trying to find a door and suddenly I saw an old friend from school. I ask him “Why do people collect so many chairs? Why don’t they collect doors? A door is what I want!”
I found a door and escaped into an ancient looking dungeon or gaol. The people were zombie like and marching up and down staircases like the figures of an Escher engraving. I asked one of the men the direction out, but I could not understand or remember what he said.
I decided to go into another room. At the entrance I met a man who directed me to another who had many books on the esoteric and occult arts. He said to me “You should ring me sometime, I could give you some advice.”
I entered a room which was a hall or warehouse with a path leading all the way to another door at the opposite end of the building. As I rushed to walk along the path, I ran into three people of Asian appearance performing what looked like a ritual which involved the placing of three towels on the ground, and arrangement of various items. As I stepped back into the small crowd watching, the sign was given that a ritual oracle was in progress. It was written on the ground. The one man and two women had been performing this ritual at points along the path. The oracle consisted of a pot boiling water with things in it. In my case the pot contained marbled chess pieces in a boiling pot.
I came upon a cave. As I began to climb up the cave, it became more and more narrower and constricting, until it became painful. I saw a point of light which I just had to reach, managing to carefully place my head through the small hole where i glimpsed… heaven, bliss, nirvana, whatever you wish to call it – a flash and then I placed my head back inside the cave. It was an oval crater of dark rock like basalt, polished smooth and absolutely huge.
I crawled back absolutely amazed.
Crawling down the cavity I noticed small Mayan/Aztec cartoon figures carved into the rock and others by cartoonist Larson which I looked for a small moment which appeared to consist of a series of carbon heads of birds.
Exiting the cave I found myself upon a boat on the sea traveling away from the huge dark crater. The people on the boat looked like a bunch of mobsters. One was sitting in a chair, a handsome young man. I asked the men if it was they who had traveled to the dark crater. They said yes and told me how important such an event was. “Do you know the deals I had to make to get a glimpse of that thing” the handsome man said. I asked if we could go back for another look. He flippantly threw his arms in the arms and said in a loud voice, sarcastically, “Okay, lets go back!”
I found myself in the room of chairs again. Only now it was aruin, full of garbage and grease stains on the floor. Outside I could see beings moving around the house. Below I could hear the sound of chipping rock. I realised that these beings were not human but zombies.
The whole house would have to be destroyed by fire. I lit the room of chairs and the whole house began to burn, I ran into the backyard and made sure none of the zombie creatures could see me. I escaped through a hole in the fence.
In the distance I could see a woman riding a penny farthing. I ran to another house with my wife inside sitting on a chair. I could see the other house burn.
A burn’t man approached me who I had loved as a father. He came to me with tears of happiness and asked how much money he owed. He took out $150 dollars in 16th-17th century looking money and gave it to me. We hugged. It was like the ending of a grand film. The house had to burn so that his soul could be free. He was waiting for someone with the courage to do it. Now he can proceed on his way to heaven.
“How’s that for a corny ending?” I said.”
[Slide 45] Obsidian mirror or our eye, the gateways to the soul. professor Harold Tarrant in the University of Newcastle Classics Department once gave a seminar back in 2005 on Simplicius of Cilicia’s commentary on Plato’s Alcibades I, where the metaphorical image of seeing one’s self reflected in the eyes of another is represented by the idea of eyes as being windows to the soul, as a student or “pupil” is taught by a teacher. As a child my father would sit me on his knee asking me to look into his eyes to see the image of the person who loved you reflected. I now see the connections between the black obsidian mirror, our quest for universal divine knowledge, and Plato’s beautiful image.
[Slide 46] It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”
Gionni Di Gravio
University Archivist & Chair, The Hunter Living Histories