Book review: Alison Atkinson-Phillips. Survivor Memorials: Remembering Trauma and Loss in Contemporary Australia. Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2019.

Survivor Memorials: Remembering Trauma and Loss in Contemporary Australia offers a detailed documentation of “memory space” (3) focusing on the contemporary memorialisation practices in Australia. The book delves deep into memorial practices to trace the broadening of the cultural definition of loss over time in Australia (152). For most of the 20th century, public memory space for loss was reserved for incidents of death, like war. However, the author marks a rising tradition of memorialisation of living experiences of trauma, which has not been given due scholarly attention. Atkinson-Phillips argues that by using the vocabulary of human rights and transitional justice, communities can create public means of trauma narration.

Atkinson-Phillips borrows her conceptual categories from memory scholars, sociologists, and art historians. However, her research explicates the concepts in minute settings when ascribed to the memorial practices in Australia. The book is refreshing in bringing new empirical insights to memory studies. It is driven by primary data collected from interviews with survivors, artists, and others who created or maintained the memorials in some capacity. However, the primary enrichment of the research comes from the author’s observations and experiences with the memorials.

The book consists of eleven chapters, divided into two sections. Section one deals with the history of, and theoretical propositions concerning, the primary question of what a memorial is and how it comes into being. This section also problematises the division between categories of public remembrance, namely monuments (celebratory) and memorials (funerary). By merging these categories, Atkinson-Phillips introduces her cases as monu-memorials (48), those who perform both funerary and celebratory functions. Atkinson-Phillips’ categorisation is important in contemporary practice, where memorials, while being funerary, also function for public healing. The book’s second section deals with specific memorial stories of Colebrook Reconciliation Home, Hay Institution for Girls, Black Saturday Memorial, Mary’s Place, and Enterprise Hotel, and address a range of themes from settler colonial history to institutionalised child abuse.

Memorials, as a preserver of memory in contemporary Australia, have a far-reaching impact on communities. However, the author illuminates that it is the process of creating memorials, mobilising communities, listening to survivor stories, and producing artworks that reflect on the experiences of being surrounded by memorials. In the ninth chapter, ‘Mary’s Place: Commemorating a Rape’, Atkinson-Phillips hints at the kind of impact memorials might have on communities. Mary’s Place is unique in being the only memorial of rape/sexual crime in Australia. The memorial is built in a dark lane in Sydney, where two homophobic men raped a lesbian woman named Mary. The creation of the memorial was both the act of reclaiming the physical space and creating a memory space for survivors of sexual violence. The author juxtaposes the fading of the memorial and its importance in public memory with the increase in crime against the queer community.

Through these case studies, the author elaborates on the importance of memorialisation in its ability to convey “difficult knowledge” (a term borrowed from Deborah Britzman, 2000); the knowledge that is bewitching to an individual, a community, or a nation. Memorials thus become a means to remember, communicate, and bring ‘difficult knowledge’ into the public view.

The book contributes to the study of the history of memorials and memorialisation in Australia. Atkinson-Phillips describes how the history of contemporary memorials in Australia can be traced to the military traditions of soldier memorials, commemorating death and the spirit of sacrifice. However, in the first part of the twentieth century, there was a shift from British military tradition. After the end of the First World War, the commemoration of soldiers also included those who ‘served’ in war and those who died. Memorials in the second half of the twentieth century moved to acknowledge other services that contributed to Australian society and nation, like a celebration of the explorers. However, the author points out that such celebrations of settler colonial history are entangled with the national acknowledgement of crimes against the Indigenous populations.

By the end of the twentieth century, Australia started acknowledging and commemorating the wrongs committed against migrant persons and Indigenous communities (42-43). The Colebrook Reconciliation Home memorialbears witness to Australia’s assimilationist practices and policies. It tells the story of the stolen children from multiple Indigenous communities. Through the sculptures of ‘Grieving Mother’ and ‘Fountain of Tears,’ the memorial addresses the children’s trauma and the devastation of families. It brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by speaking and listening to the truth of the settler colonial history of Australia.

By contrast, The Black Saturday Memorial speaks more of the transition of memory space. It focuses on the healing and loss of the people after the 2009 Victoria bushfires. Those losses include not only people but also culture and material things, and more so of the ‘sense of safety’ (2).

Memorials such as Colebrook Reconciliation Park, Hay Institution for Girls, Der Rufer in Perth and Youngster on a Sydney Road are memorials of trauma and survival. The new commemoration practices give survivor communities space to be heard, connect with the listener, and convey their stories. The author argues that memorialisation then becomes a healing practice for wounded communities and burned landscapes (45). Atkinson-Phillips argues that the extended scope of memorial practices includes multiple functions, such as a place of mourning, listening, grieving and claiming the national or communal memory space (151).

A pertinent theme that emerges from Atkinson-Phillips’ works is an assertion of trauma for all survivor communities, whether Indigenous communities, state-separated families, institutionally abused children, migrants, or those who have suffered losses in natural disasters. Trauma theory suggests that the act of listening is essential for healing the individual trauma. Memorials, when commemorating events such as stolen children from Indigenous communities, the experiences of migrant children, and violence against the queer community, are acts of community listening that have become important for healing, for issuing apologies and acknowledgement of the sufferings. These memorials not only tell stories of the survivors (each one using different methods for remembrance, grieving, and mourning), but some are also experiential. Through the means of text, walks, flowers, artworks, and specific materials, the memory reaches people differently (144).

The author uses pictures as a purveyor of narratives around memorials. Through a pictorial-driven narrative, the author bridges the spatial distance with the reader. The author’s ability to share her experience of the memorial provides a sense of nearness to a reader sitting in a faraway South-Asian city (as I am). The book marvels at creating micro-engagement for the reader both as a piece of literature and an analytical study. Through this book, Atkinson-Phillips takes the reader on a walk-through of her chosen memorials, giving succinct experiential documentation of each one. Her study further shows us that despite the grand narratives a memorial holds or is associated with, not all memorials drive community engagement. Conversely, even small memorials, without narrations of grave sufferings, can be places for people to memorialise. The author also points out the conditions that potentially create disjuncture among the artists and survivors or between the artwork and the public (123-124). The book offers a refreshing insight into trauma theory, memory studies, and memory activism, corresponding with empirical data.


Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


Britzman, Deborah P. “If the story cannot end: Deferred action, ambivalence, and difficult knowledge.” Between hope and despair: Pedagogy and the remembrance of historical trauma 27 (2000).