Derek Alderman discusses the study of place and public memory

By Helena Kilburn

Staff Writer

On Tuesday, October 4, Dr. Derek Alderman, Head of the Geology Department at the University of Tennessee, gave a lecture in Gailor Auditorium entitled Contested Places: Race, Heritage, Tourism, and Geographies of Memory. After a few humorous opening remarks regarding his Twitter following and love of maps, he delved into complicated ideas, meanings, and claims regarding the concept of place.

He spoke at length about “places of public memory as arenas for debate” and examined the questions of who has the power to write history, whose histories are given voice, and who belongs socially and politically to a place. He further developed these ideas by exploring the concept of tourism and its role in defining a place.

Alderman is a key member of the Race Ethnicity and Social Equity in Tourism (RESET) initiative. The primary goal of this initiative is to challenge traditions of tourism that promote inequality. The initiative also aims to enhance and promote recovery for marginalized heritages. At the foundation of the initiative lies the idea of tourism justice and the belief that tourism has the power to reshape places and the people who live in those places.

One of the main projects of the initiative includes examining exhibits which concern slavery in Southern plantation house museums. Using scientific methods, Alderman and his colleagues have examined the River Road, James River, and Charleston regions. They found that even the mention of slavery is often absent from the guided tours, and the plantation homes are being marketed as something from Gone with the Wind. If slaves are mentioned, they are often nameless, put in the role of an employee, or placed in the role of a faithful slave to a good master.

This idea of “Symbolic Annihilation” refers to the notion that the enslaved are being actively forgotten and thus losing their ability to claim a place in public history.

In order to create belonging for African Americans in Southern plantation museums, Alderman and the others involved in RESET are enacting “Symbolic Excavation.” They hope to manage the politics of artifacts, narratives, emotions, and place surrounding this issue. RESET is working to move towards the recovery of slave history at Southern plantation museums so that those affected by slavery can claim a place in public history. Alderman looks at place as having aspects of location, emotion, and social control which are subject to change and contest.

“One of the things which I am very much an advocate for is applying a lot of these same methods… and thinking about belonging as it relates to campus landscapes, and this campus would be ripe for that kind of analysis. It’s amazing… we seldom ever point the lense of critic at our own campus landscapes and I can’t figure out why, but we don’t,” said Alderman.

He encouraged Sewanee, as a university, to confront the ways in which we treat our own history. He also thinks that the younger generations have an important role in the study of place and public memory. “I think the younger generation, particularly students, are well equipped to really critique and interpret places and memories in ways that other generations are unable to. As an older generation, in many ways I still have the baggage of what I was taught about the past and … I sometimes have thought that if I had thought of things in a fresher way… I could do even better work.”