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Contribution to Book
Troubling Heritage: Intimate Pasts And Public Memories At Derry/Londonderry’s 'Temple'
Emotion, Affective Practices, and the Past in the Present (2018)
  • Margo Shea, Salem State University
High on the east bank of the River Foyle, literally at ‘the Top of the Hill’ at the highest elevation in the city limits of Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, a temple stood briefly. At 72 feet high, it towered over its surroundings, a thin spire mirroring the city’s cathedral steeples on the river’s opposite bank. The sign at its entrance instructed ‘Leave a memory behind, let go of the past and look to the future.’ Memories relinquished would not remain – at least not in their material forms. ‘Temple’ was made to be ephemeral, built to be consumed in flames on the night of the vernal equinox, one week after a team of local and international volunteer builders had completed its construction in March 2015.

Sponsored and organised by London-based Artichoke Trust, which specialises in helping artists engage communities to stage large-scale installations located in unpredictable spaces, Temple was two years in the planning. Led by American artist David Best, known for his ‘build and blaze’ temples to loss and catharsis associated with Nevada’s annual Burning Man festival, a volunteer crew from Northern Ireland and around the world assembled the intricate balsa wood construction in six weeks. Aspirations for the project were as imposing as its form. In David Best’s words, Temple had ‘to be so beautiful that you [would] give up the thing that has been troubling you [for] your whole life’ (Anon. 2015aBIB-003). In terms of visitor engagement, those aspirations were largely met. Over 60,000 people visited the site, which was open to the public for one week before it was set ablaze, leaving messages and mementoes or simply experiencing Temple. About 15,000 people witnessed the burn. Derry/Londonderry is a city of 100,000; even factoring in regional visitation, these numbers are significant. The nature of this engagement deserves attention because very little research has been done that investigates memory work and heritage practices in relation to the well-documented continued emotional burdens of the Troubles on people in Northern Ireland. Through this chapter, I suggest that memorial processes that intend to address, obliquely or explicitly, the pervasive effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Northern Ireland must develop new approaches to facilitate remembrance that is simultaneously private and public, intimate and shared.

This chapter is a scholarly reading of the Temple project that explores the ephemeral memorial process as a case study to discuss the ways in which both heritage practices and emotions are necessarily spatialised, contingent, embodied, relational and performative. Temple’s contributions to post-conflict place-making and ‘dealing with the past’ in Derry/Londonderry can be more fully understood if the affective practices exhibited through this participatory public art project are linked more explicitly to the study of heritage practices and processes in post-conflict Northern Ireland. Through its form, composition, location and crowd-sourced construction and interpretation, Temple structured, quite literally, an open-ended process of meaning-making. When people physically ‘entered into’ the project space, I propose here that they co-created a shared place in which private loss and pain could be acknowledged and shared obliquely in ways that were communal without being confrontational. Further, I suggest that, while Temple has broadly been recognised as a successful project, the reasons for engagement and participation have been somewhat underdetermined. In practice, then, Temple was neither a repository for Troubles-related memories nor a container for quotidian suffering. Rather, the memorial process it enacted invited participants to acknowledge the intertwined composition of their emotional inheritances.
Publication Date
Laurajane Smith, Margaret Wetherell, Gary Campbell
Key Issues in Cultural Heritage
Citation Information
Margo Shea. "Troubling Heritage: Intimate Pasts And Public Memories At Derry/Londonderry’s 'Temple'" Emotion, Affective Practices, and the Past in the Present (2018) p. 39 - 55
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