Memorials to Lived Experience

One of the responses to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been the development of memorial projects at specific sites of abuse. These kinds of memorial are a new phenomena – where previously memorials were created to remember the achievement, service or sacrifice of the dead, over the past few decades, the way we think about what is worth remembering has changed. Slowly, we are starting to acknowledge that experiences people live through can be a source of loss and grief. Because of this, these memorials commemorate lived experiences of loss and trauma.

I recently completed a research project which mapped over 70 memorials to lived experience around Australia. These have all been created in the past 30 years, and they fall roughly into two categories: those that commemorate natural disasters, such as bushfires or floods; and those that commemorate human rights abuses. Many of those that fall into the second category acknowledge the abuse of children in institutional ‘care’.

I wanted to understand why these memorials have been created. After all, the creation of even the simplest memorial plaque requires time, money, and energy to negotiate the many social and policy issues involved. Through my research, I have come to understand that there are always multiple aims for these memory projects. However, in general there are four distinct but overlapping aims for this type of memorial:

  1. public memorials are used to claim a space in the national story;
  2. they are used to create spaces where survivors of human rights abuses can have their loss acknowledged and be given space to grieve;
  3. they are used to create spaces where survivors of human rights abuses raise public awareness of their experiences;
  4. finally, and more recently, memorials have been created by governments and other institutions as symbolic reparations, to acknowledge the wrongs committed in their name.

The memorials created in response to the Royal Commission mostly fall into the fourth category, being created by institutions as acts of symbolic reparation.

One of the risks, however, is that the association of reparation with the idea of ‘repair’ encourages memorial designers to aim for a sense of closure that doesn’t allow for acknowledgement of ongoing suffering. So while the acknowledgement of suffering might be seen as a good thing, not all such projects are welcomed by survivors. For example, late last year (2016), plans by a Catholic church in Armidale in NSW to create a memorial on its grounds were met with protests. This was in part because the Catholic Church wanted to create a mourning space, and so decided the memorial should be located in a quiet area. A spokesperson for the church said they were responding to the needs of their members, but they failed to take into consideration the needs of other survivors. Those who were part of the Loud Fence group wanted a public acknowledgement that would bear witness to their suffering, and saw the creation of a secluded memorial as yet another attempt to silence them.

Therefore the ‘success’ of a memorial project depends very much on what its original purpose is, and whether there is agreement about that purpose.

To see the locations of memorials to lived experience around Australia, visit

Author: Alison Atkinson-Phillips
Alison is a doctoral student at the University of Technology Sydney, but based in Perth, Western Australia. She is interested in public memorials and memorial art work, particularly those commemorating non-death loss and trauma in Australia.