Legacies of Detention, Isolation, and Quarantine: Ambivalence, COVID-19, and the Uses of Memory | David Barnes
In the early stages of my research on the history of Philadelphia’s Lazaretto quarantine station, which was built to protect the city after four devastating yellow fever epidemics in the 1790s, I encountered two notable responses when I explained my project. One friend suggested that I nominate the Lazaretto for recognition by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, which educates about peace and human rights by preserving and interpreting historic sites such as Nazi concentration camps, Soviet gulags, and West African slave trade fortresses. A quite different reaction came from a local archivist helping me with my research: “What an important topic— just think of how many lives were saved by that Lazaretto!”
Should we be ashamed of our spaces of detention and isolation, or should we celebrate them? Do they represent our worst tendencies to segregate, incarcerate, and oppress or our best humanitarian impulses to protect society from crime and disease, to rehabilitate, and to heal?
Perhaps the most honest answer is “all of the above.” Preservation historian Randall Mason defines “heritage” as “the past made useful.” Commemoration prompts reflection on both past and present. When preservation and interpretation are undertaken carefully and rigorously, public memory can enable and frame action in the present. The sites profiled here have the potential to nourish that kind of public memory. Even before the global cataclysm of COVID-19, public reflection on our histories of various forms of carcerality was desperately needed. In this moment, a useful past would come in handy. The articles in this issue present us with a kaleidoscope of perspectives on places of detention, isolation, and quarantine in history, covering sites on four continents over seven centuries, from Renaissance Amsterdam to present- day New York City via Marseille, Malta, Hong Kong, Sydney, and San Francisco. If here is a common thread linking the public memory of these disparate places, it may be ambivalence. Each site has a complicated history that defies simple commemoration, and the historical echoes of incarceration and quarantine today make the interpretation of these sites challenging.
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