Hart Island and the Case for Digitization

By katemeizner

Over the summer, the media was abuzz with developments involving Hart Island. Located north of Manhattan in the East River, Hart Island functions as New York City’s potter’s field and the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. The island is operated by the Department of Corrections, which employs prison labor to maintain its many mass grave sites. Among the one million New Yorkers buried, are indigent persons, prisoners, stillborn children, those whose families cannot afford private funerals and, more generally, anyone who is not claimed or identified within a two-week period after death.

As of July 2015, visitors would be permitted entry to grave sites once per month, a vast improvement that resulted from years of struggle between advocacy groups and city agencies (Kilgannon). Formerly, the cemetery was a point of contention due to the inaccessibility of both its grave sites and burial records. Those who sought information about burials encountered a bureaucratic labyrinth involving weeks of being bounced between personnel at the Department of Corrections. Hart Island visitors were subject to even more imposing barriers: the island was only reachable by a ferry which ran infrequently, and visitors were to undergo the same DOC processes used to grant visitors access to NYC’s prisons. Furthermore, those who jumped through these hoops and made it to Hart Island were physically barred from entry to actual grave sites, forced to gaze upon the mass graves from a small gazebo located near the ferry dock.

Hart Island’s inaccessibility not only restricted burial grounds, but also obscured a repository of information, including records and identities that contribute to social memory. Cox and Day consider cemeteries archives wherein components include artifacts, records and grave sites, and they describe these archives as a “rich source of historical information” (Cox 1). What happens, then, when that archive is neither accessible nor properly managed? In the case of Hart Island, social histories were rendered invisible due to poor record keeping and access protocol. The public potter’s field is chilling representation of the power bureaucratic structures wield over the voices and histories of citizens, socially-excluded groups in particular.

In “Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” Schwartz and Cook expand on the importance of archival studies, saying, “…it is essential to reconsider the relationships between archives and the societies that create and use them. At the heart of that relationship is power” (Schwartz 5). They go on to explain the ways in which the archivist’s power manifests:

“…power to make records of certain event and ideas and not of others, power to name, label, and order records to meet business, government, or personal needs, power to preserve the record, power to mediate the record, power over access, power over individual rights and freedoms, over collective memory and national identity – is a concept largely absent from the traditional archival perspective” (Schwartz 5).

By considering the relationship between Hart Island’s archive and the society that created it, one may be able to deduce why the archive was approached with such carelessness. After all, the majority of those buried on Hart Island are indigent peoples who were likely neglected by the system during the course of their lives. I believe that the information missing from Hart Islands archive speaks volumes. Lack of physical and informational access, uninformative burial records, and shoddy management of Hart Island’s archive can be interpreted as a reflection lacking resources, and in turn, limited concern for Hart Island’s interred.

According to Schwartz and Cook, “Power over the documentary record, and by extension over the collective memory of marginalized members of society…” resides in “…the ways in which institutional resources are allotted for procurement and processing of collections, and the priority given to their diffusion…” (Schwartz 17). If it is an act of power to choose which information is entered into or omitted from the archive, then Hart Island’s anemic record keeping is a sad testament to city government’s desire and resources devoted to preserving social memory of socially excluded peoples. Hart Island is far from the only space where hegemony and colonialism result in erasure of certain voices from the archive.

Reforms to DOC procedures surrounding Hart Island did not happen on their own. After visiting Hart Island on a photography assignment, artist and activist Melinda Hunt took interest in the island, founding The Hart Island Project with the mission to connect loved ones with memories of friends and relatives buried on the island. Citing concerns about lack of access to information, she helped the NYCLU file a lawsuit against the city in the effort to make burial records publicly available (Surico). Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Department of Corrections was obliged to make this information accessible, and in addition, provide more resources for family members and guests to visit grave sites (Velsey).

Melinda Hunt’s Hart Island Project moved along a bit more quickly that the city’s lethargic bureaucracy: in 2008 soon after FOIA required the DOC to hand over burial information, Hunt had already pooled her resources to digitize the records and create an online collection called the Traveling Cloud Museum (Walshe). According to the official website’s description, the Traveling Cloud Museum “…offers an innovative method for preserving the histories of people whose identities are erased by a system of burials dating back to the American Civil War” (“The Hart Island Project”). Beyond simply providing burial information, the Traveling Cloud Museum functions as a citizen’s archive that crowdsources submissions of individual stories, images, and media about those buried on Hart Island (“The Hart Island Project”).

The breadth of burial information available on the Traveling Cloud Museum far surpasses the city’s database, which only contains fields for name, age, date of death, place of death, plot number and medical examiner. For example, Hunt recognized that a plot number would do no good in assisting visitors find their loved ones, so the Traveling Cloud Museum used Google Earth to map the exact location where each plot is located (“The Hart Island Project”).

Removed from the inertia of bureaucracy, the online collection created ‘space’ for narratives, voices and information often excluded from the archive. By digitizing records and crowdsourcing stories, the Traveling Cloud Museum’s online collection essentially became a citizen’s archive, circumventing bureaucratic structures that imposed restrictions on information access. The online archive is just one example of how digitization can facilitate access by overcoming barriers that prevent the public from interacting with certain information. While Rosenweig would argue that proper “preservation of the past is, in the end, often a matter of allocating adequate resources,” I believe the digital space allows for more public participation in archiving efforts – participation that has the potential to decolonize the archive (Rosenweig 762). In the case of Hart Island, digitization prevailed in disseminating information that bureaucratic structures had otherwise rendered invisible.

Sources Cited

Cox, Richard J. (2011) Stories of a Pleasant Green Space: Cemetery Records and Archives. Archival Issues, 33 (2). pp. 88-99. (In Press)

“The Hart Island Project.” HartIslandProject. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <https://www.hartisland.net/>.

Kilgannon, Corey. “New York City to Allow Relatives to Visit Grave Sites at Potter’s Field.” The New York Times 9 July 2015: A22. The New York Times. 8 July 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.” The American Historical Review 108.3 (2003): 745-762. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Schwartz, Joan M., and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2 (2002): 1-20. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

Surico, John. “The Journey from Death to Hart Island.” Urban Omnibus. N.p., 14 Oct. 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2015. <http://urbanomnibus.net/2015/10/the-journey-from-death-to-hart-island/>.

Velsey, Kim. “An Open Hart Island: Off the Coast of the Bronx Lie 850,000 Lost Souls—the City Council Hopes to Pay Its Respects.” Observer. N.p., 28 Sept. 2012. Web. <http://observer.com/2012/09/hart-island/>.

Walshe, Sadhbh. “‘Like a Prison for the Dead’: Welcome to Hart Island, Home to New York City’s Pauper Graves.” The Guardian. N.p., 3 June 2015. Web. <http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/03/hart-island-new-york-city-mass-burial-graves>.


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