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Heidi Aronson Kolk

Heidi Aronson Kolk is a cultural historian who began academic life as a visual artist and poet, and pursued graduate study in literary history and American culture studies. Her research explores the politics and practices of memory in the United States, and engages creatively with the history and landscape of the American city, drawing upon the rich visual and material culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is especially attentive to issues of race and urban identity, disputes over public history, and concepts of materiality and trauma. Her first book, Taking Possession: The Politics of Memory in a St. Louis Town House (University of Massachusetts Press, 2019), engages many of these subjects, focusing on an intensively preserved historic house near downtown St. Louis. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot has noted in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, such a place is “[t]oo solid to be unmarked, too conspicuous to be candid,” and thus “embod[ies] the ambiguities of history.” Its alluring “concreteness hides secrets so deep that no revelation may fully dissipate their silences. We [can] imagine the lives under the mortar, but how do we recognize the end of a bottomless silence?”

Kolk’s second book project takes up the ambiguities of history by attending to “negative heritage” in the United States––a large and under-theorized domain that includes sites and histories that are uncompliant, unruly, or compromised––that have been overlooked, disregarded, hidden from view, or even obliterated, and thus confound the production of history. If many are places of shame, others have inspired dark fixation and folklore, pilgrimage and preservation, and more recently, historical reckoning and memory activism. Attending to the complex dynamics and histories, the book argues for negative heritage as a revelatory feature of American culture and identity.

Kolk is also co-editor, with Iver Bernstein, of The Material World of Modern Segregation: St. Louis in the Long Era of Ferguson, a book-length collection of essays (289 pp., 2022). The publication––which is the culmination of an American Culture Studies Faculty Program Initiative launched in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown––interrogates the material histories and lived experiences of the segregated city.

And Kolk is co-lead-investigator, with Kelley Van Dyck Murphy (assistant professor of architecture, Sam Fox School) and Lynnette Widder (Columbia University), on a grant-supported research initiative, “Beauty in Enormous Bleakness: The Design Legacy of the Interned Generation of Japanese Americans.” Through oral histories, a podcast series, and a digital archive, as well as scholarly publication, the project documents the experiences of Japanese American architects who were interned briefly before enrolling at Washington University, and went on to make vital contributions to the post-war architecture and design landscape of the United States, paying special attention to the foundational effects of detention and the pressures of post-war assimilation.

Work by Heidi Kolk

West of downtown St. Louis sits an 1851 town house that bears no obvious relationship to the monumental architecture, trendy condominiums, and sports stadia of its surroundings. Originally the residence of a fur-trade tycoon and now the Campbell House Museum, the house has been subject to energetic preservation and heritage work for some 130 years.

In Taking Possession, Heidi Aronson Kolk explores the complex and sometimes contradictory motivations for safeguarding the house as a site of public memory. Crafting narratives about the past that comforted business elites and white middle-class patrons, museum promoters assuaged concerns about the city’s most pressing problems, including racial and economic inequality, segregation and privatization, and the legacies of violence for which St. Louis has been known since Ferguson. Kolk’s case study illuminates the processes by which civic pride and cultural solidarity have been manufactured in a fragmented and turbulent city, showing how closely linked are acts of memory and forgetting, nostalgia and shame.