Participatory Memory: Fandom Experiences Across Time and Space

Moments of Memory for Ianto

This section describes how we collected and analyzed our data. Here, you can scroll through these images to better understand the kind of memory writing fans created in this space. The audio describes the kind of noise you would expect from Mermaid Quay in Cardiff Bay and can help you understand the kinds of activity in a space like this one.


The Ianto memorial site is unlike any other site we investigated because of the ways in which participants are able to fully engage without much disruption or interference from the government, site owner, and producers of Doctor Who and Torchwood

Beginning on the evening of July 27, 2009, Melissa began cataloguing the site. She continued collecting data and cataloguing as much as she could for three years. Similarly, during the summer of 2014 and 2016, Liza visited with her study abroad students to examine the site, collect data, and discuss the space in relation to other sites of memory. Melissa and Liza connected over a shared interest in this space, and Liza relied on other fan scholars online to report what was happening at the space over the course of several years.

Visiting this site multiple times over several years, you can begin to understand the ebb and flow of attention to specific issues at the site. Being able to return to sites consistently is incredibly valuable for this kind of research. 

In examining this space, we found a robust memorial that has survived for several years in Cardiff Bay. The fans and the space owner are working cooperatively, and the fans are leading the way by navigating ways of writing, connecting, and curating this space. This need to connect, to communicate, and to be part of something larger themselves speaks to Henry Henry Jenkins et al.'s (2009) definition of participatory culture. While many of Jenkin’s definitions are applicable to this space, we want to focus on strong support for writing and sharing in this space, informal membership through repeated memes and iconography, and the strong social connection that members feel with one another in this space. Here, we again return to Barbie Zelizer's 1995 concept of memory and how it is connected to recounting past events, a major theme in this space as participants work through the death of this character.

Working in the Space and Collecting Data

Using similar techniques to those she honed at the Princess Diana site years earlier, Liza used a grid system to document the space and catalog the objects. In 2014, the Ianto memorial was not on the itinerary for the study abroad. However, she decided to visit the space as a side trip from London, taking an undergraduate student researcher with her. That experience of the space encouraged her to make it part of the 2016 study abroad, which would bring more students to the site and create an opportunity for a second site visit. 

For Liza’s students in 2016, the Ianto memorial excursion came at the end of their study abroad trip. The space helped them reflect on all that they had learned throughout their summer abroad. On a dreary, rainy summer day in Cardiff Bay, they stood in awe of the space and the participatory memory. Many of the students were moved by what they saw, both personally and as researchers. This space pulled together what they had learned in their readings before the study abroad and at the Fan Studies Network Conference in Norwich, where Jenkins’ (2016) keynote emphasized the significance of fan art, fan fiction, and fan participation. Visiting Ianto’s shrine helped the students understand the significance of how cooperation between fans, governments, and production companies could lead to a space of participatory memory.

For Melissa, her research at this participatory memory site is an unusual blend of contemporary archaeology, collective memory, and fan studies. This site has posed certain complications with regards to both methodology and theory. Normally, an archaeologist dates objects by what is called the law of superposition (drawn from geology), which means strata (or layers) that are deposited are youngest on the top and get older as one goes down (unless there is evidence of disturbance—an earthquake, someone digging a well down into older strata, someone burying something, burrowing animals, etc.). With a vertical surface and constant disturbance by both people (i.e., placing newer things behind older ones already on the memorial) and weather (Cardiff is windy and rainy, and the site suffered a mild flood at least once during the cataloguing period), applying this law to this project was out of the question. Thus, Melissa compensated by going to the memorial three times a week for three years to record data for her project.

At the Ianto shrine, tracing physical stratification was not the only challenge. The constant shifting nature of participation also proved methodologically challenging. Mermaid Quay is a privately owned, publicly accessible area that is adjacent to the Senedd (the Welsh Assembly building) and is near luxury apartments, a five-star hotel, many restaurants, a handful of clubs, and small shops. This space was, and continues to be, a major tourist, commercial, and governmental area before the memorial was created.


Exploring our findings, we returned to Zelizer’s work on memory studies, noting the series of questions she presents at the beginning of her 1995 piece:

Yet the act of remembering has many shapes, currencies, and valences, each of which prompts a slew of questions. Some of these questions have to do with memory itself: Which memory? What kind of memory? How complete a memory? How authentic a memory? Other questions focus more on the activity of remembering: Who remembers? Why remember? How does one remember? And for whom is remembering being accomplished? These questions, and others, underscore the incompleteness that characterizes our understanding of how memory works. (p. 214)

In a publicly accessible space hosted by a private entity in a city that has become a cult geography, the questions above are important to address when analyzing the participatory memory space examined in this case study. No doubt, this space is one that Deborah Mix (2016) would refer to as a vernacular memorial: its location is freely open and viewable to the public, and it is maintained and curated by the fans themselves. While someone does own the space, they are working cooperatively with the fans, as discussed below.

While Melissa and Liza were leading separate projects based in different academic disciplines, they did have similar findings with items left at the shrine by fans. Both found a plethora of fan art, writings, posters, and other items specific to the show. Categorizing these materials, they found major themes regarding the fandom itself, the LGBTQ+ community, Welsh national identity, and community support. Several of the pieces in this space could be categorized as a form of fan activism. We saw echoes of Bethan Jones’ 2012 scholarship, noting how “fans' relationships with shows and stars can motivate them to seek change in the real world” (n.p.)—in this case, through LGBTQ+ and national identity work.

Fandom Itself

The longevity of this participatory memory space is a tribute to the character, the show, and the fans. To have a physical space that is still up, active, and engaging seven years after an event—especially a work of television—is remarkable. The fans continue to leave memorials to Ianto in the form of flowers, gifts, posters, and more. Looking at the images of this shrine, the breadth and depth of these memorials is significant for these kinds of spaces.

The Save Ianto group sustains and maintains the site, which includes an active site guestbook. When Liza visited in 2014, the guestbook, which was two weeks old according to the dates listed on the fan entries, was halfway filled with writings and tributes to Ianto. Similarly in 2016, the guestbook was filling up rapidly, although not at the same pace as the writings found in 2014. A slowing down of participation could be expected for a space like this one, where the focus of activity might gel around certain dates, as it is for the Princess Diana memorial around her birthday and the anniversary of her death.

At one point, this particular space required spoiler warnings for some transnational fans, as one fan noted: “I'm from Australia and I didn't know Ianto Jones had been killed. I am inconsolable. Clunie.” This many years on, with fans having watched and rewatched the series thanks to DVDs and online programming, this need for spoiler warnings can recede. However, newer fans are still showing surprise through their writings, and there are tourists who arrive at this space unfamiliar with Doctor Who or Torchwood.

Throughout the site, participants comfort one another through their tributes to the Torchwood character, noting his qualities and how well-loved he is by the fans. Through their writings, drawings, and crafts, the fans pay particular attention to his relationship with main character Captain Jack Harkness and his work with Torchwood, notably the job of preparing and delivering tea to the other workers. This association to his relationship with Jack speaks to issues of LGBTQ+ activism, which we discuss below.  


What is most telling about the dedications of the memorial with regard to the LGBTQ+ fanbase is the number of dedications which refer to how the series in general, and Ianto in particular, had impacted them. In addition to personal coming-out stories, the series and character were associated with greater societal acceptance. This space is one of the more prominent publicly accessible spaces where not only is an openly LGBTQ+ character celebrated but also where there is a visible LGBTQ+ presence in the images selected. 

Rebecca Williams and Ruth McElroy (2016) note that, along with data they had gathered as part of the Landmark Television study with the BBC Trust, the memorial ties the series to both sexuality and Welshness/Cardiffness, thus helping to tie the city, culture, and nation to LGBTQ+ness, at least for Torchwood fans. This is evident in the many messages and images left by fans at this memorial. Fans point to the partnership of Ianto and Jack as a positive attribute of the show, with one poster stating that theirs is “a love that will last through time.” This phrase plays with the notion of eternal love and the concept of time travel, a theme of Torchwood and Doctor Who. There are also images and drawings of Ianto and Jack together as a couple, many including lines from Torchwood about their love.

One can see the memorial being allowed to stand not just as an expression of the city and site management embracing both a strong TV brand and promoting Cardiff's urban brand. This connection to identity also appears as national identity, which we examine below.

Welsh National Identity

Torchwood was strongly positioned, by both the BBC and Cardiff itself, as being Welsh.  While the actual interpretation of a series' national identity is complex, that many of the dedications either made explicit mention of the series' or Ianto's Welshness does show how strongly tied accents, geographies, and their associated identities can be. Looking through the images we collected, we can see materials that fans left behind that speak to Welsh national identity, including memes and symbols such as Welsh lovespoons. These artifacts are a significant minority in this space, but an important one that points to issues within the cult geography space of Cardiff Bay itself. That Welshness was a draw to or part of the series also brings up questions of the BBC's attempt at regionalization and questions about exoticization versus representation versus branding.

Space Management

Fan tourists and fan residents (about whom greater study is needed) are not the only ones in the area. The local community, the tourist community, and the fan community could and did interact in any number of ways. Although there were a fair number of negative comments by passersby, both about the idea of a memorial to a fictional character and to a character that was in a same-sex relationship, in most instances, the memorial was regarded with polite confusion, amusement, or other neutral-to-positive reactions by nonfans. What was most interesting, however, was the positive response by Mermaid Quay's management.

As noted in the video, there were three separate notices put up. The first states:

‘Please be aware that this is a set from the series “Torchwood”.  The character Ianto Jones has been removed from the series and this is a makeshift memorial to the character.  Thank you.  Mermaid Quay Management.’

This is a very official-sounding notice, indicating that the management are not responsible and are not in any way involved. The second notice, placed on September 2, 2009, states:

Ianto Jones 1983-2009 Torchwood 3 Gave his life in defence of the children of this planet.  The management of Mermaid Quay salutes you.  
NOTE: Ianto Jones was a fictional character in the BBC series Torchwood (part of the Doctor Who franchise) which is filmed in part at Mermaid Quay. Ianto died in a confrontation with an alien species known as the 456 in the Torchwood miniseries Children of Earth which was first broadcast in the UK in July 2009. This is an impromptu memorial to the much-loved character.

This notice, on the other hand, engages in the same sort of affective play (a game-like crossing of physical and narrative worlds) that fan tourists do. It helps to integrate and welcome the fan tourists rather than excluding them. This move is a marketing strategy, promoting the area in the context of a locally shot television show, certainly with the benefit of supporting the fan community. Ross Garner’s 2016 work, extending Matt Hills 2002 work to look at fan tourism and tour guides in Cardiff Bay, was useful for us to understand the ways in which tourism, play, and space work in this city. 

In spring of 2012, a blue and black plaque with the Torchwood honeycomb design was placed next to the memorial with the same text as the second notice. In addition to continuing the affective play, this notice also mimics the blue plaques used in the UK to denote structures of historical significance. This legitimizes the memorial as part of the local historical landscape as well as part of the local heritage. This fits with the trend of integrating the Doctor Who universe, which Torchwood is a part of, into the Cardiff landscape.

Student Reflection

Melissa’s reflection below is informative to us as teachers and mentors contemplating how we might work with graduate students on research projects:

Normally, archaeological finds are collected and taken away to be stored for further study. Whilst I did initially remove a number of items for conservation and recording, I chose to record everything in situ, only removing flowers after they died and attracted insects. I opted to record everything, both in a notebook (later typed) and in photos. I created a LiveJournal community to inform everyone about what I was doing and why. I have also kept the academic community as apprised as possible. When speaking with local police about an attack on the site in which I'd confronted people tearing items off and making homophobic comments, the officers I spoke with were concerned about how such offensive behaviour would impact those visiting the memorial. This memorial is, in a sense, a community archaeology for a living and active community. 

This page has paths:

This page references: