Participatory Memory: Fandom Experiences Across Time and Space

Space of Memory for Ianto

This narration explores the space of memory for Ianto Jones: the shrine dedicated to him in Cardiff Bay, Cardiff, Wales.

This participatory memory site is dedicated to Ianto Jones, a character from the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood. This show centers around a group of operatives working for the Torchwood Institute, charged with keeping Earth safe from alien invasions. Fans have come for years to this space, located near one of the filming locations of the show, to celebrate, mourn, and collaborate by building an organic, living space of memory. Each hotspot in the image above describes the kind of activities and experiences fans can engage in within this memory space.
In July of 2009, the character Ianto Jones was killed off in the third series of Torchwood. Ianto was one of the more popular characters on the show, in part because of his Welshness, in part because of his position in the Torchwood Institute (beginning as a receptionist and advancing to a full-fledged member of the team), and in part because he was in a romantic relationship with character Jack Harkness. Thus Ianto's death was mourned by many fans of the show. Starting sometime on the afternoon of July 10, 2009 (after the episode of Ianto’s death aired), an impromptu, fan-created memorial began at one of the main filming locations on Mermaid Quay in Cardiff Bay, Cardiff, Wales. Though this was not the site of the character's death, it was the frontage that marked the institute's secret base of operations.

Geography of the Space

The geography of this location is significant. The memorial itself is on the lowest level of Mermaid Quay, right along the water, leading to the occasional flood. It is not far from where bay cruises depart, and the site can be accessed either from the Roald Dahl Plass or by going down any of the handful of staircases from the cafe and restaurant-filled pedestrian area above. There are a couple of benches nearby, but there is no cover of any kind from the elements. There are guardrails on the level above, which people can lean on (or slightly over) to look down on the site. The site is notably within easy walking distance of the Doctor Who Experience, which the 2016 study abroad group visited before proceeding to the memorial.

Sustaining the Space

There are multiple reasons why this memorial is able to sustain energy and participation. A major reason for its success is that it is located in a cult geography for Doctor Who (Hills, 2002). Melissa has noted that the dedications at this site are primarily tying the physical and fictional locations together in order to augment affective play. Participants leave messages to the character most frequently, including letters of support, holiday cards, and pleas to the content producers. Many items of fan art and fanfiction are left here for others to read and to connect with the authors, several of whom leave their digital contact information. Several of these dedicated objects engage in fan activism, initially and primarily, to resurrect the character and address LGBTQ+ issues.

Mermaid Quay is a publicly accessible but privately owned area. Thus, their management controls what is allowed to be posted in this space. At first, they seemed a bit nonplussed by the activity, as the initial memorial was something unusual. Soon after, they engaged in the same sort of affective play as the fan tourists visiting the site, ultimately putting up a plaque that mimics the Blue Plaques (English Heritage, n.d.) used to denote sites of historical interest across the United Kingdom and elsewhere, adapted with the Torchwood honeycomb signifier. Thus, there is not only official permission by the management of the site, but also commemoration of it.

There are multiple potential reasons why this space works. The space ties together the city (and, arguably, the country) brand with the Doctor Who brand, both for advertising and cultural-heritage purposes. The number of fan residents in the area (including those who work in Mermaid Quay), the progressive monument memorializing a character who was openly in a same-sex relationship, and the fact that the BBC, though operating in the same area, does not object to the use and public display of their copyrighted material (no doubt understanding the marketing use) also contributes to this state of affairs. It is this confluence of factors, as well as there being a publicly accessible location present in both the physical and fictional worlds and the character and series having such an ardent fanbase, that have led to this fan-created, “impromptu” memorial developing into a semipermanent, albeit constantly evolving, monument.
While some of the students were fans of Doctor Who, not all of the students who visited during the 2014 and 2016 study abroad trips were fans of Torchwood. Although the students did not have much subject matter expertise, they brought to the site a strong understanding of fandom and participatory memory at that point in their studies. For the 2014 class, this trip was an optional side trip, but for the 2016 group, this site marked the final experience after visiting several sites of memory across several cities and attending the Fan Studies Network conference in Norwich, England. While their insights at this space were aimed more at the experience of the space than the content matter, they looked at this site as the penultimate experience for participatory memory. For the participants in this space and the 2016 study abroad students who came with Liza, “memory—relating past and present—is thus the central faculty of being in time, through which we define individual and collective selves” (Olick et al., 2011).

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