Daniel Boorstin, former US Librarian of Congress, said that history is to a nation what memory is to an individual. Collective memory is the institutionalized memory of groups of people, often – but not always – because of the political agenda of a party or a government.
The main symbols of this kind of memory reside in statues and public monuments. They remind groups about the heroes and anti-heroes who preceded them, and give them a sense of what it means to be a member of the group.
Collective memory has a major effect on individual memory and identity. We have been reminded of this in recent years by controversies over whether statues of historical figures who espoused now-unpopular opinions should continue to stand. The arguments, the riots, the killings, have been less about the abstract issue of a political agenda than about the identity of individuals within a group.
How to preserve cultural memory in the digital age
We have access to more information than people in any previous age, but we have not developed tools to tell us what is worth remembering. The internet is a mass of undifferentiated data, some of which is more important than others. Even if a pornographic image is as easy to view as a medical journal, nobody would question the relative significance of the two. Culture includes all of our knowledge, but how do we assure the preservation of the best information?
What do we forget when we remember history?
Individually and collectively, we take note of what we consider important when events occur. Later, as we recall what happened, our memories are affected by how we have changed, how our values have changed, by what we have learned, by what has become meaningful in the meantime. This is part of why no two people who share an experience can recall it in exactly the same way.
Opinion: Memory is liberating
The comments at the end of this article give a heated cross-section of views, disparate opinions about how important or necessary it is for nations to remember the wrongs of the past. Many of the sentiments here can also be applied to personal resentments and perceived wrongs.
China’s memory manipulators
Regimes play with cultural memory when it suits their purposes. In a certain sense, personal memory can be similarly manipulated, though not so consciously.
What have we learned, if anything?
This essay, now ten years old, examines how 21st century Americans no longer remember history as they used to – and how they cannot properly remember war because they never properly knew it in the first place. A fascinating piece about national memory, perhaps even about national denial.
Some things are worth forgetting
Another take on how important it is for nations to sometimes forget what already happened so that they can get on with the business at hand today. This interview with the author is full of gems of insight such as this: “History is the material out of which this collective memory is made. But collective memory, commemoration, is not history. If it is history, it’s so simplified and reduced to be, as I say, to be closer to myth than to history in any usable sense.”
What is lost: Jane Franklin and the great man syndrome
Much of what we know about the people who lived in earlier periods is in the stories of famous men who changed the direction of countries and societies. But what of the other half, the women who raised the children who became famous? We all know their work was never done; but what was their work, and why are their stories so rarely told?
Are your 9/11 memories really your own?
A perfect example of how collective memory can be absorbed by individuals so effectively that they can no longer retain their particular memories.
A race against time to find WWI’s last ‘doughboys’
The memory of historical events disappears in a blink before it becomes idealized and mythologized, and its witnesses have only so many years to tell their stories.
The forbidden traces of memory in Bucharest
Memory of a place is social as well as individual. How we remember where we have been both determines and is determined by the view of others. This ethnographic study takes geographic, social, historical, cultural and individual factors into account.