Memory of History

“First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade-unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”(Martin Niemoller)

Throughout the world, there has become a constant theme to “forgive and forget.”  To forgive is something that is not only humanly but can also be the hardest part to accomplish when accepting the trauma that had occurred.  Forgiveness is arguably not about accepting the horror that has happened but instead, to become cleansed of the grief and anger.  But, forgetting is something much different.  Forgetting is choosing to expel the thoughts, memories and emotions from one’s mind and body, accepting that the terror is of the past, somewhere dark never to be seen again.  Unfortunately though, as time has shown, this is not always the correct path. Within the blog, a demand to the public will occur, not to stand up and fight for human rights with pickets and fists, but instead, to never forget the tragic events that have occurred in man’s lifetime.  Only when the public remembers such horrors can future violations be stopped before spiraling out of control.  In Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel’s, famous poem, he states that he did not speak out when the others were taken by the Nazi’s.  But when they finally came for him, there was no one to speak up.  By choosing to block out the pain of watching others be taken to their death, he eliminated the hope that someone might try and stop the Nazi’s from taking him to his own death.  People who choose to violate human rights can only do so, if no one chooses to stand up and say ‘no, I remember what happened last time, and it will never, never happen again’.

Predicated in the early twentieth-century writing of Maurice Halbwachs and later relooked at by Michel Foucault, “contemporary scholarship has posed memory as an activity of collectivity rather than (or in addition to) individuated, cognitive work.  The assumption of a shared understanding of the past is captured in the multiple modifiers attached to ‘memory’ in recent years” (Dickinson, p. 3).  Carole Blair, Greg Dickinson and Brian L. Ott summarized in the introduction of Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials that contemporary memory scholars have taken a number of positions on remembering being taken place in groups.  They include:

“(1) memory is activated by present concerns, issues, or anxieties;

(2) memory narrates shared identities, constructing sense of communal belonging;

(3) memory is animated by affect;

(4) memory is partial, partisan, and thus often contested;

(5) memory relies on material and/or symbolic supports;

(6) memory has a history” (Dickinson, p. 5)

Memory is not about the concerns and issues of the present but instead, a way of understanding, justifying, excusing or even subverting conditions of the present based off of the past.  Some groups may even start to popularize some events or individuals over others due to their ability of choice.  Public memory embraces that which the group thinks is important and worthy of preservation.  David Lowenthal suggests that “the prime function of memory…is not to preserve the past but to adapt it so as to enrich and manipulate the past… Memories are not readymade reflections of the past, but eclectic, selective reconstructions based on subsequent actions and perceptions and on ever-changing codes by which we delineate, symbolize, and classify the world around us” (Dickinson, p. 6).

Looking back at the sixth position of group memory, it is important to be able to recognize the differences between memory and history as two separate entities in addition to their connection to one another.  The differences and relationships between history and memory in Pierre Nora’s account has surely been the most cited by other scholars:

“Memory and history, far from being synonymous, are thus in many respects opposed.  Memory is life, always embodied in living societies and as such in permanent evolution, subject to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of the distortions to which it is subject, vulnerable in various ways to appropriation and manipulation, capable of lying dormant for long periods only to be suddenly reawakened.  History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer.  Memory is always a phenomenon of the present, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past.  Memory, being a phenomenon of emotion and magic, accommodates only those facts that suit it. It thrives on vague, telescoping reminiscences, on hazy general impressions or specific symbolic details… History, being an intellectual, non-religious activity, calls for analysis and critical discourse.  Memory situates remembrance in a sacred context.  History ferrets it out; it turns whatever it touches into prose… At the heart of history is a criticism destructive of spontaneous memory.” (Dickinson, p. 25)

While the distinction Nora draws on is not universally accepted, it does serve to mark out different tendencies that are frequently attributed to memory and history.  While some public memory scholars continue to look at the sharp distinction of representing the past like Nora, most public memory scholars are more likely to “embrace Marita Sturken’s far less stark delineation; she suggests that history and memory are ‘entangled,’ rather than comprising completely distinct activities”, memory has history (Dickinson, p. 26).

In the end, rather one believes that memory and history are joined at the hip or separated as individual entities, the result is still remains.  When looking at the violent past to help ensure a more peaceful future, both the memory of those who survived and the history written in books, serve as vital stories to help create the intelligence needed to forgive those who didn’t know, but never forget the pain of what happened.


Dickinson, Greg, Carole Blair, and Brian L Ott.  Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials. University of Alabama Press. 2010.

Lehrer, Erica and Cynthia E. Milton.  “Introduction”.  Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places.  St Martin’s Press LLC. 2011.

Museums meet Memorials

“The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  William Faulkner writes this quote in his classic novel Requiem for a Nun, while exploring how the process of memorialization keeps the past alive in the present and shapes the way we imagine our possible futures.  In today’s world, there are many different kinds of institutions that house famous works of all departments of enquiry, both of the ‘past’ and the ‘present’.  These range from museums, universities, cultural centers, galleries, memorials, etc.  One very special things that all these institutions ought to do and probably do not do enough is to bring together people from across the community around a common theme and issue.  Too often, our disciplines and departments are the things that define us.  In fact, they structure us in ways that narrow some of our thinking and opportunities.  And yet, to be alive and to be well means to be more organic in the ability to come together around a theme for while, to really explore it to meaningful depths, and then let our curiosities take us in other directions afterwards.  While this can happen at any of the institutions listed above, more than anything, memorials are created to do just that.

One of the biggest differences between a memorial and other institutions is the collection.  In recent years, the argument between whether or not a memorial institute can add “museum” to their title has been raging. Ten years after the events of September 11, 2011, the examination of museums and memorials in the United States, in addition to around the world, memorials are becoming more and more determined that not only should they be allowed to be called a “memorial museum” but also have the same rights and grant-funding availability that museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago (which ironically does not have the word ‘museum’ in their title), the Field Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Science and Technology.

While commemorative statues and monuments have been around for a long time, memorial museums seem to have come into their own during the 20th century.  But while this has happen, when looking at collections, it is important first to see the differences between that of a ‘museum’ and a ‘memorial’.  If there is a distinction between a ‘museum’ and a ‘memorial.’ it seems fairly blurry.  Collections might be one difference.  We might also say that a museum should be more objective than a memorial, which usually has a very pronounced point of view about its subject, but we know that all museums come at their collections and stories from specific viewpoints and perspectives.   Memorials on the other hand, tend to show the alternative form of storytelling.

Museums perhaps cover all bases of human life.   Even when looking at a museum with a focal theme, they still have a wide variety of objects and exhibitions that tell the intended story.    Memorials on the other happen appear to document almost exclusively the darker side of life, human suffering and the violation of human rights.  The concept of human rights is relatively recent in world history, coming to fruition in the 20th century.  This may be one reason why museums with this theme have proliferated in our time.  And of course the 20th century is without parallel (so far) in providing multiple examples of “man’s inhumanity to man” (Jennings, p.1).  The role of survivors, family, and descendants is crucial both for the creation and the sustenance of a vibrant memorial site. The significance goes in both directions: it enriches the site and appears to bring a measure of comfort and healing to those most touched by the event.  When looking at memorials that have been around for a number of years, it is clear that the most powerful continue to reinvent themselves, as new evidence about old events come to light, and as new examples of what was supposed to be “never again” appear.

The material reality of the event causing the memorial is extremely important.  When artifacts from such an event, such as the holocaust in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, come into an exhibition, not only does the visitor get a real sense of what the object was, but also a graphic material presence of the reality of the event as well.  Artifacts automatically make the story around the object more realistic due to the very knowledge that another human being once used that same object. In addition, important artifacts can often change the terms of an exhibition in addition to the story that is being told.

Childrens Drawings from US HOLO

(Children’s drawings in The Holocaust, the US Holocaust

Memorial Museum’s permanent exhibition.

Other photographs of this exhibition can be found in their photo archive.)

In addition to physical artifacts that can be placed within an exhibition, the physical space of the memorial is in fact, part of the collection as well.  The USS Arizona Memorial at Peal Harbor is not only a historic site but also a part of the overall collection of the Pearl Harbor Memorial.


(Image provided by Google)

It is a preservation challenge for the Park Service because there are thousands of gallons of oil still in it leaking to the surface.  You can’t go in to shore it up because you’re guilty of defiling a grave, an active gravesite.  But while these complications exist, there is still a strong sense that this artifact is a part of the collection because it shows a piece of the history that is needed to be told.  Not only is this boat part of historical facts and an artifact, but also completely in relation to the exhibitions going on in the museum.

While having some physical remains, the most important (and controversial) items within a memorials collection are the memory.  The problem with this concept is that they are not physical.  While memories can be written down or achieved through different means of devices, the factor still remains whether or not a museum can be created off of stories.  The tension between commemorative voices, voices of survivors, voices of family members, voices of veterans, voices of people who have been involved in these extreme situations and speak out of the voice of experience is that: “I was there; I know what happened.”  Each voice is one that has to be interrogated and placed in a larger context.

To combat this issue, memorials often choose what side of the story that they will side with, depending on the most realistic and truthful compared to the artifacts already in their collection and history books.  The District Six Museum, located in Cape Town, South Africa, on the other hand, chooses to tell all stories.  While each voice may not be heard within every exhibition, they have created an extensive oral history collection.  In this part of the collection, they have taken all of the stories and personal histories that have been told and recorded since the opening of the museum in order to make sure all voices and stories are heard, whether it is in a physical exhibition or waiting for a researcher to come into the collection.

In the end, memorial museums are first and foremost a symbolic burial place for the people who died.  It is a sacred place for survivors. You do though, tell the real story.


Cobb, Daniel M. and Helen Sheumaker. Memory Matters. State University of New York Press. 2011.

Jennings, Gretchen.  “From the Editor”. Museums, Memorials, and Sites of Conscience. Exhibitionist.  2011.

Faulkner, William. Requiem for a Nun. Random House Digital, Inc. 2011.