Museums and memory 1. The salience of memory

The Salience of Memory

Since the 1980s, the past has increasingly been approached in public culture through the category of ‘memory’ as a supplement to, or sometimes substitute, for ‘history.’  Motivations for the turn towards memory are manifold, but chief among them has been the desire to recover, reconstruct or re-imagine the past in ways which foreground the lives of those forgotten by dominant historical narratives. 

Memory is vital to the construction of identity, and is the result of a complex interplay between processes on public and individual levels. Both personal and social memory is intimately woven together, and is shaped through, a variety of social and cultural practices. Memory may take many forms; it is not just to be found as histories told, but may be embedded in a multitude of practices, places and bodies. Importantly, memory, whether personal or social, is constituted by processes of both remembering and forgetting.

A focus on memory can redirect attention from official or received histories to gaps and silences, to what is repressed or uncomfortable, to what is otherwise disavowed or unspeakable.  This is especially valuable when dealing with contested histories, including that of Europe’s colonial past. In this sense a focus on memory may reinvigorate our engagements with the past and redefine our ideas as to what might count as historical knowledge.

However, memory can also be dangerous; privileging memory uncritically, whether official or popular memory, may easily obscure the past.  As nostalgic representations of the Raj in the Britain of the 1980s and the tempo doeloe culture of the Netherlands have shown, memory can just as easily shore up comforting narratives as it can unsettle them. As Katherine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone write, there is a “tension between memory as a safeguard against attempts to silence dissenting voices, and memory’s own implication in that silencing”.[i] More pointedly, Alain Badiou cautions that memory “cannot settle any issue.  There inevitably comes a moment when what matters is to declare in one’s own name that what took place took place, and to do so because what one envisages with regard to the actual possibilities of a situation requires it”.[ii] 

Indeed, memory is politically salient. Social memory always carries an aspect of instrumentality, to support certain aims and agendas. Still, while power relations and political issues may shape social and individual memory, they do not entirely determine our memories of the past.  Memories will always be contested. Disjuncture between individual or group memories and official or authorised memories may evoke tensions and bring about the production of divergent or counter-memories. 

These  issues play through the remembering and forgetting of Europe’s colonial past, museum representations of dominant – and sometimes minority – narratives, and the use of photographs as facilitators and inhibitors of memories both individual and social.

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[i] Hodgkin, Katharine and Susannah Radstone (eds). Memory, History, Nation: Contested Pasts. New Brunswick,, 2006. 16.

[ii] Quoted in Santner, Eric L. On Creaturely Life. Chicago, 2006. 134.