Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Role of Memory in History

Over the last couple of weeks, I have spent a lot of time analyzing the role that memory and oral history play in presenting or writing about history. In particular, I have been wondering how I should make use of these sources as a Public Historian. My thought process began at my visit to the Canadian War Museum to gather information for my Exhibit Review. I found myself extremely conflicted about the sole reliance on oral history in Bev Tosh's travelling exhibit War Brides: Portraits of an Era. I concluded that as a historical exhibit it could be strengthened through using a wider variety of historical sources. That being said, I still found this exhibit incredibly effective and have found myself trying to articulate ever since why this exhibit spoke to me in such a profound way.

I was afforded some answers to my questions this week while I was doing some very suiting readings on oral history for my Public History course. In Alessandro Portelli’s article “The Peculiarities of Oral History” it is argued that the meaning people make from events is just as important as what actually happened. Portelli states, “What the informant believes is indeed a historical fact (that is, the fact that he or she believes it) just as much as what ‘really’ happened”[i]. I think that is why War Brides had such an impact on me (indeed, two blogs worth), because although I left with very few conventional “facts” I still had obtained an exceedingly clear conception of what being a War Bride meant to the women involved in the exhibit.

However, I still was not satisfied on how to most effectively incorporate such sources into my own work. Interestingly, this month’s issue of National Geographic cover issue “Memory: Why We Remember, Why We Forget” addresses some of these same issues. The article “Remember This” by Joshua Foer explores the neurological side of making and retaining memories. Foer speaks extensively with “AJ”, a woman who remembers everything she has done, said, or felt, every day of her life.[ii] I found myself thinking how much easier it would be to do history if everyone had the ability to retain such rich memories of their past. However, AJ herself sees her gift as a burden, stating:

I remember the good, which is very comforting. But I also remember the bad- and every bad choice,” she says. “And I really don’t give myself a break. There are all these forks in the road, moments you have to make a choice , and then it’s ten years later, and I’m still beating myself up over them. I don’t forgive myself for a lot of things. Your memory is the way to protect you. I feel like it just hasn’t protected me.[iii]

AJ’s belief that memory is supposed to protect people by allowing them to forget some of the suffering they have encountered in their lives, finally made clear to me my own perspective on this topic. It seems that the Public Historian’s role is to make sure that people are not allowed to forget the past, even if it is painful. As Michael Frisch states in his book A Shared Authority, what should be the main concern of Public Historians is “...a fundamental commitment to the importance of that verb at the heart of memory, making it something alive and active as we confront out own world.”[iv] Therefore as idealistic as it might appear, it seems that it is the Public Historian's duty to use memories and oral history to help the public to face and learn from the past.

[i] Alessandro Portelli, “The Peculiarities of Oral History,” History Workshop Journal 12 (Autumn 1981), pg. 100

[ii] Joshua Foer, “Remember This” in National Geographic, November 2007, pg. 35

[iii] Ibid, 51

[iv] Michael Frisch, “Memory, History, and Cultural Authority,” A Shared Authority:
Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (New York: SUNY Press, 1990), pg. 25

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