Memory and History: It’s Complicated

This week’s readings address the complicated relationship between history and memory. Though they, “appear now in fundamental opposition” they are in reality, intrinsically linked. Nora writes, “the quest for memory is the search for one’s history” and you can’t have one without the other. If memory is used to find history then museums and archives are the lit flashlight used in the journey.

My background is in Southern history, a tangled web of memory, and history, and silences waiting to be given a voice. Trouillot writes about the agents, actors, and subjects that shape our understanding of history. Slaves who labored in cotton fields are agents in history, but the actors with power are the ones who shaped the narrative told. History, like memory, evolves to amplify stories smothered by earlier historians with power and an agenda to maintain that power.

As if memory and history don’t have a complex enough relationship, where does the public fit in? I worked at a plantation museum in Virginia whose institutional history excluded narratives about slavery. For years Monticello, like many house museums across the South, ignored the reality of plantation life in favor of a “Mt Rushmore” styled interpretation about Jefferson. He was exalted and guides avoiding talking about anything that would bring him off that pedestal. Over the years, as America more honestly remembers slavery the history interpreted at Monticello has changed as well. This weekend the Washington Post ran an article about restoration that includes interpreting a space that Sally Hemings lived in. The changes in interpretation at Monticello illustrate how quickly history evolves and is reconstructed to match present day values, but is it shaped by memory? What shapes the zeitgeist? Memory? History? Both? Though there are people frustrated by the recent progress in interpretation, their memory about the Founding Fathers as Gods among men once so amplified is now minimized. The inclusion of slavery and trauma narratives at Monticello opens up a once silenced history, in part because of the modern trauma/therapy paradigm that allows these conversations, and memories to be discussed in public.

One thought on “Memory and History: It’s Complicated”

  1. I was struck by your comment on how history quickly evolves to reflect present day values. It made me wonder how this effects the ‘accuracy’ of historical scholarship, and how much truth may be relative to the period of scholarship–and on that note, the potential deficits and inaccuracies of contemporary historical research. Definitely something to consider when thinking about the goals of a public humanities project!

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