Collective memory and the uses of the past

Earlier this month, I went to a fascinating, interdisciplinary conference on “Collective memory and the uses of the past”, organised by a team around Andy Wood at the School of History, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK. The full programme is available here (text file).

I was one of only a handful of archaeologists there. No single discipline dominated, in fact everybody seemed to enjoy genuinely the encounter with representatives of other disciplines: historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, sociologists, politologists, representatives of literary studies, area studies, etc.

The international conference illustrated to what extent the themes of “collective memory” and “the uses of the past” have been en vogue in a wide range of social sciences and humanities for some time. For the papers assembled in Norwich were, on the whole, not unpolished explorations of a new subject entering academia but instead mature discussions of case-studies in an already well-established field.

What I found most interesting was a notable division among the papers into two groups of perhaps similar size. One group discussed how certain events have been remembered over time, effectively preserving something from the past for the present. To the extent that collective memory bears witness to history, a major question concerns the question whether or not any specific recollection is accurately remembered.

The other group of papers discussed “confabulated” landscapes of memory (James Fentress), in other words stories about the past told in different presents. In this view, collective memory effectively replaces history. A key question here is what makes certain people remember certain pasts in certain circumstances.

Whereas for the former papers, memory (survival) is the opposite of forgetting (loss), for the latter, memory and forgetting are one and the same thing (constructed narratives about the past). Whereas for the former there is a world of difference between remembering collectively something you witnessed yourself and something you did not, for the latter the difference becomes negligable.

Interestingly, that difference between the two groups of paper, although acknowledged on the final day of the meeting as the difference between ‘memory’ and ‘narrative’, was never properly discussed. It seemed as if that was were the common interest in memory issues ended…

Where is the archaeology in all that? Those few archaeological papers in the conference dealt with collective memory and the uses of the past in the past, with case-studies ranging from Neolithic Germany to post-Medieval England. What was missing was an archaeological perspective concerning collective memory and the uses of archaeology in the present, although much work has recently explored such issues. But such are the limits of interdisciplinarity. No conference organizer can catch it all.

A final remark about the conference venue. UEA performed brilliantly as a conference location, although it came not cheap (at £250 for two half and two full days all included). Although the lecture rooms were less than ideal, the accommodation, food and general service were excellent. Adapting the famous 1988 slogan for the V&A Museum in London (“An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached”) I am tempted to say that more and more frequently UK universities come across as “An ace conference venue, with quite a nice university attached”.

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