Collective Memory - Plural Identities

Research Maria Grever

Collective memory does not exist. Or does it? There is no collective brain that remembers or forgets. The physical brain is attached to singular human bodies. Yet people do remember in relation to their involvement in communities, such as families, peer groups, associations, social movements and countries. They tell each other stories, collect objects, organize memorials, erect monuments and transmit knowledge. In this way they construct specific identities. Collective memory is always the provisional outcome of a perceived shared past, articulated by a community – often in the public sphere. In spite of attempts to freeze and possess the past, its meaning and interpretation change in the course of time. Moreover, large communities consist of competing memory groups, producing myths and mobilizing masses. People forget about heroes, turning points, inventions, knowledge, objects, buildings and even complete cities. Hence, no collective memory without oblivion. Memories come and go, disappear and turn up, with changing structures and intentions.

Dutch cafe with girls in Frisian costume at the Paris world exhibition in 1867

This research concentrates on a specific dominant community since the late 18th century: the Western nation-state. The interaction between nation-states and various memory groups generated national and transnational alliances with contested images, conceptions and narrative templates, appropriating existing traditions or inventing new ones. The postcolonial turn has focused on interactions and flows of culture across former imperial spaces. Its emphasis on dynamic cultural reciprocity challenges any essentialism in how collective memories are understood. Such developments have drawn attention to the relationship between academic, state-led and public history, highlighting fluid and malleable boundaries within overlapping but distinctive narratives that define those who share a common past and those who do not.

The research is elaborated in four cases: historical distance and plurality; heritage in history education; national historiography and colonial legacies; monarchy in public culture.