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memory, popular

  A term used in considerations of the role played by constructions of the past in the present, and generally set against \'official\' or \'academic\' historical accounts, though these may themselves contribute to the formation of popular memory. Geographers have examined such themes in relation to the study of heritage and tradition, popular geographies, specific landscape elements such as monuments or museums, and issues of place and Identity, whether at a local, regional or national scale.

The term popular memory has been employed by historians seeking to understand the power of senses of the past in contemporary cultural and political life. Pierre Nora\'s multi-volume project Les lieux de mémoire (1984-92; for an English translation of the introduction see Nora, 1989) argues that modern society is characterized by the break up of coherent \'real environments of memory\' and their replacement by specific \'sites of memory\', whose study is essential to understand the place of the past in the present. Work by the Popular Memory Group of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1982), and by Raphael Samuel (1995), situates popular memory in relation to a series of distinctions concerning forms of historical knowledge: official and unofficial, public and private, dominant and oppositional, academic and popular. For the Popular Memory Group popular memory is both an object of study and a mode of political practice, though in both cases they warn against an uncritical use of the term \'popular\', being cautious of a populist assumption that the popular is both unified and unproblematically positive, and recognizing that popular cultural forms may reinforce rather than be resistant to projects of cultural (see culture) hegemony. A critical sense of the presence of the past in everyday life is developed further by Wright (1985), who draws on the work of Agnes Heller as a theoretical basis for his studies of the place of the national past in contemporary British life.

Samuel\'s (1995) Theatres of memory sets popular memory more straightforwardly against \'official\' or \'academic\' historical knowledge, proposing that we take seriously the \'unofficial knowledge\' found in popular sources, including popular myth, oral testimony, popular media, local lore, place names and other environmental knowledges. The aim in such work is to suggest that history (and by implication geography) as a discipline should be open to considering a more popular range of source material than has traditionally been the case: \'Tapping into popular memory requires a different order of evidence, and a different kind of enquiry\' (Samuel, 1995, p. 8). In similar vein Nora suggests that the study of sites of memory can serve to link \'apparently disconnected events\' (1989, p. 23), and stresses that historical study itself functions as an important site of memory, and therefore must be aware of its own social and political role. Work on popular histories, often associated in the UK with the History Workshop movement of socialist and feminist historians, has been echoed by recent calls for the study of popular geographies, whether in relation to an expanded sense of the history of geography as a discipline, which includes its popular role, or in terms of popular knowledges of place and environment (see also imaginative geography). Dolores Hayden\'s The power of place (1995) builds on the work of a group of historians and artists in Los Angeles to explore the possibilities of a progressive exploration of memory in the urban landscape. Hayden considers working-class, ethnic and gendered historic landscapes to show how \'places make memories cohere in complex ways\' (p. 43).

Popular memory is to be distinguished from the related concept of the \'invention of tradition\', coined in Hobsbawm and Ranger\'s (1983) collection of essays showing the self-consciously invented nature of events and institutions often held to be customary, for example the rituals of monarchy or parliament. Despite Hobsbawm\'s argument that we should take seriously the capacity of invented traditions to acquire significant cultural power, the term \'invented tradition\' has often been taken to imply something fake, lacking cultural authenticity. Such arguments have been extended by critics such as Hewison (1987) to imply that a popular interest in heritage can be put down as trivial, nostalgic, culturally regressive and commercially exploitative, and opposed to a true sense of history as defined by the historian. Samuel (1995) uses popular memory to argue against such a position, suggesting instead that concern for heritage represents a genuine popular and democratic engagement with history. Samuel stresses that in political terms a concern for heritage is by no means confined to conservative movements, and seeks to highlight a tradition of radical and socialist concern for the past.

The political range of popular memory is highlighted in work by geographers on monuments, whereby contests over memory focus on and are refracted through specific commemorative sites, as in Peet\'s study of conflicts over the commemoration of an eighteenth-century popular revolt in twentieth-century Petersham, Massachusetts (Peet, 1996). The place of memory in popular geographies is central to work by geographers on the historicity of place, especially in terms of the role of heritage and memory in the production of local, national and ethnic identities. Charlesworth (1994) shows how the former concentration camp at Auschwitz has become a place of contested memory in terms of conflicting commemorations of Jewish, Soviet-Polish and Polish-Catholic suffering. Matless (1993) focuses on the work of English landscape historian W.G. Hoskins to show how academic studies and topographic guides have promoted a particular anti-modern culture of landscape emphasizing local attachment, memory and tradition. Crang shows how the phenomena of heritage can be considered in terms of the performativity of the past (Crang, 1994), and in a detailed study of the historicity of urban forms of popular memory in Bristol — postcards, old photographs, local displays — shows how an attention to the popular demands a rethinking of the time-spaces of the city (Crang, 1996). The general conclusion to draw from all such work is that the study of popular geographies entails a critical engagement with popular memory. (DM)

References Charlesworth, A. 1994: Contesting places of memory: the case of Auschwitz. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 12: 579-93. Crang, M. 1994: On the heritage trail: maps of and journeys to olde Englande. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 12: 341-55. Crang, M. 1996: Envisioning urban histories: Bristol as palimpsest, postcards and snapshots. Environment and Planning A 28: 429-52. Hayden, D. 1995: The power of place: urban landscapes as public history. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Hewison, R. 1987: The heritage industry. London: Methuen. Hobsbawm, E. and Ranger, T., eds, 1983: The invention of tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Matless, D. 1993: One man\'s England: W.G. Hoskins and the English culture of landscape. Rural History 4: 187-207. Nora, P. 1989: Between memory and history: Les Lieux de Mémoire. Representations 26: 7-25. Peet, R. 1996: A sign taken for history: Daniel Shay\'s Memorial in Petersham, Massachusetts. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 96: 21-43. Popular Memory Group 1982: Popular memory: theory, politics, method. In R. Johnson, G. McLennan, B. Schwarz and D. Sutton, eds, Making histories. London: Hutchinson, 205-52. Samuel, R. 1995: Theatres of memory. London: Verso. Wright, P. 1985: On living in an old country: the national past in contemporary Britain. London: Verso.

Suggested Reading: Hayden (1995). Samuel (1995).



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