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Department of English, University of Victoria
"Symbols are what unite and divide people. Symbols give us our identity, our self-image, our way of explaining ourselves to others. Symbols in turn determine the kinds of stories we tell; and the stories we tell determine the kind of history we make and remake."
-- Mary Robinson, Inauguration speech as President of Ireland, December 3, 1990
In recent years museums, archives, and libraries have become known increasingly as "memory institutions," a phrase reflecting our growing awareness of what is called cultural or collective memory. Originally coined by Maurice Halbwachs, "Collective Memory" distinguishes group memory from individual memory, and refers to both the collection of memories shared in a common culture, as well as the mechanisms by which a community or group remembers key events as part of larger narratives of identity and belonging.
The questions associated with collective memory have come to preoccupy researchers across a broad range of disciplines including cultural theorists, cognitive scientists, philosophers, linguists, geographers, sociologists and economists. Historiographers and political scientists also recognize, through their different disciplinary lenses, how significant collective memory has been in shaping the ways by which people come to know and identify themselves.
This knowledge of who we are -- individually and collectively -- seems so inextricably bound up with memory, that questions about how collective memory is constructed, shared, narrated, performed and transmitted across groups and generations resonate far beyond the academic realm. Politically, issues of collective memory and identity face policy makers who confront national, ethnic and religious divides. In the world of business, heritage tourism commercializes and creates collective memory, as do advertisers, media conglomerates and marketers. At its most philosophical, the inquiry into collective memory is founded on two perennial riddles: the ontological question, "who am I?" and the epistemological puzzle, "how do I know what I know?"
This ever-growing field of inquiry acknowledges that far from being fixed and stable, the symbols and narratives shaping collective memory and cultural identity originate in an ever-shifting assortment of heritage objects and events. In shared spaces -- virtual as well as geographic -- events, landmarks and monuments, communal rituals, public celebrations, visual images, sounds, music, texts, and more recently, key films as well as radio and TV broadcasts, are invested with shared symbolic significance. They are becoming, in Pierre Nora's resonant phrase, "lieux de memoire" or "sites of memory," around which shared memories and associated identities are woven, consolidated and communicated.
Contemporary Irish experience exemplifies the dynamic and contingent nature of collective memory. Ireland's recent cultural, social and economic dislocations have resulted in widespread public debate challenging received wisdom about the country's collection of memories, its heritages and its national narratives. New "sites of memory" are under construction and these sites underpin new narratives of collective identity celebrating ethnic and sectarian diversity, urban as well as rural cultures, class-based and gendered heritages, and collective memories of emigration and of the Irish Diaspora.
Few institutions in Western culture have been as affected by this turn to collective memory as our "memory institutions," those archives, museums and libraries that are the official repositories of memory, entrusted with the task of collecting and preserving cultural heritage. In the past, national memory institutions have been closely identified with the preservation and production of national memory and with questions of what to include and even more importantly (in the words of French historian Ernest Renan) what to forget. Today's digitized collections may increase the range and quantity of symbolic objects that memory institutions store and represent, but the old questions of organization, of taxonomy and of the constructed narratives inherent in these digital objects are more problematic than ever. What is to be included and what is to be excluded? How do we navigate these collections? What organizational principles are at play? Whose collective narratives, histories, identities are being constructed, by whom and for whom?
For generations of immigrant-emigrant communities, including Canadians of Irish origin, these questions are neither new nor academic, but critical in adapting to a new Canadian homeland. However clumsy, sentimental or self-serving it may appear in its various iterations, collective memory in diasporic communities provides a necessary bridge between old and adopted cultures, constructing, in Mary Robinson's words, the symbols that create identity, the stories we tell, and the histories we make and remake.
Dr. Elizabeth Grove-White is the Executive Director of the Co-operative Education Program at the University of Victoria. She was born in Dublin, Ireland, and earned her doctoral degree in English literature from Trinity College Dublin. Her recent research focuses on literacy, culture and language in Ireland, as well as the affect of new media on culture.