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History, Memory, and Monuments: An Overview of the Scholarly Literature on Commemoration Kirk Savage, University of Pittsburgh (…)
The first key question might be, what is commemoration? Dictionary definitions tell us that to commemorate is to “call to remembrance,” to mark an event or a person or a group by a ceremony or an observance or a monument of some kind. Commemorations might be ephemeral or permanent; the key point is that they prod collective memory in some conspicuous way.
French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs ushered in the modern academic study of collective memory with his book The Social Frameworks of Memory (1925) in which he argued that all memory – even personal memory – is a social process, shaped by the various groups (family, religious, geographical, etc.) to which individuals belong. In an even more influential posthumous essay, “Historical Memory and Collective Memory” (1950), published after his death in a Nazi concentration camp, Halbwachs insisted on a distinction between history and collective memory: history aims for a universal, objective truth severed from the psychology of social groups while “every collective memory requires the support of a group delimited in space and time.” Thus our view of the past does not come primarily from professional historical scholarship but from a much more complicated and interwoven set of relationships to mass media, tourist sites, family tradition, and the spaces of our upbringing with all their regional, ethnic, and class diversity – to name just a few factors. Just as personal memory is now understood to be a highly selective, adaptive process of reconstructing the past, shaped by present needs and contexts, so collective memory is a product of social groups and their ever evolving character and interests. Hence the now commonplace notion that collective memory is “constructed,”...

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