Understanding the Differences Between History and Memory

Yours truly (middle w/tag on collar) at the GPMP National Conference, New York City. Photo Courtesy of Modupe Labode.
Yours truly (middle w/tag on collar) at the GPMP National Conference, New York City. Photo Courtesy of Modupe Labode.

The topic of memory has been on my mind a lot lately, as it has for many of historians. Memory refers to the ways in which individuals and societies choose to remember (or forget) certain moments and events in their history. The former is often referred to as individual memory, whereas the latter is considered collective memory or public memory. Individual memory can take several forms, such as an oral history interview, a piece of artwork, or the personal decision to wave a particular flag on your front porch. Societies have chosen to display their collective memory through statues, monuments, parades, and holidays such as Memorial Day. In recent years, historians have analyzed how memory has affected our impressions of the past, including the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II, even the Boston Tea Party. I myself have bought into the memory craze; my Master’s thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana is a study of how Indiana’s Civil War veterans created a collective memory of the Civil War in that state.

I recently had the privilege of attending and participating in a conference arranged by the Guantánamo Public Memory Project in New York on December 13-14 at Columbia University and New York University. I was able to attend the conference because I enrolled in a class this past semester at IUPUI that participated in a larger national project with several universities aimed at creating a traveling museum exhibit to “build public awareness of the long history of the US naval station at Guantánamo, Bay, Cuba, and foster dialogue on the future of this place and the policies it shapes.” GPMP director Liz Sevcenko expanded on these ideas in her introductory speech by commenting that the project aims to create an “active memory,” one that is used as a reminder of past injustices and of the need for addressing contemporary social issues.

One of my favorite parts of the conference was hearing Harvard professor Jonathan Hansen (who has also written a book on the history of Guantánamo) speak about the differences between history and memory. He argued that there are concrete connections between history, memory, and advocacy, but that tensions exist between all three. Memory is an absolute necessity for the existence of history (if we choose to forget about the past, to “move on,” history ceases to exist), but it is insufficient, limited, and particularistic. History, on the other hand, can be biased, propagandist, and elitist. Yet history does have one distinct advantage over memory: according to Hansen, in more or less words, “history advances through hypothesis; memory evolves, but never really advances.”

What I got from this is that memory is random and unexpected. Humans have terrible memories, and what we remember about the past can be clouded by our own biases and what we forget through the passage of time. Furthermore, we don’t really have the mental capacity to choose what we want to remember. Historians can use primary source documents to test their conclusions about the past, but a person’s memory of an event cannot be tested in such a manner, which makes the creation of a collective memory all the more complicated. History has its own limitations, but it seems to me that through the process of hypothesis it has the possibility of being “corrected” in a way that memory cannot.

To be honest, I am still working myself through a proper understanding of what exactly it means to study “memory” and how it can be used to enhance historical knowledge. In my research of the Indiana GAR I have read many speeches from veterans reflecting on what the Civil War meant to them. While I believe in the sincerity of the words of these men, I must realize that these words don’t necessarily constitute actual “history,” and that they were frequently spoken thirty, forty, fifty years after the conflict. They represent the particularistic memories of these veterans and what they wanted future generations to remember about the conflict. These veterans utilized the concept of “active memory”–just like we are doing with the Guantánamo Public Memory Project today–to address what they considered pressing social problems of the Gilded Age and later the Progressive Era: forgetfulness of the sacrifices of Civil War veterans from civilians who lived through the conflict and ignorance from foreign immigrants and younger generations who weren’t taught about the war’s meaning for themselves and the nation. I suppose that in some ways, the GPMP is attempting to achieve a similar goal by addressing the forgetfulness of American society when it comes to analyzing and understanding the legacy of Guantánamo on our world today.