Letting Go of Our Obsession with Memorials

David Lowenthal has labeled the idea that cultural heritage “deserves to be preserved in toto” one of the “sacrosanct fictions” of cultural heritage. Lowenthal is not just a random commentator: he is a highly respected historian and geographer who has spent decades studying our relationship with the past. One of Lowenthal’s most important conclusions is that how we conceive of the past is not a natural or static thing — the past is not something embalmed — but is culturally contingent and constantly in flux. Our compulsion to preserve as much of the past as possible is a development of the last few decades in particular, and primarily an American and European one. The National Register of Historic Places was established only in 1966, after most of the jazz landmarks mentioned above were already demolished. From UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites to Antiques Roadshow, over the past 50 years we have encountered the incentive to value every material trace of the past more and more, like a society with collective hoarding anxiety. Lowenthal observes that, contrary to what we generally believe, cultural heritage is not shrinking but constantly expanding. It is not a finite source gradually disappearing, piece by piece, but something that we keep discovering and reinterpreting, and keep adding to as the present continues to become past.

Source: Letting Go of Our Obsession with Memorials

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8 thoughts on “Letting Go of Our Obsession with Memorials

  1. I have worn this subject out recently, since the Confederate statue debate began. I have been on the ‘losing side’ of more blog debates than I care to remember. But I continue to maintain that History should remain as it is, good or bad. And memorials are reminders of past deeds and events, also good and bad. This issue seems to raise a lot of hackles, and I definitely do not want to get into another slanging match. That’s just how I feel.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  2. Ahhh… one of my favourite subjects and how I could wax flossifical on that. Past, present, future: what do these mean? Most people I’d say believe they live in the “present” and don’t go much beyond, unless they vist a museum or read a futuristic sci-fi. Living in “time” creates the illusion that there is such a condition as the present. OK, how many seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, aeons, constitutes “the present”? The correct answer is, none of the above: there is no such thing as the present. As aware beings, we are constantly slipping from the future into the past, the “present” being but that point (a point having so space or time demension) between our realities of future-to-past. We are time travellers and as such can’t have a present. If/when we leave this time system then we probably will learn to experience what is called the present. Having said that, do we focus on the future, or the past? Look ahead, or look back? We argue about the past – it’s called history or remembering – but we seem to have a problem dealing with the future as if, somehow, that was a mystery that didn’t belong to us, or didn’t demand resposibility for creating. Hence the mess we’re in. We really, as a civilization, have no future. The past is past and the future is not made up of the past but of imagination and creativity. It’s made up of how badly we want to change everything. To focus on the past is to guarantee we will never have a future, or whatever future we have will not be of our own creating but foisted upon us by smarter, superior minds which, as the past illuminates extensively, are generally exploitative and oppressive. When wondering about symbols of the past, let’s remember this quote: “I am Ozymandias king of kings…” a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The great Ozymandias is imaginining himself in the present, boasting of his past accomplishments, but was he looking into his future?

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