Memory, learning and museums

Last week I was asked to give an interview for Berria, a publication based in the Basque Country, about the Sharing European Memories in Schools project I've been working on for the past 18 months. The interview was supposed to happen via Skype, but due to technical issues we did it by email instead. I've copied the interviewer's questions and my answers here.


Aranxta Elizegi (interviewer): Preparing this interview I found a 2009 survey, according to which one in 20 children in UK think Hitler was a German football coach. Do we need better education of society? How we could do it?

Emma King: I agree a lot of people have a very low awareness of history, though I don't think that's unique to the UK! I do believe we need better history education both in schools and beyond, because our knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of the past shapes our understanding of the present and influences how we shape the future. For example, the Europe we live in exists both politically and geographically as a direct result of the Second World War. That itself was a product of the First World War, and so on. We need a rounded and multi-dimensional understanding of all these events that goes beyond the familiar glib one-sided accounts.

How we achieve that is a more difficult question. Schools evidently have a role to play.  Our curriculum in England is being revised, and there are concerns that time available for history teaching will be squeezed and that we might revert to a 'names and dates' version of history rather than focusing on understanding. This is worrying. In wider society I think museums and the media have a key role to play. In the UK we are gearing up to commemorate the centenary of the First World War in 2014 and it is encouraging to see funding for museums and archives to develop participatory projects that involve people in researching and exploring their own communities' history. I think getting people actively involved in the process of history is key.

AE: How do memories shape our understanding of the past?

EK: That's a big question! It's a very complex process. In the SEM@S project we looked at different types of memory. There are individual memories, which are your own memories, and social memories. All of these memories are constantly being made and forgotten, and can be manipulated and changed. Social memory, where you share a common history with a specific group of people, is crucial in creating and maintaining a sense of individual and community identity. Communities (and even nations) reinforce their own identity through the stories they tell themselves - and the memories that they suppress - about their past.   

AE:  Could you explain your project of the SEM@S?

EK: We worked with a group of 14 year old History students at the Co-operative Academy in Leeds to explore the history of D-Day and the Second World War through the memories and experiences of individuals who experienced it first hand. A key part of the project was training students in interview skills so that they could interview a group of five people with memories of the Second World War. Meeting the veterans made a big impact on the students. They developed a more empathic understanding of the past that took them beyond facts and figures. One of them told us, "You can't really get emotions of World War Two out of books. You can read about the emotion but you can't feel the emotion. Interviewing the people, you felt the emotion and you took the emotion with you". We also visited the Royal Armouries Museum where students handled Second World War weapons and uniform and did a critique of the way the museum displays and interprets the history of the Second World War.

After the interviews students compared the veterans' memories with the 'official' history they study in school. We also explored how the war has been remembered and reinterpreted by later generations, looking at ideas of heroism, remembrance and the way in which politicians and the media use Second World War imagery to manipulate public opinion.

AE: Why it's so necessary to insert historical memory in teaching?


EK: I think there are two main reasons. One is that it engages students with learning about the past. If they can find out about real people's lives, and particularly if they can meet those people and talk to them, they become active learners and can ask the questions that really interest them.  The second is that it makes history relevant to the present day. Our students were most interested and engaged firstly when they were able to meet the veterans, but also when they realised how much the imagery and social memory of the Second World War is used in the present - it directly influences the way we think today. The media use historical imagery all the time to manipulate people's feelings and opinions. Young people need to understand how and why that happens so they become critical thinkers, challenging the messages they are given by politicians and the media rather than taking them at face value.

AE: In history there are many sensitive issues that are difficult to talk, What we should do in these cases?

EK: I think that using historical memory as a framework can help talk about difficult and contested histories. If you recognise that every individual's memory of an event is different you then understand why there are often multiple narratives of an event, and you can start to explore why those stories are different. Recognising the process through which social memory is created, and the social and political factors at play, helps us understand why and how one version of events starts to take prominence.  However, it's a very difficult area and requires a willingness to accept other people's thoughts and feelings as valid even if you don't agree with them. Artistic and creative approaches can also help and museums and galleries have done some very interesting work in this area.


I could have said a lot more! This is a subject that really interests me. My previous blog post also covers issues to do with history and memory, and I'm currently working on an article for the Oral History Society Journal with my colleague Dr Tracy Craggs. Comments welcome on either post!


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