Is Collective Memory a Myth?

            As a Master’s of Landscape Architecture Student at Virginia Tech I have had an opportunity to develop my understanding of the dynamics of the urban landscape.  In particular, I am intrigued by the role of urban artifacts within the processes of the evolving city.  Aldo Rossi, one of the most significant thinkers in architecture during the second half of the 20th century, has suggested that the city is one of the most dynamic and least understood of human environments.  In fact, the urban landscape is typically transformed completely approximately every 40 years.  The result of this constant change is a growing number of artifacts left on the margins of development.  These objects consisting of, buildings, landscapes and even whole urban districts, are often viewed as barriers to development.  I wonder, however, if these supposed relics could possess a more active and positive role in the communities of which they are a part, and if so, what qualities might inform that stance?

            My research into the role of urban artifacts within the city has revealed a number of debates related to the definition and value of these objects.  One of the most interesting of these controversies revolves around the relationship between artifacts and memory. There is very little debate concerning whether urban objects are defined, at least partly, by memory.  Rather, the discussion focuses on  the question of the presence of a collective memory attached to urban artifacts.  Collective memory refers to the informal history of a social group and it consists of customs and/or significant historical events.

            Some thinkers who have reflected on the urban landscape, Rossi among them, have argued that collective memory is part of what defines urban artifacts and makes them valuable.  According to this perspective, urban objects give locus to collective memory, meaning the artifact is so firmly rooted in a specific place, both physically and historically, that it gives memories a defined location.  The power of monuments to evoke a specific event is an appropriate example.  Other examples are historic theaters that define an arts district or the preserved homes of historic icons. Many visitors to George Washington’s estate at Mt. Vernon have likely felt this effect.  It is hard not to sense a connection to the simpler way of life and honest leadership that those grounds represent.

            These illustrations of collective memory associated with artifacts are comforting and easy to relate to because we have all experienced them in our own communities.  This perspective is not without its critics, however.  Many Post-Modern thinkers believe that collective memory does not exist in today’s increasingly diverse urban centers.  Even Rossi conceded that individual perception of artifacts is significantly affected by contemporary culture and preference.  This argument has lost some momentum within the design world since the 1980s as interest has shifted to the global phenomenon now placed under the banner of “Green Design.”

            Outside the design professions, however, there is considerable continuing interest in this issue.  Although urban geographers and sociologists typically do not refer to places of memory as artifacts, these disciplines employ the terms fragment, archive and monument to deal with closely allied issues.  Fragments are interesting because they represent both object and void.  What distinguishes these urban objects is the fact that the missing whole of which they are a part cannot be completely rebuilt.  As a result, attaining a consistent interpretation of them is almost impossible.  Instead, individuals may create their own visions of the past through the fragments they experience.  A collage of individual interpretations, therefore, defines fragments, which do not yield the kind of common narrative that creates a collective memory.

            Archives and monuments are trickier.  The relationship between archives and memory is complicated because archives contain objects of the past deemed worthy of preservation.  Thus, these artifacts are defined as much by the culture that created them as by the objects they contain.  Moreover, the inherently narrow focus of formal archiving creates a significant problem.  Archives tend to represent past elites who had the power and resources to ensure that their version of history persisted.  Consequently, while collections represent a collective memory, that remembrance is often plagued by misinformation and omission.

            Monuments are problematic for a similar reason.  They are often initiated and constructed by social elites prescribing a certain version of history.  The result is a very clear image, but one that aligns memory with a selected historic accounting.

            Together these issues present an important question for analyzing the urban landscape.  In the case of artifacts as fragments, analysts generally agree that a collective memory is not possible because of disconnects between the culture that the fragment represents and the modern context in which it currently exists.  In the case of artifacts as archives and monuments, however, there is some indication that each creates a collective memory, but is it not always clear whether the images are fair and accurate as such overarching narratives often omit more than they include.

            This said, the question of whether urban artifacts can house collective memory remains.  The issue is not easy to address, much less answer with certainty, but the fact that such a question is being raised at all shows that elite-prescribed narratives are no longer simply accepted without consideration.  Urban artifacts at the individual level do house memory, that much is clear, and even if that collection of memories is fragmented and incongruous, those memories must have a role if the development of cities is to become both self-conscious and “sustainable.”  The exact relationship between memory and artifacts is not clear, but acknowledging their ties certainly represents a step in the right direction.

_______________________________________________________________ Burg is an Advanced Master’s of Landscape Architecture student at Virginia Tech.  He is currently using his thesis inquiry to research the role of built artifacts in the urban landscape.  Gardner’s research on urban artifacts relates to a larger interest in the social dynamics of public space which he hopes to pursue professionally after completing his Masters in May of 2013.

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