Memories that make us: the importance of remembering
Jenny Wüstenberg, Professor
My family has a complicated history. My grandfather had to flee from Germany when his own father was murdered by the Nazis in 1933. On the other hand, my mother’s parents were enthusiastic Nazis, to the point that my grandmother died in childbirth convinced she needed to provide more soldiers for Hitler. My mother grappled with this her entire life.
My research journey
Because of my complex family history, I grew up with a sense that memory is never straightforward. As I moved from Germany to the UK, Australia, the US, back to Germany and then Canada, something became very clear to me: every country has a complicated past to deal with.
I’ve pretty much always been in education. After completing my PhD in the United States, I worked at different universities in the US, Canada and Germany, and for a historical commission investigating the Nazi past of the German Federal Ministry of Justice before joining NTU in 2019.
I am a political scientist, but now I work in a history department, so my work is very interdisciplinary. Today, I study how societies address and represent their past and how it influences their present, which is called Memory Studies. My personal background and my experiences of living in different countries have strongly influenced my research.
My mentors and colleagues in this field have also been a great source of inspiration, especially my PhD supervisor who was a child Holocaust survivor. I’m also continuously inspired by my interview partners, many of whom are ‘memory activists’, who put so much energy into making the past visible to the public.
Changing how we remember our past, and shape our future
Memory Studies is an academic field studying how people make sense of the past in the present. Memory Studies and remembrance policies have been shaped by historical events like the Holocaust, World War I and World War II. As a result, government memory policy has traditionally focused almost exclusively on how humans make sense of extreme, violent and sudden events like acts of terrorism, genocide or disasters.
Our cultural practices to remember these events include creating memorial sites, marking days on the calendar, and producing cultural engagements that reflect our attention on these extreme events as reference points for public memory.
Through my research, it's become clear that society has not found a similar, evocative way of addressing historical, gradual change and slow violence – which we call Slow Memory. This includes things such as climate change, structural racism or shifts in gender relations. This is problematic, since slow change can often be as devastating and traumatic as armed conflict or genocide.
Now is a very exciting time for Memory Studies. We are seeing more and more examples in the news of how established historical narratives are being challenged by society. The Black Lives Matter protests brought this to the forefront by targeting racist and colonial statues, and questioning why we still have monuments that celebrate racist and undemocratic legacies.
Addressing our planet's biggest threat
My most pressing concern right now is that we need to address the current environmental emergency. I think culture and slow memory are key to this. Rationally, most people know we need to change the way we live and do business. But for some reason, the message is not getting through.
Attending to this slow memory matters, because if we do not recognise and make an affective connection to the forces that impact the way we live with the planet and each other, we can neither find ways to reconcile with historical injustice nor devise effective collective action to address the most serious threats to our future.
To address this, I have started a collaborative EU-funded project called ‘Slow Memory’ together with wonderful colleagues from over 40 countries. We are investigating how we can organise society and pressure political and economic leaders to act on these long-term challenges, even when they may seem unimpactful in the short term. We also want to explore whether public memory can be useful for democratisation and environmental action.
I also recently attended the UN Biodiversity Summit in Montreal to speak about Eden Portland, a memorial project which mourns extinct species and brings awareness to the mass species extinction that is currently happening. This represents a cultural way of getting the public and policymakers’ attention and could help us to protect endangered species against future devastation.
Follow my story
My story doesn’t end here. Keep up to date with me and my research by keeping an eye on my academic profile, my website, or following me on Twitter: @JennyWustenberg. For anything else, please feel free to email me on email@example.com.
Jenny is a Professor of History and Memory Studies in the School of Arts and Humanities, and Director of the Research Centre on Public History, Heritage and Memory (PHHM). She is spear-heading efforts to conceptualise and evidence “Slow Memory” as an approach to understanding and remembering slow-moving transformations.
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