British Culture – Differentiating Between History and Memory


Written by Ophir Barak

“What we remember as a society derives in the end from the kind of society we are and reflects the kind of society we want to be”.

These are the words of eminent historian, Richard Evans, whom in a recent article entitled “the history wars”, discusses the distinction between history and memory and why for centuries, society has struggled to differentiate between these two entities.

Though the message behind Evans’ words date all the way back to the start of modern civilisation, the message undoubtedly continues to be relevant in the world we find ourselves in today.

Britain is an ever-growing diverse and multicultural nation, shaped by its vast and cultured history. To preserve and commemorate this history, over the years, public statues, monuments and memorials have been built. This is done with the hope that they will continuously remind society of the glorious nation Britain once was, how that has shaped the society they live in today and instil in them a desire to help maintain this status of glory into the nation’s future. This is essentially the phenomenon of cultural memory; it forms links between the past, present and future, through statues, monuments and memorials, to help us understand why our world is the way it is today.

The most prominent example we see today, is the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. Created in 1895, the statue was built to commemorate the merchant Edward Colston, who made the bulk of his fortune from the slave trade and as the director of the Royal African Company. He used this fortune to support hospitals, schools and workhouses in England. Up until his statue was very recently toppled due to the supremacist ways in which he made his fortune, Colston was mostly remembered as a philanthropist who helped improve the functioning of English society.

There has also been pressure to take down the statue of Cecil Rhodes, another “philanthropist”, who made his fortune from employing African workers in his diamond mines and claimed that the Anglo-Saxons were the “first and most elite race in the world”. Rhodes used his fortune to set up scholarships to Oxford University for foreign students who were deemed as part of the “elite Anglo-Saxon race”.

I presume that the people who toppled and defaced the Colston statue and those who have been pushing to take down Rhodes’ statue, thought that by doing so, that this would help erase these histories. And once these statues have been taken down, or once some grand and meaningful actions have taken place, the message of racism they present seem to get left behind, only to be spoken of again when another cycle of racial injustices occur. Unfortunately, it is these thoughts, misconceptions and actions that have had detrimental effects on British society.

Many people seem to think that through grand actions like taking down statues mean that you’re effectively erasing history. Well that’s where they’re wrong. You’re not erasing the history of these historical figures you’re erasing the negative memory that today’s society has created for them.

Contrary to popular belief, statues, monuments and memorial sites aren’t necessarily about the past, but are about the recognising the values that exist in the world today, through the historical figures that supposedly created and/or embodied them, that are in statues.

History is the study of events, periods, people and methods of the past. Studying it as an academic discipline involves reading the facts and drawing your own interpretations and conclusions from it. And regardless of how positive or negative a certain historical period, figure or method was, it can never be erased. Memory is a lot more personal- it is about how you choose to view and remember the historical period, figure or method based on the facts that history has supplied you with.

And this is what many people don’t know, and the very fact that they don’t know this, has led to issues that have had detrimental effects on our society. The ways in which history is sometimes presented and taught in schools is one of those issues. Schools and universities generally present history as a matter of categorizing figures and periods as either angels or demons. And that’s where they fall short and misunderstand the purpose behind teaching about the past. The underlying purpose and aims behind teaching history is to understand how and why certain events happened or how and why people pursued certain actions, and the effects those events and actions had on society at that time and what they mean for the society we find ourselves in today.

So, to those of you who thought that such grand actions like toppling statues would erase history, I would encourage you to think again and look into the real purpose behind the study of the past and to really try and understand the distinction between history and memory. Only then will we be able to discover the true meaning and effects of such grand actions and understand that such actions won’t properly help us understand our past or resolve present issues.