The Memory of a Nation

A recent Newsweek article writes about the new ‘Museum of Memory and Human Rights’ in Santiago, Chile, which houses the personal artifacts, letters, photographs and even bones of the thousands of Chileans who were murdered and tortured during the dictatorship of General Pinochet. The idea of a museum of memory is not new, and different countries have different memories to archive, such as the many Holocaust museums and South Africa’s Apartheid Museum.

But what is the role that museums like these play? The idea is that countries and societies must own up to the darkest periods of their past, and literally face them. In the words of ex-Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, “only injuries thoroughly cleaned can heal”. At their best, these museums are an attempt to inoculate societies against future temptations to combat terror with terror. This also brings to mind the famous quote by George Santayana that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Seeing the past for what it is

Yet the paths in confronting the memories of history are not merely roads to forgiveness and healing. They are also current struggles over who gets to write history. Many memories of the past still impinge upon the politics of the present, as rival political groups latch onto these past events to discredit, accuse or even demonize one another. Managing memories of the past is not just the task of a curator putting together artifacts and exhibits, but a political battleground for the consciousness and education of a people.

Whenever I teach my students the topic of ‘History and Politics’ in GP, I almost always hear a collective groan and I know that many will not touch essay questions on this topic with a 10-foot pole. Yet, it is intriguing to realise that the reach of History always extends into the present day. I believe that it is only when we know how things came about, can we understand why things are the way they are today, and where we should be heading towards.

How you can use this blog:

Paper 1 (History, National Identity, Politics)

Paper 2 (AQ – The importance of studying the past)

Useful quote:

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” ~George Santayana (Spanish philosopher, essayist, novelist)

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~ by irwin on May 13, 2010.

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