History in the Time of Covid: memory, identity and the importance of recording our history

My mother aged 16

Just think for a moment about what makes each one of us a unique individual. It’s our memories. And just think how tragic it is when we lose those, when dementia strikes and robs us of who we are. Author Julian Barnes wrote, “Memory is identity….You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.”

A few years ago I lost my mother to cancer. Yet in some ways I’d lost her to Alzheimer’s before that. I’m sure many others have gone through the same loss. As her memories went, the person she was gradually slipped away. It’s a terrible thing to happen. I remember vividly the day she looked at me and asked “What did your mother do?” “A good question!” I replied, trying not to cry. That comment however, spurred me to write a biography of her life. I contacted those who had known her at different stages of her life: growing up in India, teaching in one of the toughest schools in Glasgow, as well as in schools in London and Shetland, travelling to Bosnia in the wake of that terrible war, campaigning in local elections in Edinburgh. For a time, even as her memories gradually disappeared, looking at what she called “The Book”, helped her cope with what was happening to her, reminded her for a while of the person she had been and the life she had led. Words and images that spoke of her history, and offered brief respites from that insidious disease that was slowly but surely robbing her of her identity.

I’ve written about these issues before, but feel they’re worth revisiting because loss of identity doesn’t only apply to individuals, but also to nations. If we lose our collective memories we lose our identity as a people. What is it that makes us who we are? What are the experiences that shape and define us? The circumstances that create our beliefs and values? What are the factors that have made Scotland the country it is today; the country we call home?

Intriguing questions that lead in turn to the question of how we preserve our identity, both as individuals and as nations. How do we protect the integrity of our past, our history, our heritage? Why are some people and events remembered and celebrated, while others are brushed to one side, forced into obscurity? And why did so many of us in Scotland grow up with so little knowledge of the rich history of our own country?

In this month’s iScot article I look at all these fascinating issues and at the wealth of places that exist that make it possible for us to know more about our past and, by extension, ourselves. If we hope to create a better future for ourselves and our country, we have to not only be able to make sense of the present but also to understand the role of the past in our lives. Our history is preserved in a myriad of ways. The more we learn about it, the more we want to know. And it’s all just waiting for us out there!

Behind the scenes at the museum with Dr Elspeth King

What is it that makes us who we are? What are the experiences that shape and define us? The circumstances that create our beliefs and values? What are the factors that have made Scotland the country it is today; the country we call home? Intriguing questions that lead in turn to the question of how we preserve our identity, both as individuals and as nations. How do we protect the integrity of our past, our history, our heritage? And crucially, who is it that decides what is important, or significant enough to be preserved? Why are some people and events remembered and celebrated, while others are brushed to one side, forced into obscurity? These were some of the questions I put to Dr Elspeth King, director of the Stirling Smith Museum, and her answers were enlightening.

T.S.Smith’s remarkable painting The Pipe of Freedom, 1836, celebrated the abolition of slavery in America

A woman of great erudition and insight, Elspeth firmly believes that museums are at the very heart of our national memory: the key to knowing and understanding our identity. They hold the objects that mark the great moments in our history. The moments that had a lasting impact on our parents and grandparents and beyond. Museums preserve, display and interpret artifacts that are at the very core of our lives, our values, our passions. Our tangible, but also our intangible, inheritance. And reflect our place in the world. From local to global.

We need museums. But we need to ensure the history they portray really is our history. Museums, like newspapers and television, can be only too easily manipulated to distort history, just as they were by the totalitarian regimes of which there were no shortage during the 20th century! Yet it’s a sad truth that most countries today still have their own ruling elites, those people who use their power and wealth to influence the selection and interpretation of artifacts, to create a view of history that reinforces their own position of dominance and control.

The oldest football in the world, at home and in pride of place in the Stirling Smith Museum

Stop for a moment and just think how many national museums are littered with antiquities looted from more ancient, but poorer, nations. Antiquities stolen on an international scale by European empire-builders, with the British more often than not setting the worst example. There’s nothing noble about theft under the guise of imperial aggrandisement. It would be interesting to know whether any of these national institutions are hurrying to give back what they stole: the on-going saga of the Elgin Marbles being a very sorry case in point!

But local museums are a very different kettle of fish and more likely to genuinely reflect the history and heritage of the communities they serve. Yet they are all to often neglected and underfunded. Why? Is it because the holders of the purse-strings are exactly those people who control the decisions about who or what is important, and who ensure that it is their elitist view that prevails – whether in the world of art, music or museums?

The Smith’s very own Wine Bottle Lunette by GlasWorks

It’s a challenging situation for the dedicated staff and volunteers of local museums, and there are a lot of issues involved. But, as I hope I demonstrate in this month’s iScot article, there are countries like Estonia and Australia where museum staff are showing clearly that different attitudes are possible. There’s a whole lot going on out there! And here in Scotland, Elspeth King has been at the forefront of saving the past that really is ours from oblivion.

One country which faced just such oblivion is the small Baltic state of Estonia. They finally regained their independence in 1991 and with great joy, and amidst much celebration, opened their wonderful new National Museum in 2016 (with not a stolen artifact in sight!)  At long last, after centuries of some of the most horrific foreign subjugation, they been able to present their own history, culture and identity. And it’s not without a wonderful touch of irony that the new museum is built on the site of a former Soviet airbase!

The start of a new journey: Estonia celebrates the opening of its new national museum

In the foyer are these heartfelt words: ‘Not only the Estonian National Museum but the entire Estonian people find themselves in a new era… But Estonians have not forgotten that one becomes a citizen of the world through one’s own culture, which is why it’s important to know one’s roots. And it is not only necessary, but also interesting and lots of fun.’ Then they add these lovely, hopeful, words, saying that the creation of their own national museum is ‘the end of a long journey and the start of a hopefully even longer one.’

So, if you’ve ever wondered how you became the person you are, or why you live the way you do, or why some objects fill you with joy, sorrow or pride, or why you feel so strongly attached to the values of the country that you call home, then, to misquote the immortal bard, ‘Read on, Macduff!’, for you’ll find this article a pertinent read indeed!

Read the article here!