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What the Past Knows

—Abby Smith Rumsey

CLIR’s Material Memory podcast series explores ways in which collective memory and the organizations entrusted with its stewardship are experiencing the disruptions of rapid technical innovation, accelerating climate change, armed conflict, mass movements of population, political and legal regimes that hamper access to culture, and the unintended ravages of simple neglect. The series will highlight efforts that memory institutions are taking to safeguard our heritage despite these odds. Season One focuses on people who are countering these effects by reformatting and sharing the threatened musical and oral traditions of indigenous cultures, as subjects tell their own stories of loss, recovery, and hope.

Material Memory begs the question: Why should we care? What good is the past in the present age of unprecedented challenges? What, if anything does the past have to tell us about mass dislocations, racial and economic inequality, human trafficking, political censorship, or climate change? Why devote precious resources to securing the persistence of collective memory? These are reasonable questions, and they demand an answer.

As a historian, my response is that these challenges are not unprecedented. On the contrary, coping with unpredictable and unwelcome catastrophic change to our physical and cultural well-being is how humankind has come to dominate the lands, the seas, and the skies. Furthermore, these disruptions have always been both natural and human made. That we have survived them and prevailed is due to the steady accumulation and sharing of hard-won knowledge. Collective memory tells us how to build a home out of snow; how to distinguish poisonous plants from medicinal ones; how to perform an appendectomy safely; and how to inoculate against deadly infections. Stewardship of that knowledge is a matter of life and death.

Memory that accretes knowledge over time is the key to our personal survival. Each of us has an immune system that commits to memory every encounter with a pathogen, so that we may mount a timely defense against the next assault. By the same token, individuals accumulate knowledge of themselves and their environment at every stage of their lives. This knowledge allows us to anticipate threats, recognize rewards, and engage in problem-solving through imagining various future scenarios and predicting probable results. Through autobiographical memory, we know who we are, where we come from, and what the future may hold for us. If for some reason we should lose our memory, through physical injury, psychological trauma, or dementia, it is not just the past that we lose. Given that imagination is memory transposed into the future tense, amnesiacs lose their ability to imagine. Without imagination they cannot solve the problems they face today or anticipate and prepare for those to come. When communities lose their history, they, too, lose their sense of identity and find it difficult to summon up hope for their future.

Like a good pair of glasses, knowledge of the past corrects our myopic sense that we face challenges that are unprecedented and therefore unsolvable. Problem-solving requires access to trustworthy facts and vast reservoirs of imagination and patience. It is our imagination, seated deeply within the repertoire of knowledge that cultures carry, that generates possible futures.

This season’s podcasts will share stories of people who are reaching deep into their community’s past to find, secure, and share the knowledge that has sustained them. The future of that knowledge—knowledge that is necessary to solve tomorrow’s challenges—depends upon each generation providing stewardship. Those who lament the scale of today’s challenges and insist that they are unique will discover that it is not the scale of the problems that matters, but the scale of the response to them. The richness of our cultural memory is itself testimony to how successful humankind has been in managing this precious knowledge. It is proof that our future is born of what the past knows.

Abby Smith Rumsey is a historian of ideas focusing on the creation and use of cultural memory.


Detail from Cueva de las Manos, Rio Pinturas, Argentina. The wall art dates from 13,000 to 9,000 years ago. The site was entered on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999.


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