- Settling and Unsettling Memories. Essays in Canadian Public History by Nicole Neatby and Peter Hodgins
The study of historical memory has been ongoing since the nineteenth century, but in the past thirty years it has been re-theorised and has firmly become part of academic history in tandem with the rise of interdisciplinary studies. As Neatby and Hodgins note, Quebec historians were active in the field by the 1980s and those in the rest of the country engaged with it slightly later. Particularly formative influences were Eric Hobsbawm’s work on the invention of tradition and that of Benedict Anderson on imagined communities. It is a striking testament to the influence of these scholars that thirty years later many of the essays in Settling and Unsettling Memories remain indebted to their theoretical insights.
Memory is, of course, a fragile, shifting and elusive thing. Societies, like individuals, remake or refocus memory as events intrude, as social or economic priorities shift, and as new challenges and elites emerge. And for the same reasons, particular facets of memory are forgotten, or more interestingly, are first forgotten and then resuscitated. Memory is by its nature fluid, and for an intellectual era such as ours that values contingency more than certitude and multiple meanings more than grand narratives, it is not surprising that many contemporary historians focus on memory as a key way of understanding the past.
Memory studies are also important in Public History, the specialised and often unique concerns of historians working in historic preservation, museums, archives, historic sites and parks, and among others, film and television. The contributions of Public History to the field of memory studies have been significant. Neatby and Hodgins deal with this briefly in the Introduction, although their concern overall is to situate memory studies within other theoretical concerns about the construction and utilisation of memory in its social and political context. About half the essays in the volume nonetheless concern what can technically be called Public History. Lyle Dick’s analysis of A People’s History, the popular CBC television series, and Peter Hodgins’ essay on a CBC docudrama about the Halifax explosion explore how particular assumptions about Canadian history have been valorised. Similarly, Timothy Stanley’s essay on a Historica Minute about a Chinese navvy working on the CPR provides a nuanced insight into the racialising of the national narrative. Ian Radforth’s essay on the Japanese-Canadian, Italian-Canadian and Ukrainian-Canadian redress campaigns offers an insightful commentary about how these campaigns forged a single and understandable historical narrative about each group that ignored or overcame contesting ones within each community.
The medium in which history is presented, whether books, exhibitions, films, public monuments or other interpretive devices, has been a central concern of public historians, but the internet has now made it a concern for everyone. In her fine essay, Sasha Mullally [End Page 250] discusses the opportunities that the World Wide Web offers for democratising the production and dissemination of history, but notes its potential for radically remaking how history is understood and used because of the ways that hypertext links allow readers to sidestep the narrative cohesion upon which historical arguments have traditionally been built. In another rewarding essay on the presentation of history, Ken Osborne explores the forces shaping the nature, purpose and pedagogy of history education in Canadian schools since the 1890s.
The broad scope of historical memory studies is demonstrated by the wide range of topics dealt with in these essays. In his study of commercial advertising that utilised historical themes, Ira Wagman contextualises these ads within the demands created by corporate and foreign competition. Renée Hulan explores examples of how historical fiction shapes the imagining of a collective past, while Ronald Rudin demonstrates, using the case of Pierre Dugua de Mons and Champlain, how heroes were made within the religious and linguistic turns of Nova Scotia’s cultural and political history. The long term fragility of being defined as a hero is also the subject of Jason Kovacs and Brian...