Clark, Anna: Historical consciousness across generations

Clark, Anna

Inheriting the past: historical consciousness across generations‘, Historical Encounters, 1, 1, 2014, pp. 88-102

Despite significant research into the meaning and operation of historical consciousness, there is still much to be understood about its hereditary function. For example, what does historical inheritance look like? How does it influence our individual and collective historical consciousnesses? And, just as critically, what happens to historical consciousness when history is deliberately withheld, when that inheritance is suspended or severed? As a way into some of these questions about passing on the past, this paper draws on a qualitative research project into historical consciousness in Australia to explore how so-called “ordinary people” see themselves as part of a historical narrative. It reveals that historical inheritance is critical to our historical consciousness, and it notes the profound impact of forgetting on participants, raising important questions about the role of “silence” and “absence” in the formation of historical consciousness. (abstract)

Asks questions like ‘what does the past mean to us?’ and ‘why do we constantly draw on history in our present lives?’ which are relevant to the study of ‘historical consciousness’ or making sense of the past, ‘a mental procedure by which the past is interpreted for the sake of understanding the present and anticipating the future’ (Jorn Rusen). There is a universal process of turning ‘what happened’ into history.

Clark writes about work in progress researching historical consciousness in five communities around Australia. The research examines ‘(1) the ways we connect to the past, and why; (2) how people engage with public and official accounts of the past, popular histories, community and family histories, as well as contested narratives; and (3) … how people see themselves in the process of historical inheritance’. Much of the work is about how stories and artefacts are passed down through families.

Clark concludes that

the stories we are bequeathed and leave behind are critical to our historical sensibility. Participants frequently explained their historical engagement as a desire to understand themselves as part of a multigenerational narrative, and many also spoke about the stories and objects they had inherited and wanted to pass on in turn. Moreover, as this research reveals, forgetting is an equally powerful agent in the process of historical consciousness, and those “memory gaps” noted by participants are critical reminders of history’s capacity to define our sense of self.

The article was delivered as an address to mark the launch of the Hermes initiative at the University of Newcastle. There is an extensive bibliography.

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