Remembering the past: why we should listen to our parents

Peace Memorial Hiroshima

Have you ever stood in a gallery and instead of staring at the artwork, been more intrigued by the reactions of the other visitors? It’s easy to appreciate when looking at something as subjective as an abstract painting that each observer experiences what he/she sees in their own way; one man’s masterpiece is another man’s garbage.

Lest we forget

But perhaps we’re less inclined to notice these differences when we visit historical sites and are presented with cold, hard facts. War memorials, battlefield sites or sites of atrocities such as concentration camps appear on the face of it to be less open to subjective interpretation. There is after all, a strong focus in most cases on the recounting of actual events, of passing on an important part of our history to the next generations.

And yet the different ways in which these sites are experienced is far more dramatic than in any museum or gallery. How we view our history changes from nation to nation and perhaps more sharply from generation to generation. An old man wandering through a London museum with his grandchildren might stop and stare at an old wartime photo. The child might perhaps recognise a famous landmark that still stands in the city today. The grandfather on the other hand is likely to experience a flashback to a time and place where he experienced the same scene through his own eyes.

While the 20th century brought unprecedented technological progress, for much of the world it also brought great trauma, with tens of millions killed in wars and many more displaced and moved against their will from their homelands. Travel the world today and you’ll rarely be far from the scene of a tragedy that is marked by a memorial or museum. Most of those who come to visit these sites were not alive at the time of the events they commemorate, yet they visit through a curiosity to learn about the past. In many cases these sites have become part of the established tourist circuit.

For the majority of us raised in the last 60 years, it’s hard to appreciate just how lucky we are. We have never known what it feels like to be thrown out of our homes at a moment’s notice, to see our communities wiped out, to scavenge for food and see people we love die from starvation. We have lived through what is the most peaceful and prosperous time the world has known.

Keeping the past alive

As the years roll on the stories that the memorials and museums depict will continue to be told, but the numbers of those who are able to recall them at first hand are inevitably dwindling. Our parents and grandparents are the custodians of many priceless anecdotes and epic adventures that form an integral part of who we are.

I am forever grateful that my parents were willing to record their wartime journeys for us to keep. These stories are more incredible, more relevant and more personal to us than anything that the best museum could put together. Whatever else is done in the wider society in remembering the past struggles, we should not miss out on the chance to learn from those who are closest to us. After all, once the older generation have left us these stories will be forever lost.

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

3 Responses to “Remembering the past: why we should listen to our parents”

  1. In my city there is an archive with audio files featuring people telling their stories going back to the first half of 20th century. Their tales are mostly unobjective but they often describe matters historians haven’t figured out yet.

    March 21, 2012 at 9:42 am
  2. I’m guessing you mean Westerners when you use “us” in this article – a very interesting piece of writing. The ideas you’re wrestling with remind me of a book called “State Repression and the Labors of Memory” by Elizabeth Jelin – you should definitely look into it, as she goes very deep into this idea of different people experiencing monuments and memories differently.

    March 25, 2012 at 8:52 pm
  3. Seeing monuments and other memorials is often powerful, but it’s also amazing to hear stories of the past from the people who actually lived it. Great post!

    March 29, 2012 at 10:07 pm