Postmemory and the importance of the family archive

September 22, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

As I write this blog, Britain continues to deal with one of those cultural and societal changes that is hard to put into context.  Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II passed away a couple of weeks ago at the age of 96, having spent 70 years as our nation’s monarch.  Like many, I am deeply saddened by her loss, and like many, have been overwhelmed by the extent of the 24/7 media coverage of the aftermath, the alleged family feuds and hitherto unseen processes that take place in the accession of the new King.  However, once the state funeral, with all its pomp and ceremony, had taken place I found myself thinking “what choice did the media have?”  I mean, as an almost 50-year-old man, I’ve only ever known life under the reign of The Queen.  Her name, image and influence has been woven throughout our culture in a way that frankly makes me feel a little lost.  From EIIR phone boxes to coins and stamps, one of the Bond films and lots of music to her many Royal Warrants, she is still everywhere.  Most of these things will naturally change over time, but for the foreseeable future, we’ll be regularly reminded of her because of these ordinary, everyday details.  

Away from the news, there have been some wonderful documentaries about her life and reign, and that was what prompted me to write this post.  One of them, called Elizabeth: The Unseen Queen, fascinated me because it comprised old newsreel footage, home movies shot by her and her family, and audio recordings of her telling her own story.  I already knew that she was a keen photographer and had seen the many pictures of her holding bespoke cameras made for her by the likes of Leica and Rollei, but I didn’t know that she used an 8mm movie camera as well.  The footage that she shot on her trusty Kodak of her young family was revealing, but also hugely nostalgic.  How could be nostalgic to someone who wasn’t even born when it was shot?  The answer is because of the concept postmemory.

Postmemory is a phenomenon where we ‘remember’ something from the previous generation to ours, whether a specific event or an emotional connection with a general time or place in history.  We cannot physically remember it because we were either not yet born or present when it took place, but the knowledge that we do have creates a virtual memory so strong, that we become deeply affected by it.   The term was first coined by Marianne Hirsch, a university academic in the early 1990s who has continued to quantify what it means ever since, through a number of historical events, most notably The Holocaust.   The horrific industrial slaughter of Jewish families, unsurprisingly left those who survived with memories that nobody else can ever truly comprehend.  These memories became stories that Holocaust survivors naturally passed through the generations in a way that would likely have been cathartic, but also driven by the need for the atrocity to never be forgotten.  Descendents of the survivors continue to pass these stories on down through the generations, each time making the retelling more personal and more alive as they told their children.  Hirsch was one such descendant, who realised that her Holocaust ‘memories’ were sometimes more vivid, more real than her actual childhood memories, which struck her as odd.  She coined the term postmemory to describe these ‘memories that aren’t’, and when I think about it, my reaction to the footage of Queen Elizabeth can be explained by this theory.  Postmemory is influenced not only by the familial stories we are told, but the images, news articles and even music of the time.  When I see footage of 1950s England, I connect with it because I have a sense of those difficult post-war years, where prosperity had yet to return, old war allies were reverting to type, the development and proliferation of nuclear technology, etc..etc…  I have this knowledge from many different sources, to such an extent that my recognition of the era is palpable.  Add to that the fact that the current royal family is instantly recognisable (even when younger) for the reasons I mentioned previously, and I found myself deeply moved by the programme.  

You don’t have to be royalty to create powerful postmemory, of course.  Alongside the personal stories that we tell the next generation, is the family ‘archive’.   When I say archive here, I really mean a collection of photographs, whether or not they are organised formally as an archive implies. When I was growing up, I naturally had a camera and took pictures of my family – Who knew?.  I wasn’t alone, though as other members of the family also had cameras and documented holidays, Christmases, Birthdays etc over the years.  In those days, we kept the prints and negatives, sometimes putting them into albums that we could take out and look at from time to time.  What we ended up with was a huge collection of pictures covering a substantial period of time, but we also had something that physically lasted.  Even if lost for a few years, we could still rediscover our prints from time to time and be reminded of those special occasions.  With the passing of time, these images act as an aide-memoire, but they take on a special significance when members of the previous generation who are in them are no longer with is.  I look at the many pictures I have of my parents when they first got married and I feel like I know that holiday or that party or family gathering with their parents, as if I were able to step into the photographs.  For me, this is why we should take pictures of everything.  

My dear old Grandad Charlie, pictured getting Christmas dinner ready several years before I was born.  My memories of him, his kindness and generosity and the house instantly transport me to that time and place

Before everyone points out that in the modern world, we literally photograph everything from ourselves to our cups of coffee, the issue with the proliferation of digital images is that, unless we print them, they stay as 1s and 0s on a hard drive somewhere.  There are questions about how long digital media lasts, because of the lifespan of the hardware that it’s stored on.  With changes in technology and accessibility (the technical interfaces between devices etc), it could be that pictures we took 20 years ago might not be available to us at some point in the future.  I find that a little scary, to be honest.   We might not be able to preserve historical pictures without some effort, but I’m not trying to argue that film is the way forward - heaven forbid.  What I am saying, is that we really should print pictures whenever we can.  They don’t have to be framed and hung on the wall as art.  They don’t even have to be that good, but just the act of being able to keep something for the next generation to own along with our tall tales, has got to be a good thing.  There are many inexpensive options for portable printers that can wirelessly connect to our phones and quickly produce high quality prints on paper or, if you like a bit of nostalgia, on instant film.   Just remember that in 50 years’ time, someone might be telling a story about you, just as with the documentary about Her Majesty.  For that postmemory to be passed on, the visuals might just make all the difference.



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