December 4, 2013

Why Do Old Places Matter? Memory

Access the rest of the Why Do Old Places Matter series.

Old places help us remember.

Like many people, my earliest memories are of places—a pasture on our old farm where I napped in the warm sun until a cow licked me, and the dining room of my grandfather’s house where we watched President Kennedy’s funeral cortège. Simply seeing a place again may bring back a flood of memories—whether it’s the Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village, which I frequented in my 20s, or the Davidson College Library where I pored over architectural history books as a teenager. "Old buildings are like memories you can touch," the architect Mary DeNadai tells her granddaughter. It’s a succinct explanation of how old places—our homes, libraries, schools, barns, and parks—seem to hold and embody our memories.

Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village, New York | Tom Mayes/National Trust for Historic Preservation

Most people experience this connection between memory and place. The connection was acknowledged by John Ruskin, who wrote in The Lamp of Memory about architecture, "We may live without her, and worship without her, but we cannot remember without her." But how important are places to memory? Does preserving old places—and the memories they represent—matter? Do the individual and collective memories embodied in old places help people have better lives?

"Memory is an essential part of consciousness," says Randall Mason, chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at the University of Pennsylvania, talking to me about the large and ever-growing topic of memory studies. Philosophers, psychologists, writers, geographers, sociologists, and historians have written, studied, and theorized about memory, from Proust (yes, that famous madeleine that triggered memories of, what else? a place) to Freud to French historian Pierre Nora, who coined the term Lieux de Memoire – "Sites of Memory." Among the thousands of books, studies, and essays on memory and place, many analyze or critique the way memories are shaped or manipulated, including how historic preservationists and others choose what places to preserve and why. Yet, even taking into account the criticism of what we preserve and why, most of these writers seem to support what the geographers Steven Hoelsher and Derek Alderman refer to as the "… inextricable link between memory and place."1 Places embody our memories, even when those memories are contested or controversial. As Hoelsher and Alderman put it, "What … groups share in their efforts to utilize the past is the near universal activity of anchoring their divergent memories in place."

The Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool remind people of shared memories of national events | Sam Kittner

Places are key triggers for both individual memory, such as those very personal memories I recalled above, and collective memory, the memory shared by the larger society. Diane Barthel, in Historic Preservation: Collective Memory and Historic Identity, captures the relationship between individual memory and collective memory in a discussion of religious buildings: "Religious structures play a specially significant part in the collective memory as places where moments in personal history become part of the flow of collective history. This collective history transcends individual experiences and lifetimes."2 One need only think about important national sites to see the blending of the two types of memory and how they are tied to place. How many of us remember something both about ourselves and about us when we see the Lincoln Memorial and its reflecting pool, or images of the World Trade Center?

People writing about memory have described the mechanisms that drive the connection between place and memory. Places serve as mnemonic aids—they remind us of our memories, both individual (coffee at the Caffe Reggio), and collective (marches at the Lincoln Memorial), but they also spur people to investigate broader societal memories they don’t yet fully know. Pierre Nora writes, "Memory takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images, and objects.…"3 Environmental psychologist Maria Lewicka refers to studies that discuss “historical traces” and “urban reminders.” As she states, "Urban reminders, the leftovers from previous inhabitants of a place, may influence memory of places either directly, by conveying historical information, or indirectly—by arousing curiosity and increasing motivation to discover the place’s forgotten past."4 Old places seem both to trigger memories people already have, give specificity to memories, and arouse curiosity about memories people don’t yet know.

And why is this "place memory" important? In an earlier post, I wrote about continuity—that old places contribute to a sense of continuity that is necessary for people. Memory contributes to the sense of continuity. Memory also gives people identity—both individual identity and a collective identity. As Hoelsher and Alderman put it, "Whether one refers to 'collective memory,' 'social memory,' 'public memory,' 'historical memory,' 'popular memory,' or 'cultural memory,' most would agree with Edward Said [who stated] that many 'people now look to this refashioned memory, especially in its collective forms, to give themselves a coherent identity, a national narrative, a place in the world.'"5 This sense of identity provided by memory is largely what defines us as individuals and as a society. (Look for a future post on the topic of identity.)

Memories and identities are often contested. We see people argue over the meaning of old places—a restored southern plantation house, which may or may not acknowledge the painful memory of slavery, a battlefield that may or may not present the memory of both the victor and the vanquished. People have different approaches about how places should be remembered. They argue over memorials, from the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial to the World Trade Center. The history of an old place may be viewed differently over time—and interpreted and reinterpreted as our conception of who we are as a people changes.

The Confederate memorial in Cornelius, North Carolina, was spray-painted and then cleaned. Old places serve as flash points for our changing national identity. | Tom Mayes/National Trust for Historic Preservation

But here’s the key point. The fact that these arguments occur highlights the importance of the place. Regardless of conflicting points of view,the place itself transcends a specific interpretation. The place is the vortex, the common ground, the center-point, and the focus where divergent views about memory can be felt and expressed. The continued existence of the place permits the revision, reevaluation, and re-interpretation of memories over time. As Paul Goldberger, the architecture writer and critic, said to me in an interview in July, the continued existence of the place "…allows new memories to be created." Preservationists often think of historic sites from the viewpoint of significance for architecture or design. Yet architecture critic for The New York Times, Herbert Muschamp, wrote, “The essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory. Compared to the place it occupies in social history, a landmark’s artistic qualities are incidental."6

People may ask (and they have), "but won’t the memories survive even if the place is gone?" Yes, memory sometimes outlasts the place. I remember still the smell of the kettle of hot tea on the stove of my grandmother’s house in North Carolina on Christmas Eve, though the house has been gone for many years. Memories can survive if places disappear. But memory—collective or individual—will not prove as durable—nor as flexible—when that vortex of memory, that mnemonic aid, that urban reminder, that historical trace—the old place—is gone.

I would love to hear about the places that you think embody individual or collective memory, or those that are particularly prone to competing interpretations.


  1. Hoelsher, "Memory and place: geographies of a critical relationship,"Social & Cultural Geography, 5, 348. (2004).
  2. Barthel, Diane, Historic Preservation: Collective Memory and Historic Identity, Kindle Locations 1199-1200.
  3. Nora, Pierre, Between Memory and History, Les Lieux de Memoire.
  4. Lewicka, Maria, “Place Attachment, place identity, and place memory: Restoring the forgotten city past,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 28, 211, 214 (2008).
  5. Hoelsher, 348-349.
  6. The New York Times, January 8, 2006.

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Tom Mayes, chief legal officer and general counsel, has worked on the full range of National Trust legal issues since he joined the National Trust in 1986. He received the National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize in Historic Preservation in 2013 and is the author of the book Why Old Places Matter. @thompsonmayes

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