The purpose of memory

By Gene Miller, July 2010

This edited version of a speech given recently to Heritage BC points to the link between heritage preservation and ecology.

Hello, Friends of Yesterday. Your warm response to that line reminds me of a presentation I gave to a stony audience at a public transit association conference a number of years ago entitled—“Life’s a Bus and Then You Die.”

I’m not a heritage professional and I’m not here to address matters of methodology, or heritage policy, or technique, or funding formulas. I don’t have a position on the values-based approach to heritage versus any other approach. Other folks are expert in those matters and I’m sure they are leading useful discussions in other parts of your conference. 

Also, while I recognize that heritage attracts its share of defenders of the One True Cross, I don’t think there are any “heritage nuts” in the room. Who is a nut? A woman who blames environmentalists for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a nut. People who run Wall Street like a casino are nuts. Let’s keep some perspective.

Through the work of Steve Barber and others, I’m not unmindful of your efforts or the stresses and challenges you deal with, and at the outset I want to establish a kind of bass note running through my remarks, which is unreserved appreciation and praise for the work all of you do to protect, preserve, restore heritage buildings and sites, and to educate and promote the spread of heritage values. Above that bass note, I want to develop a meditation—here I call it The Purpose of Memory—as a kind of frame for studying the tasks and opportunities facing heritage interests.

I would like to start these remarks with a very personal observation. I don’t think it’s a function of age necessarily—if it is, I was old a long time ago—but I’ve noticed for the last several years, in the middle of telling someone a story from my own past, even as the words keep rolling out, I feel a jolt and I privately wonder: “Did this really happen, or am I making it up as I speak?” In those moments I feel aware of an almost fictional relationship to my own past; and not being sure of who I was, I become momentarily unsure of who I am.

In a movie I saw recently, a character curses memory as the thing that prevents him from waking up new each day. He condemns the heaviness, the sheer weight, of the past as if it was an ever-growing shell he is forced to drag through his life.

This has relevance, and I sense that history is collapsing behind an increasingly urgent and pervasive now. I wonder: is time un-spooling differently? Are we rounding the curve faster…changing the way we watch ourselves? When I was younger, memory seemed like a compass and a means of cultural connection. Now, it’s like: Pierre Elliot Trudeau…was he before or after Charlemagne? 

Novelty seems to be a more influential cultural force, and many people are writing about this, each with his or her theory about reasons and prospects. I’m less interested in sorting these out than I am in the sheer limits of social resilience, and in identifying ways of building more safety into the system.

I had such high hopes for the recent economic implosion. As the exchange metaphors began collapsing, I imagined an American—an international—return to thrift and making do, a renaissance of modesty, a more intense appreciation of smaller treasures, a new era of community and mutuality—a national family working through hard times together. By and large, though, as the props have fallen out, America—with others not far behind—seems only to have produced new heights of ill will, a deeper distrust of and disbelief in many social and political institutions, and a desire to return as quickly as possible to the pleasures of consumption and the safety and stability that implies. I thought—and I say this badly—that we could fall back into long memory. But it turns out that the current reality model itself is too big to fail.

Take a drive with me. We’re leaving downtown Victoria, driving north on Douglas Street which becomes the Island Highway beyond the new Uptown shopping centre. We take the Sooke and Colwood exit off the highway and drive past miles of retail crud. A mile or two past Royal Roads University we turn left at Metchosin Road and cruise past the lunar expanse of the now played-out, vast gravel pit which is being steadily converted to a 3000-home subdivision.

Then, a moment later, we cross the municipal divide between Colwood and Metchosin. It’s a dramatic crossing between two completely different systems of meaning, like the adjacent landscapes of denuded Haiti and the treed, verdant Dominican Republic; and the deeper we go into Metchosin heading, let’s say, to the Lester Pearson College of the Pacific, the more we feel connected, alive, happy, calm, integrated. It’s a powerful West Coast landscape: contoured, elemental, authentic. 

Its past, present and future are all bound up together as: ecology. And if there is the possibility of a mimetic built-form expression of that condition in nature—memory-rich places that would anchor human experience—I believe that possibility lies in the creation of complete communities that do not feel synthetic in their intentions. I’ll return to this idea later.   

It’s in the setting of these thoughts that I turn to the heritage movement and to you as practitioners, and try to enlist you not simply in the historic preservation of buildings and sites, but in the larger project of memory. I want to jump past the obvious merits of preserving and protecting historic buildings and sites. These things have value and provide benefits that all of us understand intuitively. But I do want to make the link between ecological intentions and the work of heritage and preservation interests in championing the retention and adaptive reuse of buildings and sites of historical value. 

The world is in the early stages of a vast though still inconsistent and uncertain shift away from the belief that every by-product or secondary outcome in our rush to progress and an assumed quality of material life is justified simply as a cost of doing humanity’s business—the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a good current metaphor—and toward a mode of whole-cost thinking in which externalities, impacts and consequences are seen to be part of the cost equation.

For a long time, this wasn’t so, and the cost equation—literally, the basis on which value was determined—took no account of anything outside the conventions of market value. No mechanism existed to even factor human or social capital, and the word “priceless” meant both “of great value” and of “no value.” Certainly, the concept that there was value in a structure’s or a site’s contribution to community cohesion or social memory was a dim and distant idea. But the ideas of social currency and social capital are taking hold and all of you and the communities of concern who stand behind you deserve some of the credit for changing that.

It’s interesting that in tearing up the past, our society so largely lost sight of the idea of the connection between heritage and heirship, the passing down of inheritance, because we are so protective of these principles in other spheres like personal and family ownership of property, possessions and good name, traditions, customs, family and community reputation. But as I say, a new equation seems to be taking hold in which social capital—including the value of memory, and memory’s contribution to our collective well-being—is being taken more seriously.

I would like to provide an analogy that describes this shift in ways we can all understand. If someone posed the question: “How much does a car cost?” the conventional answer—yesterday’s answer—would be “I dunno, maybe $25,000, $30,000.” Today’s answer is: “Around $200,000.” Because we understand that the real “cost” of a car is its life-cycle cost, including the gas it consumes, insurance, servicing and repairs, garaging or housing, parking fees, road and infrastructure costs, the cost of energy embedded in its manufacture, the emission and climate impact costs, health costs, costs involved in its eventual demolition and deconstruction, and so on. This is new thinking. This is ecological thinking, and it takes in social costs. The idea of a triple bottom line—people, planet, profit—is only 16 years old. Ecological thinking has a central hopeful message that expresses an ecological perspective about time itself: “Don’t mortgage the future.”

I think that heritage interests are ecological champions, and I want to propose a fresh way of thinking about your work that may deepen or enlarge your sense of mission. I believe that in promoting heritage, you are also constantly re-igniting public conversation about the importance of memory in community-building. 

Your work is explicitly public and it’s about continuity and the need for an almost ecological balance between memory and novelty. All of you understand this intuitively, and I wonder if new advocacies aren’t emerging with whom you could build beneficial strategic alliances. I’m thinking of the cluster of advocacies pushing for complete communities. Also smart growth advocates and all the people who are involved in land and nature conservancy. And community farm and food security advocates. And the Canada and Cascadia Green Building Councils. Even folks on the health management side who understand the connection between human health and community well-being. A complete community isn’t simply a place where you can live, work and play. It’s also a place bound by memory and shared culture, and an authenticity.

Here’s a closing thought. Paul Hawken, at the second Gaining Ground urban sustainability conference in Victoria in 2007, said that we would be “living at the stroke of midnight for the rest of our lives.” Interesting how time creates an ultimate context. The “midnight” that he spoke of is ecological risk and everything it implies. But Paul went on to speak of hope, not doom, and he painted a picture of a vast, global effort of re-thinking, re-valuing, repair and renewal. All of you in heritage are involved in an effort of repair—sometimes quite literally—and what I see is a community of practitioners and advocates dedicated to enriching the power and the importance of memory in community life. This is a forgetful age, so we owe you great thanks. 

Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.