The role of memories of disaster

Helena de Jong and Anne van Tilborg (Netherlands Defence Academy)

Remembering hazardous events has important value to communities. Memories of previous disasters not only inform people’s knowledge of their environment and vulnerability, it also influences their interpretation of risk and their response to future disaster. Memories of disaster may be expressed in public life in different forms, ranging from memorial plaques to myths. Over time, these manifestations of memory of disaster provide communities with the knowledge, practices and techniques to survive in a particular environment, and enable them to make sense of a disaster in recovery phase.

Memories play an important role in determining the way people respond to disaster risk, engage in disaster management practices and accept disaster relief in an emergency situation. It is therefore vital that response agencies become aware of, and accept the different logics and rationalities that people rely on when faced with disaster.

A valuable concept in this regard is ‘cultural memory’. Cultural memory ensures that meanings and interpretations of disasters are recorded and handed down from generation to generation. It provides a means by which following generations can understand, contextualize, prepare for, and recover from catastrophes.

But wat is cultural memory? When does memory become ‘cultural’?

What is cultural memory?

When does memory become ‘cultural’? To answer this question it is helpful to make a distinction between collective memory, sometimes also referred to as social short-term memory, and cultural memory, also known as social long-term memory. Collective memory is based on oral tradition, shared by the group, often the family, and tends to disappear with the death of the last eyewitness of the event. Cultural memory goes further back and is understood as a social long-term memory based (at least in part) on written and material sources (Pfister et al. 2010). By contrast, cultural memory needs to be underpinned with documents such as newspapers, archives, pictures, and monuments (Pfister 2011). Besides texts, images and rituals, Assmann argues that cultural memory may also exist in the form of narratives, songs, dances, rituals, masks, and symbols. For cultural memory to materialize, communities need to come together on certain occasions, for instance through a joint celebration (Assmann J. 2008: 109-118). Thus, whereas collective memory fades with the death of the last eyewitness, cultural memory lasts for generations.

Cultural memory is not an object of one single discipline, but a transdisciplinary word (Assmann J. 1992; Erll 2008). A broad understanding of cultural memory is “the interaction of present and past in socio-cultural contexts” (Erll 2008: 1-15). A more concrete definition is provided by Assmann who understands cultural memory as “the characteristic store of repeatedly used texts, images and rituals in the cultivation of which each society and epoch stabilizes and imports its self-image; a collectively shared knowledge of preferably (yet not exclusively) the past, on which a group bases its awareness of unity and character”.

Cultural memory is not about how the past is scientifically investigated, but refers to how we remember the past, and how we (re-)interpret certain events. This explains why it is called memory and not knowledge about the past (Assmann J 2008). Moreover, processes of remembering are selective, and subject to emotions, moralities, politics and historical -many times unequal- social relations (Ullberg 2014: 3).

In brief, cultural memory of disaster encompasses how “catastrophic events” are absorbed into history (Alexander 2000). It reveals how communities adapt their cultural reservoirs over time in light of disastrous events.

Cultural memory may be expressed in many different forms. It is manifested in practices and structures as diverse as storytelling, small talk, myths, official discourses, monuments, rituals, landmarks, and arts. A distinction can be made between tangible and intangible cultural memory.

Tangible cultural memory refers to the ‘touchable’ or visible forms of cultural memory. Memory of past disaster can for example be materialized through mnemonic tools such as museums, archives and memorials (Ullberg 2014). This tangible form of cultural memory of disaster can also be found in Dordrecht, a city in the southwest of the Netherlands that experienced flooding disasters in 1421 and 1953. A clear example of tangible cultural memory of the 1421 flood can be found in the form of a monument in the city center of Dordrecht. The monument is an inscription on the wall which states in Dutch:

‘’t land en water dat men hier ziet, Waren 72 parochien , na s’ kronyks bediet; Geinundeert door ’t water krachtig, In ’t jaar 1421 waarachtig’’

The text refers to the supposedly 72 villages that have been ruined by the water.

The city of Dordrecht

Cultural memory of the 1953 flood is also present apparent in the city. At several locations high water marks can be found on walls of public and private buildings, which show how high the water got in 1953. Such marks serve as a way to remember and compare the frequency and severity of floods over time. Another noticeable form of tangible cultural memory are the 40 photos on street corners throughout the city that portray the same street just after the flooding of 1953.

For more information on the case study of Dordrecht, see the Dordrecht Case Study Manual

Tangible cultural memory of disaster

A variety of forms of tangible cultural memory can be distinguished. First, museum collections are an eminent way of remembering past disaster, serving as important commemorative devices. Worldwide, many museums can be found with sections of their collections dedicated to a specific disaster. In the Netherlands, the North Sea flood museum, located in Ouwerkerk in the province of Zeeland, informs the public on the 1953 North Sea flood and Zeeland’s battle against the tide. The museum not only displays what happened but also focuses on personal experiences and emotions. Moreover, the museum ‘’het Hof van Nederland’’ located in Dordrecht, is an important carrier of cultural memory of both the 1421 and the 1953 flood in the Netherlands. A specific room of the museum is for example dedicated to ‘’living with water’’ and cultural memory of the flooding of 1421 can be found in the form of a multimedia reconstruction of the flood, exhibiting amongst others newspaper articles and photos on the event.

Intangible cultural memory refers to the less visible manifestations of cultural memory such as stories, myths, rituals and ceremonies, festive events and performing arts such as music and theatre. Telling stories is a well-known example of intangible cultural memory of disaster. There are many stories and myths that attempt to explain or come to terms with natural disasters. An example of how a narrative keeps the memories of the 1421 flood and its consequences alive can be found in the EDUCEN case study city of Dordrecht, the Netherlands.

In several Dutch museums, such as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Hof van Nederland museum in Dordrecht, a story is told on a child named Beatrix de Rijke (Beatrix de lucky one) who survived the flood of 1421 in the Netherlands. The story goes that her crib miraculously floated on the water because a cat kept the crib in balance. When the crib washed ashore in Dordrecht, the municipality decided to take care of the costs of the orphan girl. The story of Beatrix was first published by the city historian Matthijs Balen in his 1677 Description of the City of Dordrecht. However, an image of the crib with the cat can already be found as one of the details on a panorama of the flood by the Master of the St Elisabeth Panels, displayed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Intangible cultural memory of disaster

After a disaster, communities feel the need to make sense of what happened and search for answers- supernatural, religious, or scientific- to explain the event, Cashman and Cronin (2008) note. In an attempt to come to terms with a disastrous event, existing cosmological, ancestral, or scientific frameworks may be adapted and transformed into stories that offer myth-like explanations. The narratives often contain a merger of metaphors, heroic exploits, rumors and scientific explanations and commonly emphasize the event as the responsibility of a higher power, often a god, monster, giant, or ancestor (Cashman and Cronin 2008).

Besides serving as reminders of past disaster, museums can have an important educational function and may contribute to enhancing visitors’ knowledge on preparedness and response.

The Museum of the City of Volos (Greece) enhances cultural memory of historical events in the city’s history, including the earthquake disasters of the 1950s. However, it is not within the museum’s purposes to advance disaster risk awareness. EDUCEN makes an effort to bridge the gap between knowledge about the history and culture of the city, past disasters included, and triggering awareness and action towards disaster risk awareness and protection. Therefore, the project acted as mediator between the Museum of the City of Volos and the Earthquake Planning and Protection Organisation of Greece (EPPO). Moreover, EDUCEN pushed for the development of tools to advance visitors’ disaster awareness and to inspire taking measures towards disaster protection at an individual, family and school level. EDUCEN, in agreement with the Museum and EPPO, opted for the development of tools specifically directed at teenagers who were considered as one of the most challenging group of visitors.

More information on the Volos case study

Another well-known form of tangible cultural memory are memorials. Memorials in the public sphere are well suited to recall the memory of historical disastrous events. They serve as a place to call to mind what happened. Frequently, they also are a location where people gather in annual commemorative events. The photos below are public monuments established in memory of the devastating 1953 flood of the southwest of the Netherlands.

Memorials can take a variety of forms. The Katrina National Memorial Park for example commemorates the damage done to by hurricane Katrina to the city of New Orleans in 2005. The curving lines in the design of the park suggest the traditional spiral shape of a hurricane.

Marks on public buildings are also frequently seen manifestation of tangible cultural memory on disaster. High water marks carved on the walls of public or private buildings for example present a typical form of cultural memory. They serve as a way to remember and compare the frequency and severity of floods over time. High water marks are for example visible in the wall of the “Gartenhaus” situated on the bank of the Tauber River in Southern Germany (Pfister 2010: 9). A total of 24 marks are visible on the wall, serving as a point of comparison for each subsequent flood.

Another form of cultural memory on disaster can be found in commemorative plaques which often serve as remembrance of what happened and the lives that were lost. These commemorative plaques sometimes also contain poems. Poems present another form in which cultural memory on disasters comes to the fore. An example of an expression of cultural memory in the form of poetry can be found below. It is documented for the flood of the Drac River in Grenoble in France, 1733. The poem was published two months after the event.

The ground vanishes, the mountains descend;
Observably, brooks and rivers rise;
Grenoble and its surroundings are below a real sea;
Everything trembles, the cattle, the birds, and humans;
Grenoble, you are lost. The monster swallows you.
(Pfister 2010: 8)

Moreover, tangible cultural memory can be manifested in books, paintings, and photos, news clips and movies. As present-day disasters are more easily recorded through modern communication tools and social media, they are less prone to change over time (Erll 2008). Media technologies and the circulation of media products nowadays play an important role in the transmission of cultural memory of disaster. Moreover, mass media construct narratives about disastrous events, thereby influencing how a disaster is remembered.

Last, a less regularly seen form of tangible cultural memory can be found in the preservation of unrestored buildings. In Japan, in Hiroshima, the Genbaku Dome for example became a symbol of the destruction caused by the atom bomb on 6 August 1945. It was the only structure left standing and has been preserved in the same state as immediately after the bombing (UNESCO website), acting as strong reminder of the destruction caused by the disaster.

Examples from Iceland and Japan illustrate how such narratives continue to play a role in modern communities.

In Iceland, the consequences of an volcanic eruption are kept alive through narratives, especially in rural communities, where heroic stories about narrow escapes and bravery during an eruption have been passed on to the younger generation (Johannesdottir and Gisladottir 2010: 414). Research by Johannesdottir and Gisladottir on people’s perceptions of Katla, a sub-glacial volcano in southern Iceland, found that several legends and myths exist. The respondents in their research repeatedly mentioned two legends, the legend of Krukkur and the legend of Katla. The legend of Krukkur is about prophet from the middle ages, Krukkur, who had predicted that if the outburst flood of Katla had reached a certain place, the eruption of Katla would cease and change its starting place and erupt at sea. In 1918, the flood reached the specific place and in 1963 and 1973 two huge eruptions occurred at sea not far from Katla. Some residents then indicated that the predictions of Krukkur had proven valid and that Katla would not erupt again. In the legend of Katla, respondents refer to Katla as a female. This has its roots in a legend from the Middle Ages about a female who threw herself into a crater after a conflict with residents in the community. Soon after, there was an eruption which was seen as revenge of Katla. An eruption of Katla is seen as ‘’the return of Katla’’. In the affected communities, ‘’strong oral traditions and storytelling serves as a constant reminder of the hazardous environment they live in’’, Johannesdottir and Gisladottir (2010: 418) argue.

Another example of intangible cultural memory in this form can be found in the Japanese stories on earthquakes. According to a popular myth, the tremors of the earth are caused by restless catfish (or namazu in Japanese) underneath the earth’s surface (Bestor 2013). Namazu is one of the yo-kai or ‘’monster’’ creatures of Japanese mythology that have been seen as causing misfortune or disasters. Namazu are also found in printed form, on posters or pamphlets. The first known Namazu prints date from shortly after the Edo (modern Tokyo) earthquake of 1855. Nowadays, namazu prints can also be found on earthquake safety posters (Reitherman 2013).

Besides stories, folksongs commemorating disasters have a long tradition. The songs often share certain elements like recounting of the details of the event and the suffering of victims and survivors, and serve a common function in helping to heal society (Carr 2004). Songs also illustrate the psychological impact of disastrous events, often illustrating the relationship between the hazard and the community (Cashman and Cronin 2008).

Another example of intangible cultural memory are rituals and events like public commemorative silence. These (often national) commemorative events have become an important part of the history and identity of past and present communities throughout the world (Eyre 2007). ‘’Event specific public activities such as memorials provide a communal forum for the outpouring of intense emotions, public recognition of the collective loss, and the reassurance that the group, while damaged, continues (Hawdon and Ryan 2011: 1368). Such rituals and events are often performed on disaster anniversaries and may for example include the laying of wreaths, lighting candles, or reading the names of the diseased.

The following table provides a non-exhaustive list of different forms of tangible and intangible cultural memory of disaster.

Tangible forms of cultural memory Non-tangible forms of cultural memory
Paintings Stories/ oral traditions/ myths
Newspaper articles Performing arts such as songs, dance, puppet shows, theatre
Photos Traditions and rituals
Monuments and memorials Social practices
Landmarks Festive events
Libraries/ books Commemorative events
Museums or exhibitions  
Archives  

Why is cultural memory important?

Memories of disaster can function as an asset for communities in hazard-prone areas but also for disaster risk managers.

For communities, three main purposes of cultural memory can be distinguished from the literature:

  1. Cultural memory of disaster serves as a knowledge repository which provides communities with crucial information on the hazard and hazard mitigation.
  2. Cultural memory of disaster provides communities with response plans and may inspire the invention of strategies and practices in dealing with recurrent hazards, for example adaptations in housing and architecture
  3. Cultural memory of disaster provides people with an explanation, -supernatural, religious, or scientific, enabling people to mitigate trauma and stimulating acceptance of the event

First, it functions as a knowledge repository of historical experiences. Cultural memory in the form of a monument or oral traditions can provide communities with crucial information on, for example, precursory signs of the hazard, descriptions of the event –including specific vulnerable locations, directions, timing and duration, impact on the local population, and pre- and post-hazard changes in the landscape. It may furthermore provide information on community hazard mitigation, such as past areas of danger, safe areas, and evacuation routes. The research of Johannesdottir and Gisladottir (2008) on the village of Alftaver, Iceland, for example revealed that most residents had first-hand knowledge on the outburst of volcano and the risk of a tsunami from former residents in the area. They acquired their knowledge from their ancestors who experienced outbursts in 1860, 1823 and 1918 (Johannesdottir and Gisladottir 2008).

Specific knowledge on the presence of hazards has proven extremely valuable in the case of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean where different ethnic groups of Aceh, Indonesia were hit unfairly: whereas about 170,000 Acehnese and Minangkabau people died, in the same region, only 44 Simeulue people passed away. The research shows that the Simeulue detected the tsunami very early due to their knowledge of the environment which enabled them to escape to the mountains. Research found that their knowledge on tsunamis is rooted in oral accounts of an event that occurred in 1907 killing between 400 and 1800 people. About 85% of the surveyed population said they were aware of this event, which they learned from their parents and grandparents. Its precursory signs such as sea withdrawal had been remembered and passed down from generation to generation. After the earthquake people went to check if the sea was withdrawing, spurring immediate evacuation. In this case, oral traditions on tsunamis documented the experience of past generations and provided a means through which following generations understood what was happening (Gaillard et al. 2008).

Second, cultural memory of disaster provides communities with interpretations and response plans (Schenk in Kruger et al). This has important implications for the ways people explain an event and react to it. When remembered, memorialized and compared, experiences of disasters may for example inspire the invention of social practices and techniques in dealing with recurrent hazards. As stated by Engel et al (2014), ‘’communities living in hazard-ridden or disaster-prone areas develop an array of coping mechanisms as well as more deeply embedded practices to deal with threats and opportunities their environments encompass (…)’’. ‘’Experiencing recurrent disaster pushes communities to develop cultural strategies and practices to deal with these adverse events and ensure increasing levels of resilience’’. Historical records and architecture have provided evidence of cultural adaptations to environmental threats (See also Bankoff 2011).

Although Dordrecht was among the areas that narrowly escaped the destroying impact of the flood, several forms of cultural memory on the flood can be found in the city. Adaptation to physical hazards posed by the water has led to a range of coping mechanisms, including engineering solutions such as the well-known Delta Works. Moreover, the risk of flooding is seen in the adaptation of houses in risk-prone areas and the use of flood boards in the main street of the city. Examples of architectural adaptation can also be found in the parishes of Itteren and Borgharen in the south of the Netherlands. In Itteren, the majority of houses have built their first floors as high as, or higher than, the highest flood levels reached before the house was built (Velotti et al. 2011). This enables them to stay in their houses when the parish is flooded and keeps most of their private goods safe from the water (Engel et al. 2014). Memory thus has an instrumental value to communities as it spurs the development of problem-solving tools, serving as a community education tool, that over time proves to be valuable to surviving in a particular environment (see Schein 1999: 43, Engel et al. 2014).

Third, cultural memory on disasters provides people with an explanation. Psychological studies on the aftermath on disastrous events have shown that trauma can shake the foundations of a person’s faith and generate a search for answers- may they be supernatural, religious, or scientific. An important component of community resilience to hazards is accepting the event. Such acceptance may be realized through the adaptation of existing cosmological, ancestral, or scientific frameworks, but may also be done through creative and artistic expressions or myth-like explanations. Simple explanations, whether or not in the form of myths or superstitions, enable communities to make sense of the experience (Taylor 1999). When such explanations are not available, psychological recovery from a disastrous event may be hindered. Besides the positive aspects of cultural memory it is important to note that the search for explanations can also misinform behavior of communities or hinder mitigation measures of outsiders. Oral traditions, myths or other explanations for an event that are transmitted effectively may for example replace ‘’rational calculation’’ in a community’s response to disastrous events (Paine 2002). Moreover, people may also use cultural and historical explanations to minimize fears and to live a normal life, increasing their vulnerability. Such explanations may very well differ from scientific explanations and if not well understood, hinder adequate disaster response of disaster risk managers as we will see below.

For disaster managers, The influence of cultural memory on people’s knowledge, behavior, and ability to find explanations and make sense of past disaster has important consequences for disaster risk management practice. Communities might not respond the way disaster managers expect them to behave. Risk perceptions may be lower than disaster managers would expect due to previous experiences with disaster that did not cause much personal damage or risk. Such experiences may lead people to believe that they are safe in the case of recurrent hazards.

In the case of the Mulde river in Germany, no one seemed to have anticipated that the river could rise as high as it did in 2002. Most of the affected people had previous experience with floods but because they thought they understood the river and its variations, they could not envisage the 2002 flood (Kuhlicke et al. 2011). Memories and previous experience with hazards in the above cases led to inaccurate perceptions of risk. Such flawed perceptions could result in a lack of preparation and mitigation measures, and damage and victims that could have been prevented.

Cultural memory of disaster may also influence how people respond to disaster risk, if and how they engage in disaster management practices, and whether they will be acceptant of disaster relief.

Knowledge of the existence of cultural memory of disaster in an area may therefore provide disaster managers with more insight into community perceptions and behavior, and improve communication and interaction between disaster managers and local communities.

The influence of cultural memory on people’s knowledge, behavior, and ability to find explanations and make sense of past disaster has important consequences for disaster risk management practice. For disaster managers this entails that communities sometimes might not respond the way them expect them to behave. As stated by Dash and Gladwin (2007: 70) ‘’Although emergency managers and others assume that people will act rationally- hear a warning, realize the danger conveyed in that warning, and leave when told to do so (because the cost of staying outweighs the benefit)- more often than not, many of those at greatest risk choose not to take protective measures each time a warning is given’’. People’s protective response to warnings is a consequence of the perceptions they have. Most of the time, people evacuate and take shelter only when they find themselves being in imminent danger and if they perceive that taking action is appropriate considering the threat (Mileti and Peek 2000).

Risk perceptions often rely on intuitive risk judgements and beliefs rather than on rational deliberations, and therefore may considerably differ from risk assessments by experts. As Alexander argues ‘’decisions about whether to mitigate a natural hazard are often not a function of how dangerous the hazard is in absolute or objective terms but how dangerous it is perceived to be’’ (2000: 73). A frequently noted factor as shaping risk perception of natural hazards is previous experience with, and memories of previous hazards. Cultural memory of disaster may thus influence risk perception. Hurricane Katrina revealed that in several cases risk perception of people and judgement of their own vulnerability was low based on previous experiences with hurricanes. Memories of past hurricanes led people to believe that they rarely cause damage, dangerous flooding, or personal risk (Eisenman et al. 2007).

Cultural memory plays an important role in determining the way people respond to disaster risk, engage in disaster management practices and accept disaster relief in an emergency situation. Warning information and activities of disaster risk managers are processed through the social and cultural lenses of communities which are constructed by their particular cultural context, and amongst others, by their own experience, knowledge, and explanations of disaster. It is therefore vital that response agencies become aware of, and accept the different logics and rationalities that people rely on in the face of risk. The presence of monuments, museums, high-water marks, and stories and myths incorporated in collective long-term memory of communities may present important clues for community perceptions and behavior to disaster risk managers. Having disaster risk management informed by cultural memory and its potential impact may help to reduce misunderstandings and inefficiencies and improve communication and interaction between disaster managers and local communities.

Using cultural memory of disaster in disaster risk reduction

When disasters do not occur frequently, memories from a disaster fade away, often resulting in low risk awareness. It is therefore important to build a system that preserves disaster awareness and enables the transfer of lessons to the next generation. Already available manifestations of cultural memory can be used as a resource for disaster risk managers to improve disaster risk awareness among populations in hazard prone areas. The EDUCEN project identified several ways to identify and use of memories of previous disaster as an asset in disaster risk reduction and management.

  • Use museums and collections to encourage cultural memory awareness
  • Organize a walking tour
  • Boost cultural memory through monuments, plaques, and landmarks
  • Play a serious game on cultural memory

Read more about using cultural memory as an asset in disaster risk reduction in the toolkit

Suggestions for further reading

Engel, K., Frerks, G., Velotti, L., Warner, J., & Weijs, B. (2014). Flood disaster subcultures in The Netherlands: the parishes of Borgharen and Itteren. Natural hazards, 73(2), 859-882.

Erll, A., Nünning, A., & Young, S. B. (Eds.). (2008). Cultural memory studies: An international and interdisciplinary handbook (Vol. 8). de Gruyter.

Jóhannesdóttir, G., & Gísladóttir, G. (2010). People living under threat of volcanic hazard in southern Iceland: vulnerability and risk perception. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 10(2), 407-420.

Pfister, C. (2011) The monster swallows you. Disaster Memory and Risk Culture in Western Europe, 1500-2000.

Ullberg, S. (2014) Thinking Disaster through Memory. In pp. 1–3. Newark: University of Delaware.

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