Using cultural memory as an asset in disaster risk reduction

Helena de Jong (NLDA)


This section discusses how cultural memory can be used as an asset for disaster risk managers in improving disaster risk reduction and disaster risk awareness among populations in hazard prone areas.

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. 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. When memories of previous disaster are recorded and handed down from generation to generation, and when they enable the understanding, preparedness and recovery practices of disaster for following generations, we may speak of ‘cultural memory’.

Knowledge of cultural memory of disaster in an area may provide disaster managers with more insight into community perceptions and behavior, stimulate the integration of local knowledge and capacities into disaster risk reduction, and lead to enhanced interaction between disaster managers and local communities.

For more on culture and memories: LINK Section I: Culture & Risk, Chapter 3: Culture and memories

Literature review and EDUCEN case study research on cultural memory of disaster in Dordrecht and Volos identified several ways to use memories of previous disaster as a resource in disaster risk reduction:

  1. Link with museums on cultural memory
  2. Organize a walking tour on cultural memory
  3. Play a serious game on cultural memory

The three methods have been applied in EDUCEN case studies. The methods can be combined and are suited for all age groups.

Museums can provide a good starting point for working with cultural memory of disaster. Education is considered one of the most important activities in learning to deal with disasters. Museums are commonly used by the public and therefore particularly well suited to teach people on disaster. Particularly well suited for cultural memory of disaster are museums dedicated to specific disastrous events, or museums with sections dedicated to such an event. Such museums enable their visitors to rediscover the experiences of previous generations in their area and can be used to encourage problem-based learning and interactive teaching. Museums’ strength is that they can be both entertaining and educational.

An example of a museum that uses cultural memory to enhance disaster risk awareness is the Dutch Watersnoodmuseum which has as a mission to ‘’remember, learn, and look ahead’’. The exposition has a strong focus on education, awareness raising, and information and tries to link the experiences from 1953 to current insights on water policies and practice ( In disaster museums, using audio, visual, virtual, and physical activities such as simulations and virtual tours are suitable to enhance cultural memory of disaster and increase current disaster risk awareness.


  • Explore whether there are museums on previous disaster in the area
  • Find out what collections on previous disaster they have
  • Are they interested in including interactive elements?
  • Are they open to using a serious game and/or a walking tour on cultural memory (see other tools in this section)
  • Provide them with the EDUCEN information on organizing a walking tour and serious game on cultural memory

EDUCEN application: Linking with the Museum of the City of Volos in Greece

The Museum of the City of Volos addresses the history of Volos through a collection of black and white photos, documents and oral histories of the city from the 1800s until the present day. The exhibition is structured around critical events in the city’s history with an important section dedicated to the earthquakes that hit Volos in the 1950s.

Photo of the earthquake section of the Volos city Museum exhibition, taken by an EDUCEN member

Despite the Museum’s vital role in maintaining cultural memory of the earthquakes, it is not within its purposes to advance disaster risk reduction. The EDUCEN project has therefore been collaborating with the Museum 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 reduction. In its quest to do so, the project acted as mediator between the Museum of the City of Volos and Earthquake Planning and Protection Organisation of Greece (EPPO). One of the activities that EDUCEN engaged in was the development of a tool to advance Museum visitors’ disaster awareness and to inspire taking measures towards disaster risk reduction at individual, family and school level.

Teenagers were considered by the Museum as one of the most challenging groups of visitors. EDUCEN, in agreement with the Museum and EPPO, therefore opted for the development of a serious game on cultural memory which specifically deals with cultural memory of disaster in the city of Volos. The material for the serious game will be made available not only to the Volos city Museum but will also be disseminated to schools in Volos.

More on the serious game on cultural memory of disaster can be found below, and in chapter 5.3: Using games to foster empathy, experience, learning

Organize a walking tour

In many areas with a disaster history, indications of the disaster can be found in the environment. Manifestations of cultural memory can for example by identified in the form of memorial sites, monuments, or landmarks such as high water marks on buildings. Moreover, adaptations in building styles or urban planning can be identified. Such expressions of cultural memory of disaster may well be used as an asset in disaster risk reduction. A method that specifically deals with these tangible, or ‘touchable’, forms of cultural memory of disaster a walking tour which can be used to enhance disaster risk awareness and disaster risk reduction. Moreover, a walking tour is a useful exercise for participants to get a feeling of the impact of previous disaster and the potential effects of future hazards.

To begin with, it is important to identify the different forms of tangible cultural memory of disaster present in the city.

More on tangible cultural memory of disaster.

When the different forms of cultural memory of disaster are identified, a route for the walking tour can be determined. The route may include areas and locations such as: monuments, memorials, landmarks, or adaptation of houses and the environment. Photos of the area in the period just after the disaster, or during in the case of floods, as well as discussions with eye witnesses may also help participants to discover the experiences of previous generations. It is even more valuable when eye witnesses of the previous disaster can accompany the tour. This may not only empower individuals to seek more information for use in the planning of effective mitigation strategies (see Bradford et al. 2012) but also ensures knowledge transfer and learning between community members. Moreover, a walking tour may be useful in identifying potential danger zones.

Vital to the success of the cultural memory walking tour is the presence of a tour leader that knows the area, the city’s history with disaster, and the story behind the cultural memory signs.


  • Identify different forms of tangible (‘touchable’) cultural memory of disaster in the area. Cultural memory can be found for example in the form of monuments, landmarks, signs on buildings or bridges, or photos present in the city. This is best done in cooperation with community members or the municipality
  • Identify the route
  • While walking, stop at the different sites and discuss experiences
  • If possible, invite eye witnesses of the disaster to accompany the tour
  • If available, bring photographs that show the same area you are walking in, only during or after the disaster

EDUCEN application: Walking tour on cultural memory in Dordrecht, the Netherlands

In the EDUCEN case study of Dordrecht, walking tours are used to show the impact of flood disasters in the history of the city, and current measures taken to protect the old city. Dordrecht’s city center is over 800 years old, and has been influenced by the water all along. This is clearly visible in the design and construction method of the houses. Many houses have a raised floor, so only the basement will flood during high water, and there is also much in cultural memory, such as monuments or “ flood stones” which indicate the height of previous floods.

EDUCEN organized a walking tour for participants in the EDUCEN Final Conference which took place in March, 2017. Participants visited several cultural memory sites and the different prevention and preparedness measures that the inhabitants in Dordrecht take themselves were shown. The tour gave an overview of the varied measures that are in place, some that are hundreds of years old. Large photographs and images were used to show different parts of the city during floods, so visitors were able to see the impact of a flood on the area they are walking in.

The walking tour that was used is available to the public as well and is guided by municipality officials who know the city center. The route is also available online so people can walk the route themselves. Normally a group consist out of 10 to 25 people, with one guide who brings a large folder with photographs and images (A3 so clearly visible). In general the tour receives very positive feedback, as it is much more memorable compared with a normal presentation on flood preparation and preparedness in the city, and it allows people to see for themselves, how the water has shaped the city center of Dordrecht for over 800 years.

For an example of what elements could be included in a walking tour, visit

Cultural memory walking tour during EDUCEN Final Conference, March 2017

Cultural memory walking tour during EDUCEN Final Conference, March 2017

Playing a serious game on cultural memory

Very well suited for transferring knowledge of previous disaster and risk awareness are serious games. ‘’Serious games are designed to support learning and raise awareness of important issues’’ (Boyle et al. 2014, Pereira et al. 2014 in Mossoux et al. 2016). Games have a positive contribution to the learning process because they are experimental: the players can experience complex situations and test new strategies without having to deal with the real consequences of their decisions. Serious games furthermore create a fun environment which facilitates debate between people who are not otherwise brought together. For these reasons, serious gaming as a learning approach can be particularly relevant in using cultural memory as asset in disaster risk reduction.

EDUCEN application: playing the serious game on cultural memory in Dordrecht, the Netherlands

The EDUCEN project has developed several serious games, amongst others, one on cultural memory of previous disasters. The serious game on cultural memory confronts the players with the history of a city that experienced a serious disaster in the past. The Cultural Memory Game is a board game that builds upon the memory of past catastrophic events to increase disaster awareness and preparedness.

The game content can be adapted to the situation of different cities. The game specifically targets school students, museums, and youth, takes about 60-90 minutes, and can be played with up to 32 persons.

The serious game on cultural memory has been piloted during the EDUCEN final Conference which took place in Dordrecht, the Netherlands in March 2017. Two serious gaming sessions were organized: one tailored to the city of Dordrecht, the Netherlands, and the other one to the city of Volos, Greece.
How to organize a serious game on cultural memory? For information on how to play the serious game on cultural memory can be found here.

Playing the serious game on cultural memory of disaster during the EDUCEN final conference in March 2017

Playing the serious game on cultural memory of disaster during the EDUCEN final conference in March 2017