Memories & history: Paris Freed, Paris Photographed, Paris Exhibited

Earlier this year I finally decided to follow my heart (and my geek) by applying to be a history PhD student. Aside from writing proposals and interviewing, the next hurdle was to reengage with the subject after three years out of the loop. I was especially aware that I needed to connect with contemporary thinking on the uses of memory in historical research as from now on my primary source material will be oral history interviews.

Throughout my PhD I’ll be collecting, categorising and curating living memories. Considering these alongside other archival sources, interviews will weave a new picture of the historical period and become museum resources, repositories for future interest. Why continue to mine living memory when history has often already been written? Why bother to consider their representation in the wider public realm?

“What is not related does not exist. What is not at one time or another, the subject of a narrative – of history – does not exist.”

[Paul Ricouer; Pourquoi se souvenir? 1998]

These questions underpin the entire study of history, particularly when it is presented as a grand, final narrative, in effect, when history begins to be taken for granted or as fact. In my endeavour to get to grips again with these thoughts I was lucky enough to stumble upon an exhibition in Paris this summer at the Musée Carnavalet called ‘Paris Freed, Paris Photographed, Paris Exhibited’.

The exhibition showcases photography of the Liberation of Paris in the summer of 1944. A set of pioneering war, amateur and military photographers provide a window onto the lives of Parisians resisting Nazi occupation in the final days leading up to the entrance of allied troops and Charles de Gaulle. This much is conventional. But to add a significant layer to the curated narrative, it is based on an exhibition that was organised and opened to the public just months after liberation took place in 1944.

An exhibition in homage to an event that had only happened months before? As an historian I am uncomfortable with the notion that history can be summed up for good in such a short space of time. The curator, Francois Bucher’s intentions were both laudable and contradictory – he was ‘less concerned with historical accuracy’ and more with ‘immediate emotion’. Yet he also was on a mission to collect documentation on the events of 1944 for historical records.

“We have learnt from history and we have forgotten it: but it is still there it influences our judgements at every moment, it shapes our identity: it governs the birth of our values and our awareness of them.”

[Jacqueline de Romilly; Pourquoi se souvenir? 1998]

The factors undermining Francois Bucher’s mission are the same ones that face both historians and curators: risk of allowing personal prejudices to direct an historical account, painting an inaccurate picture that misleads others… Simultaneously Bucher’s aim to capture history before it was lost in the upheaval of war and demobilisation reflects our mission to preserve as much source material in order to have the richest impression of history as possible.

As a result of the Musée Carnavalet’s conscious development of these themes on historical method, interpretation, memory and fallibility, the visitor is taken on a philosophical tour to consider what remembrance means: what is memory as an immediate reaction? And how does memory morph into myth? It could not have been a more timely or relevant impetus for me as I head into the unknown territories of other people’s historical memories.

“If memory can be criticized as being unreliable, which it is, it is precisely because we expect it to be reliable.”

[Paul Ricouer; Pourquoi se souvenir? 1998]

It was a fortunate coincidence that I stumbled on this exhibition and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in war photography, the Second World War and the study of psychology in history. Open until 8 February 2015!