Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Lest we forget.....(or how to remember disaster)

I am from a small suburb, in a large conurbation- once it was an isolated village. One of the only contemporary signs of its rural past is the village green at its centre. Located on one corner of this green is a modest memorial recording the names of the fallen in WWI & WWII.

Gatley War Memorial. 

So far, so normal; a sight repeated thousands of times up and down the United Kingdom, from small sites like the one above to large cenotaphs. Humans are definitely good at commemorating our deceased, creating a cultural memory of our recent history.

When it comes to naturally triggered disasters, a flood, a storm, or such we are much less likely to build a memorial, commemorative statue, or monument than for fallen comrades. Yet creating an inter-generational memory of such events is often important for a community's survival. Knowing that X Street is liable to flooding in the spring, or that old farmer Joe's field has never been built on because it is susceptible to sink-holes can save time, money, and most importantly life.

Traditional methods for creating such generation to generation memories of disaster have long existed from folk stories & songs, nearly every major world religion has a "deluge" story, to simple flood markers such as those dotted around Paris which show the height of the 1910 floods.

The entrance to St Margarets Church, Kings Lynn. 
Source: Baxter (2005)

The above picture shows one such flood marker in Kings Lynn, Norfolk (UK)- highlighted are the water levels from floods in 1953, the worst natural disaster in twentieth century Britain, and almost a foot above this marker the level of the less well known 1978 floods. Clearly showing the importance of such a regional memory, reminding locals the area surrounding this church has had water higher than the national disaster of 1953 which claimed over 300 lives.

While flood markers and other traditional methods of commemorating and remembering disaster still have a role within society I am fascinated by attempts to modernise the collation and creation of such memories. A great example of such a project arrived in my inbox the other day.

Quake Stories is a website created by the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage which allows users to log on and record their memories of the Canterbury earthquakes which devestated Christchurch and the surrounding region in late 2010 and early 2011.

One man's quake memory (follow the link for the full story)
Source: Quake Stories

This website, like others used in recent large scale disaster, serves a great purpose both for the immediate cathartic needs of the afflicted communities but also in the long term creation of a cultural memory of events.

Whether the modern method to commemorate disaster using a website will prevail as long as a traditional folk tale or the markers in St Margarets Church remains to be seen. Although hopefully they will as the project is partnered with Christchurch City Libraries and the National Library in an attempt to ensure the stories are preserved beyond their etheral existence in cyber-space.

More of a worry than how long these memories of the earthquakes will last, is whether future generations will heed their lessons. For in Kings Lynn only metres away from markers which commemorate the level and frequency of past floods- are shops, homes, and businesses built by almost every generation since the church was constructed some 900 years ago.

A cultural memory of a disaster is important. Heeding its lessons can be imperative.


  1. A nice post. I think that the sheer volume of what is recorded may be a problem in the future for historians. It does, however, give fantastic dimension and a variety of perceptions and impacts.

    As regards to the flood markers, one of my favourites is Perth Bridge, in particular the differences in the engravings with the older ones fading over time.


  2. Thanks Stuart.

    I hadn't come across the Perth bridge one before, I'm compiling a list of flood markers around the UK, so will add it to my list!