Cultural Memory

Cultural Memory

Cultural memory is the constructed understanding of the past that is passed from one generation to the next through text, oral traditions, monuments, rites, and other symbols.


5 - 8


Anthropology, Sociology, Social Studies, Storytelling


Indonesian Cultural Festival

Dancers dressed in sarongs celebrate a cultural festival in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia.

Photograph by Denis Moskvinov / Alamy Stock Photo 
Dancers dressed in sarongs celebrate a cultural festival in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia.

People may typically think of memory as the recollection of the past. Memory enables people to learn from past experiences and apply that knowledge in present circumstances. It is a critical part of our identity. So is culture, the way of life specific to a group of people. Cultural memory is a form of collective memory shared by a group of people. Cultural memory is often stored in objects, such as museums or historical monuments.

To understand culture, humans access a vast array of cultural symbols, such as books. Artifacts of the past provide insights into where we came from. Libraries and the internet store a seemingly infinite amount of data about what it means to be part of a culture. Cultural memory is the longest-lasting form of memory. Indeed, cultural memory can last for thousands of years.

Like all forms of memory, cultural memory has important functions. For example, it crystallizes shared experiences. In doing so, cultural memory provides us with an understanding of the past and the values and norms of the group (or more accurately groups) to which we belong. It also creates a form of shared identity and a means for communicating this identity to new members. The most powerful forms of cultural memory may involve recollections of past trauma experienced by groups of victims. For example, in Russia, their role in World War II—in which tens of millions of Russians were killed, more than any other nation—is still an important part of modern Russian identity. Because all groups have cultural memory, it can bring about a spirit of resistance or survival among marginalized or threatened groups of people.

The main function of cultural memory is not to reminisce about the past, whether it be good or bad. Rather, it is to use knowledge of past experiences to avoid making the same mistakes again and again. Aleida Assman, an English professor who has also worked on memory theory since the 1960s, calls this “remembering forward.” Cultural memory enables culture to endure; it enables people to adapt to their culture; and it enables cultures to adapt to new circumstances by retaining traces of what worked in the past.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
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Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
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Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
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Clint Parks
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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