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Britain's Collective Memory of Churchill

Info: 5564 words (22 pages) Essay
Published: 5th Sep 2017 in History

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How has Britain’s physical heritage shaped the collective memory of Churchill?

This chapter will discuss the concept of collective memory, why people remember certain aspects of history and how changing interpretations of the past shape the meanings and functions of heritage. Therefore, by assessing these features we can assess the purpose of the invention of the image of Churchill. By addressing these factors, this chapter will answer the questions: Why is a particular interpretation of heritage being promoted? Whose interests are being advanced or held back? In what kind of milieu was that interpretation communicated?

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Historians have frequently discussed which characteristics of the past make it beneficial to people. For example, first, history is essentially depicted as progressive in terms of evolutionary social development. Secondly, societies attempt to connect the present to the past in an unbroken trajectory through the use of various types of heritage, such as monuments or museums. Thirdly, the past provides a sense of termination in the sense that what happened in it has ended, while, finally, it offers a sequence, allowing us to locate our lives in linear narratives that connect past, present and future – it gives a full and completed story, without any uncertainty – which is why it is often reassuring. Once these traits are translated into heritage, in terms of identity, it provides familiarity and guidance, enrichment and escape. More compellingly, it provides a point of validation or legitimation for the present in which actions and policies are justified by continuing references to representations and narratives of the past that are, at least in part, encapsulated through manifestations of tangible and intangible heritage. Heritage is most commonly, used to promote the burdens of history, the atrocities, errors and crimes of the ‘past is not the past’ that are called upon to legitimate not only the atrocities but also the everyday politics of the present.[1]


Heritage is a highly political process, it is malleable to the needs of power and therefore, is often subject to contestation and manipulation. Shared interpretations of the past, are used to construct and develop narratives of both inclusion, and exclusion.[2] Heritage is constructionist, therefore concerned with the selected meanings of the past in the present. This suggests that the past in general, and its interpretation as history or heritage, discusses social benefits as well as potential costs in the construction and reproduction of identities.[3]  Which is precisely why the way in which the image of Churchill is conveyed matters. If Churchill is being presented to the public as a flawless leader it can vastly affect how communities define themselves and their principles. Heritage is the selective use of the past as a resource for the present (and future), memory and commemoration are inexorably connected to the heritage process.[4] It is either a personal or institutional interpretation of history, therefore, the fact that institutions are picking the way in which Churchill is presented on a heritage level suggests that they have an agenda for this particular portrayal.

Heritage is a highly politicised process that is subject to contestation and bound up in the construction, reconstruction and deconstruction of memory and identity. Memory always represents a struggle over power and is thus implicated in the ‘who decides?’ questions about the future.[5]

Thus, the image of Churchill is being used to legitimate the politics of the present. By giving the image of Churchill an ‘iconic status’ the politicians of the present are attempting to build what could be considered as a ‘broken trajectory’ i.e. to develop a cohesive identity amongst the public that will support the institution that is in power. This aspect of course is harmful, because by using the figure of Churchill, a white upper-class male, known for using offensive (racist) terms for minorities (to say the very least) and glorifying him as a national hero projects a very bad image and encourages people to believe that this behaviour ought to be revered as in the case of right-wing nationalists.

The conception of heritage originated at a national scale and it still remains very much defined at this level. Nationalism and national heritage were both developed in nineteenth-century Europe. The idea of a ‘national heritage’ was fundamental to the idea of the nation-state as it required national heritage to consolidate national identification, absorb or neutralise potentially competing heritages of social-cultural groups or regions, combat the claims of other nations upon its territory or people, while furthering claims upon nationals in territories elsewhere.[6]

[Heritage is] [t]he promotion of a consensus version of history by state-sanctioned cultural institutions and elites to regulate cultural and social tensions in the present. On the other hand, Heritage may also be a resource that is used to challenge and redefine received values and identities by a range of subaltern groups.[7]

Notions of power are central to the construction of heritage, and consequently identity, giving weight to the argument that heritage ‘is not given; it is made’.[8] Those who wield the greatest power, therefore, dictate or define what is remembered and consequently what is forgotten.  Memorial icons of identity such as monuments, memorials, and buildings that have been invested with meaning, carry conscious and subconscious messages and are subject to competing interests. Their very public visual presence translates powerful ideological messages that are never politically neutral, and ensures that the messages they convey are open to contested interpretations.[9]

Those with the most at stake in political terms, and those with the greatest ability to exercise power, have a vested interest in the production of sites of cultural heritage and bring the past into focus to legitimise a present social order. It is an ‘implicit rule’ that participants in any social order must ‘presuppose a shared memory’ which is integral for a group or communal solidarity. The meaning of any individual or group identity, ‘namely a sense of sameness over time and space’, is sustained by recalling the past; and what is remembered is ‘defined by the assumed identity’.[10]  Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Churchill is a prime example of this. He has a vested interest in the maintained reputation of his grandfather and therefore seeks to bury any that attempt to besmirch Churchill’s reputation. Leaders use the past for a variety of political purposes. The nation’s heritage is therefore brought to the fore ‘to calm anxiety about change or political events, eliminate citizen indifference toward official concerns, promote exemplary patterns of citizen behaviour, and stress citizen duties over rights’.[11]

Buckley supports this view: ‘the question as to which symbols will define any given situation, will largely be determined by the practical question of which people and whose interests predominate’. The selection process is carefully tailored and manipulated by individual members of a community or group with power or influence.[12]

As sites of civic construction, they instruct citizens what to value concerning their national heritage and public responsibilities.[13] Such sites represent and embody power, greatness, resistance, memory and loss.[14] [Churchill is useful as to the public he possesses all these attributes] Monuments, for example: ‘[m]ark the great pinnacles of human achievement selected from the past, they give an edifying sense that greatness was once possible, and it is still possible. They provide present generations with inspiration’. Citizens re-enact and repeat the past in fixed locales as suggested by their national governments.[15] So for anyone to suggest that Churchill was not as brilliant as stated leaves the public lacking a role model to aspire to be.

Heritage, not only serves to reinforce narratives of national identity but often works to supress the identity of minority or less powerful groups.[16] [As Churchill’s legacy does, he is a figure of war]

‘Heritage inevitably reflects the governing assumptions of its time and context. It is always inflected by the power and authority of those who have colonised the past, whose versions of history matter’.[17]

There are many problematic positions within Heritage, the most relevant in this case being ‘Uncritical Imperialism’. There is a sizeable body of opinion that does not see any serious problem with the legacies of imperialism and race in heritage, and acts to validate it; a formation we might crudely label as ‘uncritical imperialism’. This can take various forms. For example, it can appear through simply ignoring, or airbrushing, imperialism from the heritage narrative in question. [This is precisely the type of people that subscribe to the reputation of Churchill]. Uncritical imperialism can also take the form of being outraged at any attempt even to raise difficult issues over heritage and ‘race’.[18] – If these imperialist legacies are not dealt with i.e. they are overwhelmingly denied, repeated and acted out, rather than worked through it legitimises nationalism and is harmful.[19]

In domesticating the past we enlist [heritage] for present causes… [it] clarifies pasts so as to infuse them with present purposes’ [20]

heritage is often used as a form of collective memory, a social construct shaped by the political, economic and social concerns of the present.[21]

Heritages are present-centred and are created, shaped and managed by, and in response to, the demands of the present and, in turn, bequeathed to an imagined future.[22]. As such, they are open to constant revision and change and are also both sources and results of social conflict.[23] Heritage may comprise no more than empty shells of dubious authenticity but derive their importance from the ideas and values that are projected on or through them.[24] Heritage is a cultural product and a political resource.[25] Heritage’s primary purpose is to invoke a sense of identity and continuity.

Heritage as communication

(Modernity attempted to fix space through the creation of rigidly territorial nation-states, promulgating ideologies which attempted to subsume differences through representations of homogeneity. But all too often, the grail of universal conformity has produced atrocity and genocide as those who do not fit have been driven out or eradicated. Heritage is heavily implicated in these processes as a medium of communication of prevailing myths and counter-claims.[26]

Consumption of Heritage

Heritage is used or ‘consumed’, what is consumed within heritage is its representation in the form of a historical narrative. Agents spend time, money or other resources on the production or reproduction of such historical narratives, in order to have them consumed as heritage. As the spending of resources is involved, it is logical that participating agents will have a specific purpose – heritage narratives are not produced for nothing or for fun, but in order to, for example, preserve cultural values, attract tourists and tourist spending, or to reinforce specific place identities. The narratives convey the meanings of the heritage commodity, and as such take part in the processes of deliberately (or accidentally) creating place identities:

[A] major outcome of conserving and interpreting heritage, whether intended or not, is to provide identity… There may be other purposes as well, such as legitimation, cultural capital and sheer monetary value, but the common purpose is to make some people feel better, more rooted and more secure.[27]

The general public lacks background heritage knowledge such as the fact that these emblems of heritage that are being shown are only specific interpretations of history.

Monuments, museums, and other memorials – they inscribe ideological messages about the past into the many practices and texts of everyday life, making certain versions of history appear as the natural order of things.[28]

A monument is ‘a structure, edifice or erection intended to commemorate a person, action or event’.[29] In contrast, definitions of ‘memorial’ focus on the preservation of specific memory and on their iconographic role in evoking remembrance. While the monument has often been built to promote specific ideals and aspirations e.g. statue of liberty etc. The memorial is essentially a retrospective form, idealising a past event, historic figure or deified place.[30] Monuments and memorials reassure non-combatants and relatives that the dead had died for a greater cause, one linked to abstract values of nationhood, camaraderie or Christian citizenship. Honouring the placeless dead – is this what Churchill is? An icon for the placeless dead ‘anchoring’. The ideas are always solidified in the ‘discourse of big words’ – ‘heroism’, ‘gallantry’, ‘glory’, ‘victory’, and very sparingly – ‘peace’.[31]

Military memorialisation has become ‘rationalised, routinized, standardised’. The dead are no longer allowed ‘to pass unnoticed back into the private world of their families’. They were ‘official property’ to be accorded appropriate civic commemoration in ‘solemn monuments of official remembrance’. Equality of sacrifice.[32] Churchill’s legacy is tied to war so if he becomes disgraced – it disgraces families.


A major factor behind the decisions on how heritage related to Churchill is presented is identity. Therefore, to assess why particular aspects of Churchill are presented to the public, we must also understand why the concept of identity is the driving factor behind the presentation of heritage and then from that information, assess what the message is behind the portrayal of Churchill through heritage and what institutions would like you to feel from their portrayal of Churchill (What feelings and emotions are they trying to evoke? Who is it that decides what is displayed and why are they trying to make you feel this way? What do they gain?).

Tosh argued that for any social grouping to have a collective identity, it has to have a shared interpretation of the events and experiences which have formed the group over time: ‘as in the case of many nation states, emphasis may be on vivid turning points and symbolic moments which confirm the self-image and aspirations of the group’.[33] Which is what the image of Churchill is a prime candidate for. These collective beliefs play a fundamental role in securing a sense of togetherness and cultural solidarity which is vital in the formation and legitimisation of any national identity.[34] National cohesion, in other words, requires a sense of collective awareness and identity endorsed through common historical experience. Unofficial memory is often seen as a binary opposite to national or official memory.[35] The popularised image of Churchill fits the message that the institution is trying to get across to the nation very well.

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During the 1990s, it was fashionable for theoreticians to argue that identities were becoming ‘disembedded’ from bounded localities and the traditional frameworks of nation, ethnicity, class and kinship. At the core of such ideas lay the key assertion that global networks have diminished the importance of place and traditions, ruptured boundaries and created hybrid, in between spaces. In a sense, this is encapsulated in the idea that national heritage can be reconstructed as world heritage because certain sites and practices are of universal significance. – the effect of Brexit reverses this. Hybridity and transnational identities may, for example, counter and complicate nationalist ideologies.[36] The resurgence of Churchill’s image to the fore-front of the media may be a result of the effects of Brexit. After approximately 40 years of developments in a globalised identity amongst those in what is now called the EU is disintegrating, the emphasis on characters that were seen as typically ‘British’ heroes is on the rise – hence Churchill.

In a world in which identity is fundamental to politics and contestation at a global scale, understanding the means of articulating often vague feelings and senses of belonging becomes quite crucial. Heritage in its broadest sense is among the most important of those means, even more so because identity can no longer be framed primarily within the national context that has so defined it since the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Not only do heritages have many uses but they also have multiple producers. These may be public /private sector, official/non-official and insider/outsider, each stakeholder having varied and multiple objectives in the creation and management of heritage.[37]

Sites of memory and power are often constructed in public spaces, where they can operate as dichotomous sites of unification and sites of division.[38]

Territoriality and its relation to identity

Churchill is also used to justify a sense of territoriality. Also inherent in the production of sites of cultural heritage is the concept of territoriality. Memory is intimately bound up in efforts to construct territory and place.[39] Territoriality is synonymous with notions of a demarcated geographic space (a territory) which usually contains some kind of homogeneous, collectivised community sharing a collective identity or heritage.[40] Territoriality is often needed to stabilise and mobilise groups or individuals and their resources inside demarcated boundaries. Within societies then, various groups insert symbols into the cultural landscapes which resonate with their sense of heritage and identity, and which simultaneously incite remembering and mark territory.

For territoriality to work, the group often places visual warning symbols around the agreed territory further to deny others access into the home area which is precisely why using the image of Churchill is harmful, particularly after Brexit as it only justifies his racist stance and therefore validates neo-fascists ideals. Not only does territoriality demarcate boundaries which are ultimately intended to exclude outsiders, but it is dichotomously aimed at seizing a shared public space and thus controlling those inside the territory. Flags, for example, which often reflect the heritage of a particular group or nation, are good examples of territorial signifiers. They tell outsiders that the territory they are about to enter or pass is not theirs. Rather it belongs to those who live within the demarcated boundary or to those who empathise with what the flag represents.[41] The purpose of using Churchill is to help encourage nationalism, and therefore an ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude.

Spatial practices which bolster and sustain the power of the dominant group are essential components for that group’s control over the hegemonic values that it represents or imposes.[42] That dominant group is often the nation-state. Tilly, for example, argues that secure territorial boundaries and a monopoly of violence are the two defining characteristics of the present day state. Territorial boundaries are the foundations for institutions such as national sovereignty, citizenship, the modern welfare state and democracy.[43]

The interlinked concepts of nationhood and statehood share a dependence on the notion of exclusivity concerning sovereign rights over access to territory. The notion that landscapes embody discourse of inclusion and exclusion is closely linked to the idea that manipulated geographies also function as symbols of identity, validity and legitimisation.)[44]

The continuing importance of territoriality and its seemingly intractable relationship with the nation-state at the turn of the century has been questioned. globalisation embodying transnational economics, politics and cultures, the melting of borders, particularly in Europe, and an increasing sense of belonging to a ‘global unit’, has led to a distinct lack of engagement with the unitary nation-state.[45] [However, this will be reversed with the effect of Brexit and nationalism will rise].

Histories that are white-washed are streamlined by the rise of nationalism and its cultural solidification through what Hobsbawn and Ranger termed ‘the invention of tradition’.[46] It also impoverishes our collective understanding of the past, of the rich and complex mix of the multiple travels and flows of people that have worked in a multitude of ways to shape us all.[47] – it gives rise to a sense of superiority and nationalism.

The reason that identity is important when assessing heritage is because identity is about sameness and group membership and central to its conceptualisation. Which is a relevant concept when discussing the reasoning for the specific portrayal of Churchill. Douglas argues that ‘identity is expressed and experienced through communal membership, awareness will develop of the Other…Recognition of Otherness will help reinforce self-identity, but may also lead to distrust, avoidance and distancing from groups so defined’.

Public and National memory

Memorialisation was a way to stake one’s claim to visible presence in culture.[48]

‘Places’ that constitute significant sites which have been invested with meaning. They are locations with which people connect, either physically or emotionally and are bound up in notions of belonging, ownership and consequently identity. Part of how you define yourself is symbolised by certain qualities of that place.[49]  This idea is taken forward with both Chartwell house (Churchill’s estate) and the Churchill war museum. These buildings linked with Churchill are designed to prompt these particular emotions – *Insert findings*

National memory is frequently thought of in conjunction with official memory that, in most societies, emanates from the state and its institutions, often representing the hegemonic needs and values of the general public. The state is usually the official arbitrator of public commemoration and, therefore, of nation heritage, and as such, it assumes responsibility over planning, maintaining and funding memorial monuments, programmes and events.[50]

[Which is precisely what Churchill is used for, he is not just an icon- he himself is also a symbol to the families whom lost kin in ww2 which is why very few criticise him (or are even allowed to) as to insult Churchill is to insult the nations kins and suggest that their ‘sacrifice’ was wasteful and not justified, the hagiography of Churchill gives credence to this sacrifice  therefore he is undefeated – but this is possibly why there is an increasing amount of criticism building about him – as family members related to soldiers who died become fewer there is less emotional attachment to the character of Churchill – as **** says maybe once those with living memory of Churchill have passed we can finally have a genuine reassessment of Churchill the man rather than tackling a god].

In post-memory, memories are passed down through generations to be represented by people who have no personal attachment to the memory. Subsequently, they seek to re-use, re-enact and e-represent those memories in order to feel closer to their ancestors.[51] hence why those who do not possess living memories of Churchill will still feel so strongly about the condemnation of his character. ‘Emotional memory’ has also been used to describe the transgenerational remembering of the traumatic events.[52] Yet what all of these typologies of memory have in common is the fact that they are attached inexorably to certain places. Sites of cultural heritage, therefore, such as buildings, monuments, plaques, museums and gardens of remembrance, incite our memories and reinforce our attachment to particular places.[53]

Remembering and commemorating the past is an essential part of the present and is important for a number of reasons. Without memory, a sense of self, identity, culture and heritage is lost. Through remembering, identities are validated as well as contested, and the adoption and cultivation of an aspect of the past serves to reinforce a sense of natural belonging, purpose and place.[54] Identities and memories, like heritage, are inevitably selective in that they serve particular interests and political ideologies in the present.[55] Americans and Europeans are compulsive consumers of the past ‘shopping for what best suits their particular sense of self at that time.[56]  This idea fits very well in the post-Brexit world as there seems to be a lot of ‘cherry picking’ in terms of Anglo-historical figures in order to gain a cohesive outlook after the Brexit result and to provide people with a sense of purpose in a time of relative uncertainty.

Histories are consequently ‘bought’ to conform to the latest fashion. Memories are seen as selective and partial and used to fulfil individual, group or communal requirements of identity at a particular time and in a particular space: ‘Times change, and as they do, people look back on the past and reinterpret events and ideas. They look for patterns, for order, and for coherence in past events to support changing social, economic, and cultural values’.[57] Subsequently new, more appropriate, histories are ‘invented’:

Invented traditions are normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inoculate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past.[58]

[Churchill was from a period in which the public last felt relevant on the public stage].

Tosh suggests that social groupings require a narrative of the past which serves to explain or justify the present, often at the cost of historical accuracy. He states: ‘memories are modified to suit particular situations or circumstances and do not always correlate with historical truths’.[59] Histories can become distorted and permeated (often deliberately) with inaccuracies and myths during the selection process, making the act of ‘forgetting’ in memory construction just as crucial for the cultivation of identity.[60]

Interpretation is predetermined by the social, economic, political and/or local context. Societies justify current attitudes and future aspirations by linking them to past traditions which helps bond and unify factionalism.[61]

temporal representations as part and parcel of their drive to implant and reinforce their hold on society’.[62]

Heritage – statue of Churchill, Westminster. House of Commons – mid stride, hands on hips old. Oscar Nemon

Statue of Churchill in Parliament square – old big coat, walking stick- him as was at Yalta ‘where my statue will go’ – it’s grade II listed.

Churchill in terms of heritage and masculinity

Heritage predominantly tells male-centred story, which seeks to promote a ‘masculine’, and in particular an elite-Anglo-masculine, vision of the past and present. The links between heritage and identity are often taken for granted – we protect, manage, interpret for visitors, and visit heritage sites because they are, in some way, symbolic of our identities. Material heritage and in


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