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Sharon MacDonald, Memorylands. Heritage and Identity in Europe Today

Dario Miccoli
p. 187-188
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Sharon MacDonald, Memorylands. Heritage and Identity in Europe Today, London: Routledge, 2013, 293 p.

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1“Memory has become a major preoccupation – in Europe and beyond – in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. […] Europe has become a memoryland – obsessed with the disappearance of collective memory and its preservation” (1): it is with these insightful words that cultural anthropologist Sharon MacDonald opens her latest book Memorylands. The book is an original investigation of the connections between heritage, identity and memory in contemporary Europe. In it, MacDonald provides the reader with numerous examples of how European identity and memory are constructed, contextualising all this in a vast and interdisciplinary methodological framework at the crossroads of history, anthropology and ethnography.

2The first half of the book concentrates on how the European past is nowadays made and narrated, felt and then sold. Having introduced the subject of her research and what she calls the European memory complex, MacDonald first illustrates how anthropologists discussed the European past in their scholarly works and in various research projects on issues of European identity and EU symbolism – from the EU anthem to imagery displayed on Euro currency. She then moves to the analysis of the relationship between history and anthropology in the study of Europe, discussing the works of renowned scholars like Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Bernard Cohn and of others who studied topics as different as collective identity in the rural Argonne region of France or post-Yugoslav Bosnian memory. Issues of embodiment, place and nostalgia are at the centre of the following chapter, where the author looks at forms of embodied and material memory, especially objects, food and homes: from gardening as a way of re-rooting memory among Greek Cypriots to nostalgia for Socialist-era commodities in contemporary Germany. As MacDonald notes, the memory phenomenon has also become a sort of business or at least has led to often-standardized historical forms produced for tourists. This is the case of the heritage centre Aros: The Skye Story, opened in the Scottish Isle of Skye in 1993 or of the Slow Food movement, founded in Italy in 1996 and concerned with the preservation of local and authentic food products.

3In the second half of the book, MacDonald analyzes specific dimensions of the memory phenomenon: museums and musealization, transcultural heritage, cosmopolitanism and lastly the future of memory in Europe. Museums are a core component of the European memorial landscape and, according to the author, museums of everyday life can be considered a powerful medium that reflects “an active ongoing intervention into past presencing” (161). For this reason, the author discusses “the musealization of folklife” (141) and various amateur and local institutions such as the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum and the Skye Museum of Island Life. The two following chapters deal with issues of transcultural heritage, with reference to migration and the changes that migrants bring about in European identity, and then Holocaust commemorations as a possible example of cosmopolitan memory. Concerning migrants, MacDonald first takes into account a controversy erupted in Vienna in 2007 –  when a statue representing a nude of a veiled woman was publicly displayed in the park of the Kunsthalle   and then the activities of museums such as the Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration of Paris, so to explain how monuments and museums could articulate new and more inclusive ideas of Europeanness. Holocaust commemorations are then interpreted as part of the larger memory phenomenon and as a sort of memory imperative for European and non-European citizens alike, that might contribute to reconfigured ways of being national. The future of memory in Europe is at the core of the last chapter, which tries to understand if today’s preoccupation with memory will persist into the future. For MacDonald, it is very likely that this will be the case, even though “new challenges will no doubt emerge in Europe’s memorylands” (235). Current debates on European identity and the role of the EU in the context of today’s economic crisis seem to confirm this suggestion, highlighting the need for a renewed sense of Europeanness, as well as for a shared yet multivocal idea of the past.

4Even though Memorylands is largely based on articles originally published as separate papers, the author managed to assemble everything in a well-readable and coherent way. Inevitably in a book on such a broad subject, and as the author herself acknowledges in the introductory chapter, some areas are covered more than others: Britain and Germany – two places where MacDonald conducted fieldwork – feature prominently, as opposed for example to Italy or Spain to which little space is dedicated. In terms of topics, I would have liked to read a more detailed discussion of the memorial legacies of colonialism, especially with reference to France and the debates on the commemoration of the Algerian War, which clearly have a profound impact on ideas of European identity and that are instead only briefly touched upon. This would have also allowed MacDonald to better clarify how the memory phenomenon is not entirely unique to Europe and the West, as comparable scenarios can be found in locations such as Israel or Morocco, as recent research has shown.

5This said, Memorylands is a timely and useful text that gives the readers a rich overview of the contemporary European memory phenomenon, while also discussing much of the scholarly literature needed in order to understand it. It will constitute essential reading for students and scholars interested in memory studies, as well as in anthropology and cultural history.

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Dario Miccoli, « Sharon MacDonald, Memorylands. Heritage and Identity in Europe Today »Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire, 118 | 2014, 187-188.

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Dario Miccoli, « Sharon MacDonald, Memorylands. Heritage and Identity in Europe Today »Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire [En ligne], 118 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2015, consulté le 21 avril 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Dario Miccoli

Ca’ Foscari University, Venice.

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