The Importance of Collective Memory, in Latvia and Beyond

    by Victoria Fine
    December 6, 2011

    While the holiday season gears up around the world, we at the Tiziano Project are throwing ourselves into the festivities by kicking off three new programs on different continents. We just began the remote component of a new training in Palestine, as well as an after-school program in South Central Los Angeles. Finally, our team hit the ground in Riga, Latvia just in time for Thanksgiving.


    The Christmas market in Riga.

    Our Latvia program is a dramatic change from our usual digs — instead of teaching in rolling blackouts in 130-degree heat, we’ve had the delight of kicking off our program in two castle-cum-classrooms, to three groups of highly motivated Latvian high schoolers.


    As we stroll the Christmas markets on the way to school, we’ve been delighted with how beautiful it is here, but we’re also fascinated by Latvian culture and history — things that, until now, we didn’t know much about.

    Latvia is working hard to define itself as a vibrant state out of the shadow of the Soviet regime. But as with any new democracy, there are still old wounds, dramatic stories, and powerful lessons of perseverance that hum under the rote actions of everyday life here.

    Our program, launched in conjunction with The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and The National History Museum of Latvia in Riga is designed to help Latvian students learn more about their own history (our students weren’t born until after the dissolution of the Soviet Union) and to help students both in Latvia and in the U.S. learn more about each other.


    capturing stories

    We’re in Latvia to help them capture their stories, of the country as it was 20 years ago and today.


    The Lizums Secondary School, by Tiziano Project Mentor Harmonie Tangonan.

    I was reminded powerfully of the importance of this mission recently as we rambled through the city to see the Christmas lights on display. Riga is the self-proclaimed birthplace of the decorated Christmas tree. (Don’t ask residents of Tallinn, Estonia about this though; they’re in a competition to claim this particular fame!) However, during Soviet times, while countries around the world blanketed their town squares with lights and people gathered in their homes around trees of their own, Latvians were forbidden to celebrate Christmas, especially with the quintessential symbol they had invented. In the last 20 years, the tradition has returned, but, as our local counterpart told us, it still feels foreign and geared mainly toward holiday tourists.

    This strange disconnect from history made me also think of a story we did in Iraq about how farming, which originated in the fertile crescent, is quickly disappearing from the country that pioneered it.

    So often, we take our traditions, inventions and customs for granted. It is in situations like these when we are reminded that but for our collective memory and the people who work to record it, we stand to lose even the most meaningful symbols of our times.

    So, from The Tiziano Project, we wish you the happiest of holidays and ask that while you busily prepare for your own festivities you take the time to notice the things that are most meaningful to you in your own lives and preserve them for future memory by passing your stories on to new ears.

    Museums & Community Collaborations Abroad (MCCA) is made possible by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and is administered by the American Association of Museums.

    At the Table: Connecting Culture, Conversation and Service in Latvia and the US was funded [in part] by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.

    Tagged: christmas collective memory customs holidays Latvia stories tiziano project traditions

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