This article develops theories of collective memory by attending to the everyday practices and meaning-making involved in creating and sustaining sites of heritage. While research across disciplines linked to memory studies has increased in recent years, with a notable sociological contribution, as yet ethnographic understandings of how collective memory is produced and maintained through locally situated and embedded practices are not fully realized. Our research took place in the village of Six Bells in the South Wales Valleys, where living memory of a coal mining disaster in 1960 and coal mining itself are slowly disappearing. One of ways in which the people of Six Bells are remembering and commemorating this past is by giving their narratives and artefacts to the community’s ‘heritage room’ as gifts. This form of remembering, prompted by an extraordinary event and the rapid social change associated with deindustrialization, produces and sustains legitimate representations and imaginaries of the past. By developing anthropological understandings of gift exchange, we propose that these practices are one visible component of the claims to authenticity and the bestowal of value active in the memory work of everyday life. We attend to three interrelated characteristics of gift exchange to develop our argument; the importance of the personal in producing authenticity through the gift relation; the provenance and social impetus of the act of giving; and the systems of reciprocity generated across and between generations, which work to assign value to the gift itself.
Published: February 2019