Agricultural Memory in the European Union

From the backyard tomato patches of ordinary gardeners to the bucolic meadows of alpine folk museums, the world is crisscrossed with powerful connections between memory, food, and place. With the rise of industrial farming in many parts of the world, the genetic makeup of the food supply—the root of these memories, meanings, and of sustenance—shrank substantially over the course of the 20th century, and continues to be seriously threatened. But even as countless apple varieties have vanished permanently from the face of the earth, and cattle breeds that numbered in the tens of thousands in the 1920s are now gone forever, in many parts of the world, people work to preserve the biodiversity and “genetic heritage” of the plants of the kitchen garden. Furthermore, a growing number of people work to convey the importance of these nearly-forgotten plants and animals in the gardens of Europe’s open-air folk museums, the tourism-oriented gardens of monasteries and aristocratic manor houses-turned museums, as well as in the show gardens of networks of people committed to preserving agricultural biodiversity. I set out, then, to study the ways that rare seeds and historical kitchen gardens become carriers of agricultural biodiversity, but also representations of the past, and bearers of local, regional, national, and European identity. I will conduct a systematic comparative analysis of the themes presented to the public in these gardens—is there an on progress or tradition, nostalgia or biodiversity? Does national identity prevail, or do regional or even supranational registers of identity and memory seem to be prevalent?

While I am a sociologist, this project, like most of my previous work, takes an interdisciplinary approach. The project proposed here draws on cultural sociology and neighboring disciplines, including European ethnology, contemporary history, cultural geography, and museum studies, addressing ongoing debates about collective memory, culture, and European identity as well as food and agricultural biodiversity. Drawing in part on Jay Winter’s call to pay close attention to the agents of memory (in this case, the curators, gardeners, and seedsavers) as well as to the region or locality alongside analysis at the national level, I turn to a carefully selected set of comparisons in order to chart changes and continuities in the narratives conveyed over time and across space. These places offer a window into shared understandings, interpretations, and representations of the past, and—importantly—into a given polity’s visions of its future.