On the nature of memorials

Boston Marathon temporary memorial

(Photo credit: Boston Marathon bombing temporary memorial, courtesy Dylan Pech, Flickr Creative Commons)

(Note: This is a pretty long post. I count it at 2,360 words. I’ve tried to make it interesting, but if you don’t feel like wading through the whole thing I think you’ll get the gist by jumping down to the last three paragraphs.)

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” is one of the most famous poems in the English language. It has been read and analyzed by countless millions of schoolchildren. It has dipped into the popular culture mainstream many times over the years, being referenced by Woody Allen in the film “Stardust Memories,” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ cult graphic novel Watchmen, and by TV creator Vince Gilligan in a 2013 episode of the hit AMC series “Breaking Bad.” The poem’s central theme concerns the fleeting nature of fame and remembrance, even when such fame and remembrance have been commemorated in great works of art. As the poem made clear, “Ozymandias, king of kings” was a great Egyptian deserving a great monument so that all could worship his memory; yet thousands of years later the man is long gone and long forgotten, and his monument lies in ruins. Nothing lasts forever, though stone will long outlast flesh and blood. Monuments will invariably long outlast the ability or desire of generations to remember or care about the subjects of these monuments.

Clearly this is a big symbolic issue. Memorials are important in our cultural environment. We often make a big deal of them. Memorials are “centripetal,” which is to say they are supposed to build a sense of community, whether at the local or national level. They are designed to provide permanent visual markers in the world around us—representing people or events that we deem important enough that their remembrance should be passed down from one generation to the next. Organizations such as the National Park Service exist primarily to help interpret and reinterpret these memorials to new generations. But what if these memorials are not as permanent as we’d like to think?

I keep using the terms “memorial” and “monument,” and it seems as if they’re interchangeable. But technically they’re not. So this might be a good point at which to note the subtle difference between the two. Memorials can be described as any sort of public form of remembrance; they can be temporary or permanent. Monuments are always permanent. Or, as one scholar in the field notes: “A memorial may be a day, a conference, or a space, but it need not be a monument. A monument, on the other hand, is always a kind of memorial” (Levinson, 1998, p. 251). For example, near the site of the Boston Marathon bombings at Copley Square a temporary memorial was created by members of the public who wished to remember, and pay their respects to, the dead and injured from that incident in April 2013 (see above). That memorial was eventually removed. At some point a permanent memorial/monument to the Boston Marathon victims will surely be constructed. That will not be moved. It will be permanent.

So if monuments are permanent, then they should always be commemorated in the some permanent way, unchanged from one generation to the next, right? But are they? How will people a century from now view a monument we put up today? How do we react today when we see memorials from a century or more ago?

At the most basic level, when we pay attention to any of these public displays around us, we probably consider them as permanent physical objects that have been preserved to help us remember our past. That’s one way of thinking about it, but it doesn’t get at the whole story. Yes, these sites, especially the very old ones, are in one sense “preserved,” in that they’ve been kept in something like their original form for us to view today. But when it comes to the meanings we give to these sites when we think about them, these certainly are not preserved. Instead, each of us gives the monument some unique meaning at the very moment we look at it. We construct that meaning in our own heads, working on what we’ve learned and what we know culturally and socially about the site and the history that surrounds it. In effect, we socially construct the meaning of the site. I’m going to stick for now with that term, social construction. It’s a pretty useful concept here, because it gives us some clues as to how and why we as a species go to all the bother of building memorials in the first place, only to change the way we think about them over time.

All meaning is socially constructed in some way; it’s constructed in our minds, in the personal, social, cultural and mediated memories that both define us as individuals and bind us together. The media play a major and increasing role in this process. And meaning never stands still. Because our understanding of the past is socially constructed it is never static, never settled, but rather keeps getting reconstructed in light of changing present-day circumstance. Think about it. When you look at a monument, it’s a bit like looking at any other work of art: it only makes sense insofar as you can, at the moment of viewing, figure out a meaning to it—one that works for you, gleaned either from previous knowledge, personal biases, the visual cues in front of you, or supplemental information provided by a third party—say, a nice helpful park ranger. Then you have some sort of understanding of the memorial to work on, but it’s an understanding that works specifically for you; it’s incomplete, it’s conditional. Everyone else seeing that memorial goes through exactly the same process, on their own terms. Of course most memorials will give you some initial clues as to their supposed meaning, and our understanding of that monument will surely overlap in significant ways with other people’s understandings, especially if these other people are from roughly the same socio-cultural background as we are. But there’s nothing inherent in any memorial that will determine its meaning, not in your head or anyone else’s. Ask an Iranian or a North Korean who’s never visited the United States what sense he or she would make of a Civil War monument. Or ask a typical American teenager.

This would not be welcome news to the people who created such memorials in the first place. They surely wanted to think of their memorials as eternal. Whether it’s a statue, a building, a cemetery, a battlefield, a war memorial, or whatever, the creation or preservation of a particular site for memorial purposes is no small matter. It is a major commitment for a person or group to endeavor to create a public monument. It takes time, effort and money. You only do it if you’re strongly motivated and you think there will be a long-term payoff in terms of people decades or centuries hence still paying homage to the memorial and what it commemorates. Once created and placed, such monuments rarely go away. But do the meanings intended by all these monuments’ creators really stay in the minds of the ordinary people who walk past them every day, day after day, year after year? Sorry to be asking all these awkward questions, but we’ve come this far so we should press on. I’ll dig a little deeper.

Social construction operates in space, in culture, and in time. I’ll tackle the spatial part first. You can think of individual memorials as “markers” in physical space to remind us about some aspect of our communal past. Each can be considered on its own, as a single unit, though you really need to take in lots of memorials, plus other sources of knowledge, to get any sense of what any one memorial is supposed to mean. (I’ll return to this point in a minute.) The form of each individual memorial—what it looks like, what visual cues it gives, what is written on it—is important. But just as important as the form of these markers is their geographic location. The placement of a news story on the front page of a newspaper or the lead item of a news bulletin can have a major impact in how that story is received. In the same way, a memorial placed in a city center or at the front of a state capitol has a different contextual meaning from one stuck in a back street out of the way. Major memorials placed in prominent locations advertise their importance through their location, and often become landmarks in their own right. Think of the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, for example, or Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square. These types of monuments are often associated with individuals. Other memorials, especially those connected with major events or tragedies, are made important because they are sited at or close to the spot where the event happened.

Next, there’s the cultural aspect of our social construction of history: This one’s easy. Quite simply, different groups in society will interpret history differently based on their cultural backgrounds. African-Americans will often understand slavery, the Civil War or Jim Crow segregation in a very different way from whites. Native Americans will have a different view of Manifest Destiny from descendants of European settlers. (This isn’t a deterministic absolute, of course—but as a general proposition it’s pretty solid.) Even if members of all these groups can agree on a common set of historical facts—and that’s far from guaranteed—their interpretation of these facts will invariably differ. And so the way different groups react to monuments commemorating a biased selection of these facts will differ too. How do Mexicans or Mexican-Americans respond to the San Jacinto Monument in Texas, commemorating an 1836 battle that led to Texas’s forced separation from Mexico (and eventually to Texas joining the United States)? What would an African-American make of the massive Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain, Georgia, with its bas-relief depictions of Jackson, Lee, and Confederate president Jefferson Davis?

OK, let’s move onto the temporal aspect of social construction: This is where time changes everything, whether it’s Ozymandias or a Civil War memorial. We as individuals and members of a common culture will encounter these physical “markers” at different points in our lives, and (if we care) they help us give meaning to our lives and our common history as we knit them together, over time, into patterns of meaning. (In this process we’re also aided, over time, by books, magazines, interpretive guides, and other forms of media.) Because our understanding of the past is socially constructed, it is never static, never settled, but rather keeps getting reconstructed in light of changing present-day circumstances. Thus, to take one example often used by historians, the meaning of the Civil War has been reconstructed in our popular culture many times in light of subsequent conflicts, e.g., the Spanish-American War and World War I (which reconciled North and South in new common causes); World War II (which reconstructed the Civil War as “good war”); Vietnam (which shifted historians’ attention to the bloody and stalemated nature of the Civil War); and Iraq and Afghanistan (still unclear how to reconstruct the Civil War based on these most recent conflicts). Each generation seems to have a very different view of the Civil War from the one that went before. Each generation seems to want to use that war not to help it understand what was happening back then, but to help it understand what’s happening in our world right now. The basic facts of the Civil War have not changed fundamentally (though, thanks to enterprising historians, we might learn a little more than we knew previously); but what does keep shifting is the context into which we put that conflict. And that contextual shift doesn’t just affect big-ticket items like wars; it operates in innumerable ways.

So where does that leave all the monuments and memorials we see around us every day? In the United States, most public memorials are quite a bit younger than the Republic itself. In fact the key period, or “boom time” for the creation of memorials came after the Civil War. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both Northern and Southern towns and cities dedicated monuments to the memories of the dead from their communities, as a means to keep their memories alive (Levinson, 1998). (A similar thing happened in Britain following World War I.) Apart from war memorials, a vogue for statue building also developed across the United States and Europe around this time. Most of the statues in our public spaces today originated in that time period. They provided an outlet for “collective remembering” of people and places (Osborne, 2001). The purpose of these types of monuments was of course to honor the individuals they represented. The intention was usually to depict such individuals as heroes—either because of their military exploits or their campaigning on some great liberal issue of the day, such as the abolition of slavery. That was what was important to the generations that created these monuments; that was the version of history they wished to socially engineer. By constructing monuments to the memory of these individuals and events, the community (or the nation) was making a clear collective statement that they were key markers in the story of that community. This often got tied into broader ideological themes such as patriotism, liberty, and freedom.

The trouble is, these memorials, and all memorials, remain rooted to a particular time and place—the time and place of their gestation or construction. At key points in time real people lobbied for, raised funds for, and built monuments for very specific reasons and with very specific intentions in mind. But times change, and the meanings given to these monuments by their creators are invariably altered in the minds of their children and grandchildren. As new generations come along they give new meaning to these monuments. Sometimes, they forget all about them.

All these memorials to battles, great men, historic developments and so on seem like they’ll always be there, but will future generations pay any heed to them at all? That is something I’ll have to pursue further in another blog post.


Brian S. Osborne (2001). Landscapes, Memory, Monuments, and Commemoration: Putting Identity in Its Place. Canadian Ethnic Studies, 33(3), 39-77.

Sanford Levinson (1998). Written In Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies. Durham: Duke University Press.

Gerald Sider & Gavin Smith (1997). Between History and Histories:  The Making of Silences and Commemorations. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

“Facing History and Ourselves”, website, http://www.facinghistory.org/facing/fhao2.nsf/all/memorials+map?Opendocument


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