Tag Archives: memorials

Statues, Historic Preservation, & Climate Change

Doss’ discussion of statue mania seems to be linked to the larger historic preservation of the early twentieth century. Both movements were spurred by  middle and upper class anxieties about national unity because of “the rapid advance of modernism, immigration, and mass culture” (Doss 27). Historic preservation laws are aimed at saving (or recreating) certain places of American life, much as statues and memorials are meant to venerate certain people. Both create a landscape of memory for the public and each of us to interact with – or not.

Since “concepts of nationalism and national identity are cultural constructions,” and each generation has a new view on how the previous generation saved the cultural landscape, what do we do with statues, structures, and memorials that are mostly forgotten (Doss 53)? As cultural workers, do we have a responsibility to repurpose these places into the current mood of experience-based places of memory?

Alternatively, how do we save places of continued meaning from current preservation challenges? With this, I am thinking particularly of how climate change will impact historic structures, statues, and memorials. Without any action, many landscapes of memory will be lost, but saving everything would be costly and would alter the historic integrity of the structures. For my job focused on cultural heritage and climate change, my colleague and I investigated this topic here. From our research, we found that US preservation law has not quite caught up to


climate change impacts, but that states and communties are beginning to take action. This has the benefit of allowing more localized groups to make decisions on which places of memory are important to them, but also means that many communties have not formed a reaction.

Home in Galveston, TX being elevated after relocation due to rising sea levels.

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Politics of Memory Activism in Liminal Spaces

The idea of commemorating the past through a static public display or object is something that made complete sense as a child and makes less sense as I get older, perhaps precisely because my knowledge of politics and political agendas has matured (or shall I say, I’ve become cynical). If it’s already difficult to create an appropriate monument, it is impossible to create a monument that stands the test of time. Which, I guess the point of a monument is not to last forever, per se, but to last as long as it’s needed to remind people of an event. I guess also that monuments do not exist to make sense, but to emotionally appeal to a memory of an event or history. Anyway, this is how I usually (perhaps reductively) think of monuments: as physical objects. However, reading about how “protesters mobilized mainstream symbols to further alternative ends, to constitute (not just reflect) shared beliefs, and to open spaces for social change” (Sandage 138) specifically with regard to the Lincoln Memorial opened up my mind to the idea of monuments as sites of potential social change by virtue of being liminal spaces.

In “A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Memory, 1939-1963,” Scott A. Sandage defines a liminal space as being “a realm of ambiguity-and therefore of possibility-where public rituals and appeals to sacred symbols possess an unusual potency to effect both social change and group unity.” (143) Sandage goes on to describe the liminality of the Lincoln Memorial, writing, “Conceived and dedicated as holy ground, the Lincoln Memorial became…racially contested ground. By chance or design, the shrine straddled boundaries: between North and South, between black and white, and between official and vernacular memory.” (143) It’s important to remember, however, that people, not spaces, are the agents of any social change. Sandage writes, “By invoking and reinterpreting a national icon, black protesters explored the ambiguities and possibilities of American society in the mid-twentieth century. Their protests at the Lincoln Memorial were repeated, standardized rituals that evolved from experience and ultimately constituted a formidable politics of memory.” (143) Liminal spaces may indeed provide a unique space for political action, but ultimately it’s the political savvy of the activists themselves that generates change.

Works Cited

Sandage, Scott A. “A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Memory, 1939-1963.” The Journal of American History, vol. 80, no. 1, 1993, pp. 135–167., www.jstor.org/stable/2079700

Memorial Mania on College Campuses?

I’m fascinated this week by the combination between commemoration as a physical presence (in the construction of memorials, as Doss discusses) and an experiential one (in Sandage’s article on protests during the Civil Rights Movement.) It’s one thing to focus on the ways in the constructed presence or its intended narrative, as Gopnik does in his criticisms of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. However,  it’s quite another issue to think of the constructed presence as something on which we present our feelings, interpretations, and constructed legacies. While the readings this week have focused primarily on the physical constructions of representations of the past (aside from Sandage), I’m curious more directly how politics of memory influence the celebrations/protests/events that occur around the physical memorials.

There are a lot of different ways to go about this – I’ll stick with protests. Politicization of statues, buildings, and monuments has been an increasingly prevalent theme in recent years. I’m reminded of #RhodesMustFall at University of Cape Town, where students used a protest for removal of a statue to push for wider decolonization of the university. I’m thinking of the recent change of Calhoun College at Yale to Grace Murray Hopper College being part of a larger conversation around the history of slavery and reparations in prominent universities. Amherst College recently took efforts to change their (unofficial) mascot from the Jeffs, a reference to Lord Jeffrey Amherst.  Sandage’s argument places  Lincoln (and the Lincoln Memorial) as a positive piece of symbolism on which black activists projected the growing Civil Rights movement. Now, though, we see a shift to view these figures negatively, and are perhaps more transparent/explicit  in the use of these political symbols of (white) men to make connections to decolonization and racial justice.

I’m also noticing as I write this that the examples I first reach for around memory and memorialization are university-related. I’m sure that’s partially due to my own news-related biases, getting most of my information from professors and academic-minded sources. But I also wonder if that points to the ways in which universities – public and private – use monuments or memorials to establish a legacy parallel to that of a larger, national one. What’s the role of memorial mania on this campus? On any campus? And what’s the role of students, faculty, and staff to acknowledge/challenge these politics around physical constructs?