Topical Introduction

This module will examine the variety of ways in which monuments, memorials and other forms of public commemoration are used to tell stories about the past and influence memories, culture, and politics in the present day. We will take a comparative perspective, using readings and case studies from a number of different societies and cultures. The readings for the class will highlight the complexity of processes of commemoration and memorialization. Although designers of monuments and memorials may portray them as telling the “true” version of historical events, the end results often hide controversies that may have been part of the process of creating these structures. Similarly, the meanings attached to monuments and memorials can change dramatically over time, as societies change and these structures are reinterpreted through new lenses. This module will also invite students to grapple with broader questions regarding the relationship between power, politics, and the (often contested) authority to articulate a “true” version of the past.

Some of the questions we will be exploring are:

1) What groups, institutions, or individuals are given the authority to design and build memorials and monuments? How is this connected to culture and politics, and to the way in which a particular society is organized? Whose opinions, views, and histories might be ignored in the construction of a memorial or monument?

2) Who is the intended (and actual) audience for a particular monument or memorial? Are monuments and memorials usually designed with a national audience in mind, or can they be built with other audiences in mind? (across empires and global communities, within local settings)

3) Do monuments and memorials require a fixed, permanent, and specific physical place in order to be meaningful? In the age of the Internet, is it possible to have memorials and monuments that operate without being attached to a particular physical place?

4) How do states and governments use monuments and memorials to promote an “official” view of history? How might minority, marginalized, or victimized groups use monuments and memorials to challenge the “official” view and offer their own interpretations of the past?

5) How do monuments and memorials provide a society or group with an understanding of war or other acts of violence? How might monuments and memorials be used to promote peace and reconciliation efforts in the aftermath of war?

6) Is it necessary for monuments and memorials to give a singular version of events? Is it possible for a single monument or memorial to express multiple, even conflicting, interpretations of history?

This list of questions is not intended to be exhaustive: it is my hope that you will develop your own questions (and arguments) from the readings to add to this list!