At a Glance
Approach monuments and memorials as "thought objects," says James A. Percoco. Instead of using them to teach only about the historical events they memorialize, look at how they memorialize those events, who erected them, who designed them, and how they've been related to and used by the community since their erection. Monuments and memorials are living pieces of history, not static markers on a timeline.
Teaching with Monuments and Memorials
- Monuments as Thought Objects
- Places of History
- Contemporary Context
- Monuments as Thought Objects
- Places of History
- Contemporary Context
I have used monuments really successfully in teaching. And not just the monuments here in Washington, DC, because whenever I go any place, I take my camera and I take pictures. We've got monuments to everything. We've got monuments to politicians, we've got monuments to war heroes, but we also have monuments like the one in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to newspaper boys, we've got monuments in Lowell, Massachusetts, and in Manchester, New Hampshire, to the mill girls. We have monuments everywhere, and anytime a monument is created, whether it's in a small community or on the grand stage in Washington, DC, there's almost invariably problems with it, because that monument may mean one thing to one person, but it may mean something entirely different to another person.
I think our monuments to the Civil War are a classic example of this. You know, after the Civil War, monuments sprouted up both north of the Mason-Dixon line and South of the Mason-Dixon line. To both Union heroes and Confederate heroes. Clearly, one knows by looking at the record that it's true, the North won the war but the South won the peace in terms of the record of public memory. But we're twenty-five years past the Civil Rights Movement, and now those monuments mean something else. So what do those monuments mean? What do we do with these monuments? Do we tear them down? Do we take them apart? Or do we interpret them?
One of the more interesting monuments that I've worked with with my students is in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. It's the monument to Hayward Sheppard. He's a stationed baggage master who was a free black, who was the first man to fall victim to John Brown and his raiders. It's a great ironic tale. Raiders come in ostensibly to liberate the slaves, lead a slave insurrection, and the man they first shoot is a free black. Well in the early part of the twentieth century the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans raised a memorial to Hayward Sheppard. It's a very controversial memorial because it's very paternalistic, it's loaded with racial assumptions, it, it's really very denigrating in some ways yet we still have this and depending on the prevailing winds of time, there've been times when the monument was boarded up because the park service didn't want anybody to see it and then there's been times when it's been out for the public to see. And I think what the park service has finally settled on is that we're going to interpret the monument as a marker of American memory. It reflects a time and place in America that says more about the UDC and the Sons of Confederate Veterans than it really does about Hayward Sheppard.
So monuments are great objects to teach. The German word for monument is "denkmal," which means "thought object." And you really have to engage monuments. They're meant to be encountered, and the great artists understood how to get the people that were looking at the monument into the monumental space to view the monument and to understand their place in terms of the monument.
Monuments, they’re also places of history. The Lincoln Memorial was originally meant as a memorial to not Lincoln the Great Emancipator but to Abraham Lincoln the Preserver of the Union. And by virtue of the fact of using that as a fulcrum or a place to continue the process of reconciliation between North and South, it then became, without any intention on the part of Henry Bacon, the architect, or the sculptor Daniel Chester French, a place of history. Where in 1939, Marian Anderson goes and gives her concert there on Easter Sunday because she is denied singing in DAR Constitution Hall or in DC public school because she is black. Same year, 1939, Frank Capra makes that place, the Lincoln Memorial, the setting of the critical pivotal setting of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In fact if you read Capra's memoirs, if you read his autobiography, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a movie about Lincoln. It's a movie rooted in the morality of Lincoln. 1963, Dr. King uses it—not just Dr. King but the leaders of the March on Washington use it as a place to put forward their position on jobs and equality. So, not only is the Lincoln Memorial a monument but it's now a place of history, as well. That's the best example we have in the United States.
Monuments are imposed on us. We have to react to them because they are imposed on us, and they're really meant to be conversation, they're really meant to engage our senses, they’re really meant to engage not only our intellectual intelligence but our emotional intelligence, because if you go up to Lincoln Park and you look at the statue of the Freedmen’s Monument, in which Abraham Lincoln is standing over a manumitted African American almost in the sense of giving absolution to this guy—no artist in his or her mind today would ever try to pull that off. So what do we do with it, but at the same time that's a critical Lincoln monument, because the monument was paid for by the African American community. The money was raised for by former veterans of the Union army who were black and by freedmen. Now, the interesting flip to that is they had no say in the design of the monument. They paid for it, they put the money in the trust of a group called the Western Sanitary Commission of St. Louis, and the members of the Western Sanitary commission, who were white, made the decision as to what the monument would look like.
Monuments have stories embedded within them, and the stories of the artists and the stories of the monuments themselves tell us a larger picture of who we are. Another example—Mount Rushmore, arguably a great engineering monument, is what it is. Well, go ask a Native American about what they think of the four faces on the side of Mount Rushmore—put up by Gutzon Borglum who was a genius but was an incredible racist who had a particular vision of America. If you look at Borglum's papers he has no problem using all kinds of euphemisms to besmirch various racial groups and ethnicities. It's rampant throughout his papers, and yet he gives us this monument that has really become like the Statue of Liberty—another kind of symbol about America, but it has a different context when you look at it within the context of the man who sculpted it. So these are things that I think speak to who we are as human beings, and in speaking to us as human beings they allow us to look at the broader picture of American history.
In many ways monuments serve to storyscape. They tell us the story, they give us visual clues on the landmark, they give us visual clues on the landscape, to tell our narrative. And that's why I think they're wonderful and can be easily adapted into the classroom for teaching purposes, and they are all over the United States.
When I get students to look at monuments, I want them to consider the range of things. I want them to consider the subject matter, I want them to consider the design, I want them to consider the story of the artist behind it, I want them to consider the story of the people who paid for the statue. Those are all important to the story of the creation of the monument, and monuments and their meaning change over time.
I think the best example to use for that is the Shaw Memorial in Boston. Originally it was the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial and the 54th Massachusetts. Now we have included it to be both of them, so that it's not just a memorial seen solely to Robert Gould Shaw, a white patrician, but it's really a story about the self-emancipation of African Americans, once the Emancipation Proclamation goes into place. And what is really interesting about that statue is that statue was in such bad physical condition, and it was decided to use that statue and to clean that statue as a symbol of reconciliation between white and black residents in Boston in the late 1970s and early 1980s over the terrible rift that had developed over bussing. So you were able to take this monument from the Civil War which deals with the race question, and use it in a contemporary context to bring the people together. And that’s,—that's a great tale and that's part of that monument's history now.
So as I said these become places of memory, they don't just—they're not just static, and when you have a great artist like a Saint-Gaudens or a French, their monuments have the ability to move you. And all artists, whether it's a filmmaker, whether it's a painter, whether it's a sculptor, they want to manipulate you, and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. I mean they want you to move, they want you to feel a certain way, and if you walk away feeling a certain way then that sculptor has done his or her job to make you feel. Or, in the case of Maya Lin, who did the Vietnam Veterans Memorial—she also does the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, it's the same thing. It's touching the memorial, having access to the memorial, touching it and then letting that moment transform you within the context of those forty individuals who lost their lives in the modern Civil Rights Movement.