Events in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists protested the removal of a Confederate monument led to violence and the death of a counter-protester, raised important issues about history, public memory, and the symbolism of public space.
This lesson is designed to help students understand the role that memorials and monuments play in expressing a society’s values and shaping its memory of the past. The lesson invites students to explore how public monuments and memorials serve as a selective lens on the past that, in turn, powerfully shapes our understanding of the present. It also explores how new public symbols might be created to tell a countervailing narrative that seeks to change or correct the previous, dominant understanding of history.
In Memphis, Tennessee, high school students and activists undertook such a project when they began to reckon with the forgotten history of lynching in their community. In this lesson, students will connect these efforts to the idea of participatory democracy, analyzing how the creation of new historical symbols can be understood as an effort to transform communities and shape collective memory. In the final activity, students will become public historians themselves. They will design their own memorial to represent a historical idea, event, or person they deem worthy of commemoration.
This lesson is a companion to the lesson After Charlottesville: Contested History and the Fight Against Bigotry.
Monuments and memorials serve multiple functions in the communities in which they are erected. When the members of a community create a monument or memorial, they are making a statement about the ideas, values, or individuals they think their society should remember, if not honor. As a result, these structures not only influence the way people understand the subjects of their commemoration, but they also reveal the beliefs of the people and the time period in which they were created. They thus serve as historical artifacts in themselves.
While some memorials are spontaneous, such as flowers left on the roadside after a car accident, most are designed carefully and intended for permanence. The process can involve an entire community which raises funds, forms committees, and selects designer, sculptors, or architects. These structures can be either a response to loss and death, as is often the case with memorials, or they can be celebratory in nature, as is typical of monuments. (Note: While some see value in making a distinction between the terms memorial and monument for the reasons listed above, there are so many exceptions to these rules that this lesson will use the terms interchangeably.)
Memorials and monuments are designed to convey forceful messages about the events or individuals they commemorate. Each has embedded in it a particular perspective, an interpretation, a set of values or judgments. As a result, these public structures often raise contentious questions:
- Why are some historical events or individuals deemed worthy of public commemoration, while others are not? How does that sorting take place?
- If these structures cannot tell the whole story, what part of the story, and whose story, do they tell? What points of view should be left out?
- Who do we entrust to interpret the past for present and future generations?
The debates over these questions often reflect existing and longstanding divisions within a society. Therefore, the process of creating—or removing—monuments and memorials can be a battleground where competing perceptions and profoundly different memories struggle to control the interpretation of history.