How Historians Can Teach from Memorials

As usual, things get quiet around here in mid-to-late August as I gear up for the start of another academic year. (Those scintillating syllabi won’t write themselves!) So while I managed to dash off a few thoughts on what happened in Charlottesville, I’ve not had a chance to reflect in any depth on the question of Confederate memorials, one of which was at the center of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville and others of which have since been removed from other public squares.

Confederate memorial Floyd, Virginia
Erected in 1904 by the Daughters of the Confederacy, this memorial in front of the Floyd (VA) courthouse features a portrait of Robert E. Lee and is dedicated “In memory of our fallen braves” – CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (Chris Gehrz)

What to do with such memorials is no doubt an important debate to have. As Agnes Howard wrote today at The Anxious Bench, memorials are important because they “[communicate] materially that some thing mattered, to people likely to forget or reappraise.” When I speak about memorials, I often use the metaphor of a speed bump: they occupy space — like memorial holidays occupy time — for the purpose of disrupting routines and slowing down our hectic pace long enough to refocus our attention, however fleetingly, on something of the past that we’ve decided is meaningful.

(Unless we’re so accustomed to their presence that we just ignore them, that is. Even Jennifer Allen, a historian of memory who studied at the University of Virginia, admitted to NPR, “I lived just down the street from the Robert E. Lee memorial and I must have walked past it dozens of times and never gave it a moment of thought.” And she said she did the same with a small plaque nearby that marked the site of slave auctions.)

So as someone who’s written a fair bit about commemoration, it’s certainly gratifying to see so many people thinking about the nature of collective memory and the place of memorials in public life.

But it’s also frustrating. On the one hand, you’ve got the “don’t erase history” folks protecting Confederate statues that were mostly erected some time after the Civil War — as a way to buttress Jim Crow. I wish the people making that kind of argument would put half as much energy into advocating for new memorials to, say, heroes of the civil rights movement. (Or any number of other causes that would actually help to reverse some of the anti-historical tendencies in American society.)

But I also think historians could do more with this debate than simply argue for or against tearing memorials down.

“Reappraisal is legitimate,” Agnes continued. “We might abominate what our ancestors elevated, esteem what they contemned.” But I’m glad that she went on to raise another another problem:

But it seems to me that popular argument now about the meaning of monuments is made worse by the thinness of historical awareness. I can attest—through observation of the highly repetitive though culturally sensitive curricula my children have received in elementary through high schools—that most should leave high school familiar with quite a bit of that history. Nevertheless, passersby not seldom encounter monuments as though meeting that history through them for the first time: “I had no idea this even happened.”  This is one reason monuments matter. They can sustain rich, nuanced interpretation. But they also can telegraph a simplistic message. This thing happened, this person was.  The message of a monument, minus thick textual swaddling on placards that few read, seems too prone to be received in simple form.  Shorthand, soundbite, tweet format tells us that this guy was a hero, that one was a hater.

So while we should rethink the wisdom of displaying Lost Cause memorials anywhere other than a museum, making that change wouldn’t necessarily do anything to thicken Americans’ “thinness of historical awareness.” Indeed, we could replace Confederate statues with more admirable memorials — that continue to “telegraph a simplistic message.” (Or are ignored and forgotten.)

Edith Cavell monument in London
London’s monument to the martyred nurse Edith Cavell: “Patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.”

Memorials can indeed “sustain rich, nuanced interpretation.” But that requires the professional assistance of historians, whose most significant job it is to make meaning of the past. Historians should certainly critique Confederate memorials… but just as importantly, they should find ways to teach from those and other memorials: to bring representations of them into their teaching and scholarship as artifacts for students and readers to interpret.

Or better yet, to burst the walls of the classroom and take their students out into public spaces to encounter memorials in space, as well as time. Indeed, I first grew interested in commemoration while teaching a travel course on World War I, whose students regularly report that the most meaningful moments came in the presence of war memorials. Both on the former Western Front and in cities like London, Oxford, Paris, Munich, and Salzburg, students learned to notice and interpret a wide variety of memorials. (Few of which, it should be said, are statues of generals, on either side of the war.)

And if you can’t spend three weeks touring former WWI or Civil War sites… There are ways to teach about commemoration where you’re located. I now require an off-campus experience of students in my on-campus World War II class, one option being that they join me on a 90-minute walking-driving tour of war memorials in St. Paul and Minneapolis. And in the upper-division Modern Europe course I’ll teach again this fall, I’ve often given students the option of orienting their 20th century research project around the design and presentation of a new memorial or monument. Rather than writing a paper about, say, the Holocaust, they design a commemorative space and structure that forces them to wrestle with European memory in light of present-day European concerns.

How have other historians in the audience taught memorials? Does anyone else do walking tours of local memorials, or otherwise bring them into their teaching?

2 thoughts on “How Historians Can Teach from Memorials

  1. Chris, practically Civil War monuments prior to the 1950s kept white supremacy in place. Union monuments were not for anti-slavery but for preserving the Union. And since the North had as many regulations — housing, banking, zoning — in place as the south, pointing out the Jim Crow origins of the Confederate Statues is a cliche that obscures why most Americans fought and how they remembered the Civil War.

    1. I think you’re right, Daryl — everyone’s talking about Confederate structures, so I focused there. But I didn’t mean to imply that Union statues were generally meant as odes to anti-slavery or anti-racism. (Had a conversation about this with my kids when we visited Gettysburg last fall, a place that’s overstuffed with memorials.) But I don’t see why that means we should refrain from pointing out the Jim Crow origins of statues like the one I showed — since that history seems not to be known by most memorial defenders. It just reiterates why historians ought to provide thicker description of memorials of all sorts.

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