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Memorialization: Purposes and Controversies


The memorialization of events plays an important role in the history of humanity. Ever since the start of the first civilizations, our kind erected monuments, chiseled bas-reliefs, painted pictures, and utilized various other forms of art to commemorate victories, defeats, triumphs, and tragedies, into memory. At the same time, humanity has a long history of iconoclasm, destroying the symbols and monuments of the past as a means of waging wars on memory, whether for righteous or self-serving reasons. The destruction of monuments is a contentious subject among the public and historians in the 21st century; as the US wrestles with the heritage of civil war, the UK faces the sins of its Empire, and ex-soviet republics replace soviet monuments with nationalistic symbols. The purpose of this paper is to review the main purposes of memorialization (historical memory, values representation, legitimization of authority) as well as the main controversies surrounding the practice (selective treatment of historical events, prioritizing one group’s viewpoints over the other, changing morality).

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Reasons for Memorialization

While there are many reasons for memorialization, some are more prevalent than others in terms of meaning and purpose. The three major ones include historical memorialization, the representation of contemporary values, and the legitimization of authority (Rhodes). Historical memorialization is the most common theme in the history of memorials – for example, the Romans memorialized major victories and events in their history by dedicating columns to them. Thus, a memorial is a way to preserve the memory of an event. It was particularly relevant during the days when record-keeping and historical science were in their nascent days.

The second reason is the representation of values (Rhodes). There are too many events in the history of every nation to memorialize each one. Thus, monuments and artwork were dedicated to people and events deemed by those wielding power to those that represent the values of the contemporary time. Great conquerors and warriors enjoyed the spotlight of fame and memorialization for the majority of humanity’s history.

The third reason is the legitimization of authority (Rhodes). There is a famous saying that history is written by the victors. Memorials are the material representation of these victories and useful tools for shaping the perceptions of events and people in the public memory. Memorials are often a part of the effort to justify and normalize the events of the past, promoting a particular narrative and forcing people to subscribe to it through tolerance and acceptance of symbols into existence (Rhodes).

Controversies Surrounding Memorialization

Controversies that surround memorialization often stem from the same root as the reasons for memorialization to become a thing in the first place. The first controversy stems from the selection of events to exude a particular narrative. An example of such could be found in the modern-day US – there are numerous monuments to the controversial fighters for the Confederates in the Civil War, many of whom supported slavery (Grossman). At the same time, monuments to the victims of lynching, such as that to Jesse Washington, are few and far between (Grossman). Such selection had, for decades, downplayed the atrocities committed by the white majority to the black minorities.

The second controversy comes from the prioritization of one viewpoint over others, as it is impossible to create a memorial that would commemorate all views of the event. Doss highlights how opinions on memorialization may differ even in cases where the society is relatively uniform in the interpretation of the matter – the 9/11 terrorist attacks (28). The controversy arose over how the event should be consecrated into memory – some suggested that the trade center should be rebuilt and made higher as a show of defiance to terrorists. Others wanted it to be a place of mourning (Doss 28). There was much debate over who should have the final say in what the memorial should look like – the government, the American public, or the mourners (Doss 28).

Finally, there is the issue of changing morality. This is best displayed by Mitch Landrieu’s speech in regards to the dismantlement of confederate monuments in New Orleans. The moral compass and ethical viewpoints of people that erected monuments often differed from their descendants. For instance, many individuals in the South’s past had never seen there to be anything wrong with slavery, promoting the supremacy of white men (Landrieu). They were the same people that stood by General Lee and others like him to be patriots fighting for a lost cause, rather than being on the wrong side of history (Landrieu). Nowadays, the position is radically reversed, which brings forth the controversy of condemnation of past generations as evil based on contemporary morality. It also brings the issue of whether this rule should be applied universally, which would potentially lead to the destruction of most, if not all, monuments.

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After reviewing the reasons for creating monuments and controversies surrounding them, I came to a list of conclusions. First is that humanity has a propensity towards commemorating events, which means that monuments will always continue to exist. As such, they have an intrinsic historical value to themselves as representations of values of that time period. They also often have artistic value as well. However, monuments exist for the living as much as for the dead. Therefore, their interpretation and value are subject to change as humanity evolves. They should not be destroyed outright when public morality changes to portray acts previously acceptable as heinous and evil. They should be moved and preserved in places like museums – as a representation of humanity’s past, but not as an enduring testament to morality. Ultimately, all history should be remembered, both good and bad, lest we remain blind to our mistakes and repeat them.

Works Cited

Doss, Erika. “Remembering 9/11: Memorials and Cultural Memory.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 25, no. 3, 2011, pp. 27-30.

Grossman, James. “Whose Memory? Whose Monuments? History, Commemoration, and the Struggle for an Ethical Past.” Perspectives on History, 2016, Web.

Landrieu, Mitch. “Mitch Landrieu’s Speech on the Removal of Confederate Monuments in New Orleans.” The New York Times, 2017, Web.

Rhodes, Eric Michael. “Ten Memorable Monument Takedowns in History.” OSU, 2017, Web.

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