Monuments as Cultural Memory

I’ve been reflecting on the role of monuments as Senate House Library is in its final days of hosting the ‘Wiki Loves Monuments’ travelling exhibition, which was facilitated through Wikimedia and my colleague, Jordan Landes, the Research Librarian for History. She has written an article about the role the city plays as a monument.

Image of the Cementerio Argentino de Puerto Darwin
Military Argentine Cemetery, Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas.
by Tomás Terroba
Courtesy of Wiki Loves Monuments

Since the earliest times, humans have celebrated life and death with a whole variety of rites and markers, from the headstones in the cemetery to public sculptures and memorials, all designed to help us ‘remember.’ How do we reflect in a public space and remember that which is now the past? What is it that makes a monument or a memorial for that matter? Do they intrinsically evoke memory of person, concept or event? Are they really culturally and socially specific? As we perform that reflection asynchronously, we are undoubtedly subject to a historical and political praxis, regardless of the creator’s intention.

As I was looking at some of the submissions on display, Tomás Terroba‘s submission, Military Argentine Cemetery, Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas, reminded me that the line between monument and memorial is a fine one. What is celebrated by one nation may be viewed as a colonial conquest by another right down to the words used to describe that place and space of reflection. A person’s right to self-determination and independence could be viewed as anarchist or secessionist by the ruling classes. For decades the Berlin Wall stood as a physical barrier of oppression dividing East and West Berlin and ongoing symbol of Communism. Now the fragments which still remain in East Berlin stand as a fractal symbol of a reunified Berlin and of the nation at large.

Monument vs Memorial

I found myself reacquainted with this quote of famed art critic, Arthur Danto:

‘We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget. Thus we have the Washington Monument but the Lincoln Memorial. Monuments commemorate the memorable and embody the myths of beginnings. Memorials ritualize remembrance and mark the reality of ends.’ –Arthur Danto, Wake of Art: Criticism, Philosophy, and the Ends of Taste Essays (Routledge (1998),153)

Image of the illuminated Eiffel tower at night
Eiffel Tower in Paris
Courtesy of Flickr CC User (Koalie)

I like aspects of Danto’s distinction between the two terms, but there are structures which present both aspects of this duality of commemoration and remembrance. La Tour Eiffel was built to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution, serving as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Exposition Fair. It was the tallest structure in Paris at the time (and still to this day) with the intention of being a temporary structure to last 20 years and then be dismantled in 1909. It was allowed to remain due to its importance during both World Wars as it was affixed with powerful radio transmitters and other jamming and communication technology. Its commission was formally as a monument for the Fair but the centenary of the Revolution repurposed its function as a memorial. After construction had begun, Gustave Eiffel, the eponymous engineer, decided to alter his original plans. He decided to engrave over 70 names into the space beneath the First Balcony. This was in response to the controversy the Tower’s creation provoked amongst artists of the day. It was a rhetorical gesture to imbue this feat of engineering and technology with the names of France’s greatest engineers, scientists and mathematicians. Their contributions to French society would be memorialised into the heart of the structure itself, a metaphor for the imprimatur of science and ascendancy of positivism at the end of the nineteenth century.


As you can see, Danto’s distinction is not so clean-cut. If we look at the origins of the word ‘monument’ itself, we find it comes from the Latin monumentum, which itself derives from monere (to remind). At its essence, monuments inherently contain the meaning of memorials, so I don’t feel the need for drawing pedantic distinctions between the two. What is important is the affect of the cultural memory and the manner in which identity is preserved and recalled.

Image of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy of Flickr CC User (dctim1)

From this point of view, one of the most powerful memorials in the world is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. which was designed by architect Maya Lin when she was still a student at Yale University in 1981. What was so radical and modernist at its inception was the non-representational aspect of her design. Previous monuments to various wars and conflicts were given figurative expression in the form of a solider or group of soldiers or their associated gear, weaponry or instruments. Lin recognised the essence of the individual and reduced it, listing the 58,000 fallen soldiers individually by name on a giant triangular granite slab which reaches its apogee at the centre. However, she went one step further by listing the names chronologically and not alphabetically. Many could not understand the revolutionary aspect of this design. The process of grief and discovery by those remembering would have to go to a book in the memorial and look up the date and then scan the memorial for the name. By using this approach Lin inverts expectation and projects time into a linear concept, capturing it simultaneously as it unfolds for the spectator. Although she hasn’t written of the philosopher, Henri Bergson, I would argue that it is his concept of duration which philosophically permeates her memorial.

In his Concerning the Nature of Time, Bergson uses the image of the flow of water to demonstrate his view. We the spectator are seated on the river’s bank and ‘in a single perception are able to view the gliding of a boat or the flight of a bird, and yet we can do both at one and the same time, our attention uniting and yet differentiating the three flows. Such is our primary idea of simultaneity.’ (p.210) For Bergson, duration and memory are inextricably linked as they are co-founded in each other. The spectator is able to perceive all, despite the different rates of time occurring, as in Lin’s memorial, where there is time present and time past moving simultaneously: the spectator sees themselves reflected in the cold granite in one phase, the name of the fallen individual, their memory and that of the war.

Fixed Monuments or Travelling Road Show

Image of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the Washington Mall
AIDS Memorial Quilt on the Washington Mall
Courtesy of the National Institutes of Health

‘A thing must be burnt in so that it stays in the memory: only something that hurts incessantly stays in the memory’ -Friedrich Nietzsche On the Genealogy of Morals (Second essay, part 3)

Many monuments over the centuries share the characteristic of being fixed in a given location. One of the more interesting aspects of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which is often referred to as the AIDS Memorial Quilt, is that it is a travelling memorial. It achieves its greatest power (and burns in the memory as Nietzsche would put it) when completely assembled as it has been on the Washington Mall. When not in D.C., its panels disaggregate and travel to various institutions for temporary or ongoing displays, able to reach wider and more dispersed spectators.

The quilt panels reinforce the memory of a particular individual and are as much about the relationship between the deceased and the maker of the panel. More than just a ‘name’ on a panel, aspects of the individual’s personality are reflected such as their profession and if they were musicians, artists, sports players or writers, the act of remembrance takes the form of visual signifiers in its representation. When joined with other individuals, it leads to a visual tapestry, a rainbow of diversity which so often the symbol adopted by the LGBT movement.

It was founded in the mid 80s as a means to remember those who had died of AIDS and AIDS-related complications, at a time when many were not allowed funerals due to the misunderstanding and unknown fears of contraction. It is one of the clearest examples of the polemic presented by Jürgen Habermas and his notion of the Öffentlichkeit. In his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas articulates that the public sphere (öffentlichkeit) is a public space outside the reach of the State, where individuals would be able to engage in discourse and exchange ideas freely. This discourse could manifest itself in the form of protest, as in the memorial to those afflicted and who had died of AIDS.

Although AIDS had been first diagnosed in 1981, President Reagan (1981-1989) did not mention it until the latter part of his second term after more than 21,000 Americans had already died of the disease, including his friend, the Hollywood actor, Rock Hudson. ACT-UP, Stonewall and other LGBT activist organisations and individuals would be able to use the creation of the Quilt as a form of living memory, a discourse on those ignored by the State who had already died, were dying and ultimately, the survivors. I must say that the first time I saw the AIDS Memorial Quilt was in one of its travelling exhibitions in Provincetown, one of Massachusetts’ coastal towns on the very tip of Cape Cod. It was a series of panels along a wall about 3 metres long and although I’ve never seen the full display on the Mall, this small section was very moving and powerful. I don’t think I would have been able to deal with the whole memorial. Unlike memorials or gravestones for that matter, which list the name and birth/death dates, the tapestry of the Quilt carries with it the individual personality and their vitality. Maybe it is the fact that the panels are not homogeneous and the textures are all different, or maybe it is the fact that it is unfinished with new panels added all the time: the Quilt is not fixed, but remains an extension of the living. As such, quite simply, it lives and breathes.

Memorials of memory abstracted

Image of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin
Courtesy of Flickr CC User (andyshaun)

I’ve moved through two very different memorials and I’d like to finish with American architect and Professor of Architecture at Yale University, Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Unlike Maya Lin’s VVM and the Aids Memorial Quilt, Eisenman’s memorial is not a list of names, indeed of any of the six million European Jews who died in the Second World War, but a nameless mass of stones.

In the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag (the German Parliament), Eisenman designed 2711 concrete steles (slabs) of varying heights in a grid pattern which invokes an undulating wave over a space occupying 19,000 square metres. Dedicated in 2005 on the 60th anniversary of the fall of the Nazi regime, the Memorial’s steles evoke a cemetery or burial ground in a space with no clear boundaries. You can wander in and out as there are no official entry or egress points. This aspect is an abstraction of incomprehensibility. How does one deal with the memory of the Holocaust? How are we to engage and cope with the memory of evil?

Nietzsche suggests that it might be possible that there is something as too much memory or rather that we need some down time to cope. ‘To shut the doors and windows of consciousness for a time that is the benefit of active forgetfulness, like a guardian of mental order, rest, and etiquette: from which we can immediately see how there could be no happiness, serenity, hope, pride, present without forgetfulness.’ On the Geneaology of Morals (Second essay, Part 1)

I would juxtapose this quote with one of Hannah Arendt who writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

‘We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. All efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a still better future, are vain.’

I think that with nearly 70 years on, we have come to the point in history, where we can discuss and memorialise the Holocaust and perhaps Eisenman’s work allows us the time, space and manner for that reflection. By removing the conventions of naming individuals and direct figurative expression, he is abstracting our emotions beyond the event and its inherent atrocity. His memorial is a reminder that we haven’t forgotten, but at the same time, we can move forward. Over the course of this article, I hope I have captured some of the philosophical issues and aspects of cultural memory inherent in monuments with these varying examples.heidegger and the thinking of place

Here now are some recent acquisitions that I have acquired for the Library which touch on aspects of cultural memory and the role of monuments and memorials.

Some related New acquisitions in Philosophy and Art

Some suggested further reading

Learn more about monuments. Only in the Library’s Classic Catalogue can you browse information on monuments via place or location then a specific time period. Another search on funerary or sepulchural monuments can be browsed here.

Other interesting and related titles (for some light summer reading):

Other Monuments

These are some of the other memorials (pictures below) I had thought about writing about but the article was already too long. So here are some brief tidbits on why I thought they were interesting. The Flame of Liberty in Paris was created as a replica of the torch in the Statue of Liberty in New York City as an ongoing symbol of the friendship between the United States and France. It is notable as the unofficial memorial to Princess Diana as the Flame is a marker of the entrance to the tunnel where she died and thus fulfills multiple functions as a memorial.

The Sacrario dei Partigiani is a memorial in the central Piazza Nettuno in Bologna to commemorate the thousands of partisans who were killed by the Nazis. The Homomonument was the first memorial to commemorate the gay and lesbians killed by the Nazis and all the LGBT who have suffered persecution because of their homosexuality.  Cristo-Rei is a monument and shrine to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ, itself a tribute to the much larger Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

There are further views of Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Lastly is one of several memorials to the tragic events on 11 September found outside of the United States. In Padua, Italy you can see Memory and Light which was designed by Peter Libeskind, who is the master architect of the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. His contribution there is One World Trade Center, dubbed the ‘Freedom Tower’, with its 1776 feet height to symbolically match the year of the United States’ Independence.  When completed it will be the tallest building in the Western hemisphere.

These are some of my shots from adventures since moving to Europe. All are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution/Non-Commercial/Share-Alike license, similar to the ones I attributed and referenced in the main part of the article. From Paris to Bologna, Lisbon to Amsterdam, Berlin to Padua, monuments are all around us. We may not always recognise their significance at the time. I certainly had no idea of the dual meanings in the Flame of Liberty when we were in Paris a few weeks ago. I was familiar with the relationship with the Statue of Liberty‘s torch but its importance in relation to the tunnel of the Pont de l’Alma was a later revelation.

The shorter version of this article was posted here.


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