Monuments and Memorials

By Anna Saunders, University of Liverpool

As tangible sites and repositories of memory, monuments and memorials provide both a selective view of history and an insight into contemporary concerns, political values and societal tensions. They hold considerable symbolic capital, investing powerful symbolism in the built environment and representing – at least initially – the values of their patrons. The history of their interpretation and contestation is just as critical as that of their construction, however, as they become key sites for negotiating the politics of memory. As recent debates around monuments to the colonial past have demonstrated, for example, such structures may become invested with multiple meanings, challenging historically exclusionary memorial landscapes.

The distinction between monuments and memorials is fuzzy, and the two terms are largely used synonymously in English. The common perception that monuments are heroic or triumphant while memorials mourn the dead is unhelpful; structures such as war memorials may embody both elements. Instead, a formal distinction is more useful: monuments can be designated as a sub-set of memorials – i.e. material forms created with the purpose of memorialisation – whereas a memorial may take diverse forms, such as literature, music or even a website.[1] In concrete form, monuments constitute a type of ‘hardware’, which require commemorative ‘software’ in order to maintain their contemporary relevance.[2] Indeed, the construction materials themselves – whether bronze, stone or concrete – are inherently mute, serving instead as projection surfaces for a wide range of performances and public action, such as wreath-laying ceremonies, demonstrations, commemorative speeches and musical performances. Without such commemorative software, a monument may stand as a symbol of forgetting; as Robert Musil famously stated, ‘there is nothing in the world as invisible as monuments’.[3]

Public interaction with monuments may serve to honour the memory of those being remembered – often through scheduled events on significant anniversary dates – or call this past into question. Efforts to recontextualise or demythologise memorial structures take various forms, the most extreme being iconoclasm, as witnessed in recent years through the toppling of Confederate statues, monuments to slave traders, or to dictators of varying political colours, from Saddam Hussein to Stalin. While discussions around contested structures frequently focus on the binary options of preservation or destruction, both approaches pose problems; destroying a physical structure may make a strong political statement, but does little to guarantee more meaningful long-term engagement with this past. Alternatives include relocation (whether to museums, memorial parks or less central locations), recontextualization (commonly through additional signage), adaptation (through the reshaping of public space or reappropriation of symbolism), or the creation of additional memorial structures to counter the originally intended symbolism. In all such cases, the process requires communities to work through history and to renegotiate narratives of remembrance. Ultimately, the currency of any memorial structure, as well as any subsequent modifications, depends on the extent to which it provokes public engagement and debate. Gabi Dolff-Bonekämper thus identifies a Streitwert (dispute value) in monuments;[4] James Young even argued the debate around Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe had become the memorial itself.[5]

The installation of new memorial structures increasingly demands public engagement and consultation from the planning stages onwards. Monuments are no longer uniquely the domain of kings or governments, and growing democratisation has seen a shift from emphasis on representation to participation. This notion is most prevalent in the concept of the ‘countermonument’, conceived by the Austrian sculptor Alfred Hrdlicka and pioneered especially by James Young.[6]  Originating with memorials dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust, countermonuments seek to subvert traditionally heroic, solid and upstanding monumental forms by emphasising the absences in history through incorporating ground planes, voids and ephemeral or transitory elements. Their meaning, however, depends on the active participation of passers-by, whose engagement and active attention is required in order to continue the memory-work that cannot be concluded by the monument itself. Commemorative action at such monuments is ultimately always a public act, and by extension becomes politically relevant.

The permanence promised by the solidity of monuments is illusionary, for they change over time in accordance with contemporary values; they do not simply exist, but are constantly in a state of becoming. I thus argue that it is more useful to view them as processes and social spaces over time, rather than as objects.[7] It is necessary to understand them within their broader perspectives, both diachronically and synchronically, as they interact with the politics, aesthetics and historical understandings of past, present and future. While it may be useful to understand monuments as palimpsests, drawing attention to their multiple historical layers,[8] I suggest that this object-centred approach draws our attention too strongly to the physical material of the monument, rather than the dialogue implicit in its construction history.[9] Monuments may, indeed, act as agents of change, encouraging communities to re-examine themselves and build relationships that extend long beyond the dedication of a memorial structure. 

[1] James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 4.

[2] For the distinction between ‘hardware’ and ‘software’, see Peter Carrier, Holocaust Monuments and National Memory Cultures in France and Germany since 1989 (New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2005), p. 29.

[3] Robert Musil, in Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1957), p. 59.

[4] Gabi Dolf-Bonekämper, ‘Gegenwartswerte: Für eine Erneuerung von Alois Riegls Denkmalwerttheorie’, in Hans-Rudolf Meier and Ingrid Scheurmann (eds), DENKmalWERTE: Beiträge zur Theorie und Aktualität der Denkmalpflege. Georg Mörsch zum 70. Geburtstag (Berlin; Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2010), p. 27-40.

[5] James E. Young, At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 191.

[6] James E. Young, ‘The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in Germany Today’, Critical Inquiry, 18 (1992) 2, 2776-96. See also Corinna Tomberger, Das Gegendenkmal: Avantgardekunst, Geschichtspolitik und Geschlecht in der bundesdeutschen Erinnerungskultur (Bielefend: transcript Verlag, 2007).

[7] Anna Saunders, Memorialising the GDR. Monuments and Memory after 1989 (New York; Oxford: Berghahn, 2018), p. 44.

[8] A concept particularly brought into currency by Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).

[9] Saunders, Memorialising the GDR, p. 322.

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