The United States is in the middle of a debate about memorialization: whether a monument is art or history, and how the way a society honors its past affects it in the present, a panel of scholars asserted at an event on Sept. 19. 

To discuss this issue, Profs. Carina Ray (AAAS), Nancy Scott (FA), and Professor Grace Hale of the University of Virginia and Anne Thomas, a collaborator on a Holocaust memorialization project came together to consider various aspects of memorialization.

Hale began with a slideshow on protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. August’s demonstrations, she said, were a culmination of a movement that began in March: Neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate groups had been rallying around statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson since then. However, she said the statues must be removed “not because of the present, but because of the events of the 1910s and 1920s.” 

She explained that they were erected as part of a “New South” movement. This effort to rewrite Southern history and prepare it for a segregationist present claimed that the Civil War was about states’ rights and secession, not slavery, that slaves were loyal to their masters and the Confederate cause, and that Confederate soldiers were heroic and saintly.

Hale explained that statue-building became more popular than lynching during this period because it helped sanitize the past. Statues were a more civilized way to assert white supremacy in public and to posit revisionist history as legitimate. She added that when she points out to her students that there are “statues to traitors in the middle of [their] parks,” students are shocked — the revisionist version of the South is deeply ingrained.

Ray corroborated Hale’s narrative of white supremacy, saying that “forms of violence are always mutating.” She pointed out that honor and violence have always been intertwined, and that honoring past violence through monuments is a form of violence in and of itself. She cautioned that even monuments to victims must be done carefully, as there’s a risk of erasing some victims in an attempt to spotlight others, a disservice to those victims and to the historical record.

Ray discussed the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement as an example of how ingrained some forms of violence and erasure are. It began as a student protest against a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. As the movement grew, it created a larger conversation about decolonizing education while a statue honoring colonial violence loomed over campus. 

The movement sparked a similar conversation around a statue of Rhodes at Oxford University and illuminated the need to decolonize not only colonial education systems, but metropolitan ones too, Ray asserted. 

She added that she believes that similar conversations are happening globally, and so the Confederate statues in the United States are part of a discussion which “iterates itself differently, but no less crucially, in other parts of the world.”

Scott pointed out that, while Confederate statues are ubiquitous in the South, many of the Confederate monuments are not great works of art. During the wave of monument building, Northern factories mass-produced statues for sale as Confederate memorials. She said that many of these monuments “become eyesores.” They are  propaganda, but the process of removing them is often a convoluted legal battle because it is often unclear who owns a statue or who has the right to remove it, she said.

Scott discussed the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston, a memorial to  the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts, the first organized Black regiment in the Civil War. During construction of the memorial, there was contention over whether it would focus on Shaw or on his troops. As a compromise, it depicts Shaw and his men, with all their names carved on the back, according to Scott. Standing on the Boston Common, it faces the statehouse to remind legislators of the regiment’s sacrifice. The Shaw Memorial is on the Black History Trail in Boston, a trail that intersects with the historic Freedom Trail only once, said Scott. 

Though national conversation centers on existing monuments, Thomas’s presentation showed that memorialization is an ongoing process. Thomas spoke on artist Gunter Demnig and his continuing project, “Stolpersteine.” Stolpersteine, stumbling stones, are small brass plates set in the ground. Placed in front of buildings whose former residents were killed by the Nazis, the Stolpersteine say “here lived…” and serve not as tombstones but “life stones.” Thomas explained that the plaques are meant to be unobtrusive, but once one notices them, it is difficult to stop seeing them. There are 65,000 of them now, all over Europe.

Thomas says that Demnig believes that, while numbers like “6 million” can be hard to process, individual stories have power. According to Thomas, Demnig wants residents to remember what went on in their homes, in their towns, in their country; as long as people keep stumbling upon history, it will be hard for them to forget.

Stolpersteine are meant to make one feel a bit unsettled, Thomas added. 

As she closed the panel, moderator Prof. Sabine von Mering (GRALL) beseeched attendees to leave feeling unsettled as well. She urged them not to swallow the conversation, but to take it somewhere new.