Framing Monuments

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It is often the purpose of monuments to celebrate successes, and in doing so, to bring together the community. The issue with some is they present a single, positive narrative, and leave unsaid any negative consequences for other members of the community. Such omissions are often hurtful to those who were on the receiving end of those negative effects. Is it fair to elevate the success of one group in society and ignore the consequences that befell another? Herein lies the contradiction: these monuments break the community cohesion they were intended to bolster.

If we simply remove the monuments in question, we remove a document from our historical record. A piece of the puzzle is removed, leaving a gap in our picture of the past.

The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.

George Orwell, 1984

These ominous words by Orwell point to the dangers of removing records of our history. However, the Monument Lab offers a perspective that suggests there is a rationale for removal.

Monument Lab defines a monument as “a statement of power and presence in public.” We formed this definition through tens of thousands of conversations over the last decade in public spaces across the country [the United States]. We heard how people think of monuments as statues in bronze and marble on pedestals, and how those conventional structures also misrepresent history and fail to do justice to our collective knowledge and experience. Through these conversations, we learned that monuments do more than just help us remember—they make our society’s values visible. They also can push us to recognize the ideas that could never be captured or rendered in stone. History does not live in statues. History lives between people. Monuments are not endpoints for history, but touchstones between generations.

National Monument Audit – Monument Lab page 4

The tensions around some monuments suggest that the history and social values they represent is in question; there are different frameworks for understanding and thus interpreting past events; there exists a multiplicity of social values that are not fully represented in these monuments.

A common thread in many of the monuments I have looked at over the past few years (Ryerson, Little Big Horn National Monument, and renaming Dundas Street) appears to be resistance expressed by colonized peoples. They view the historic record differently. The social values reflected in these monuments conflicts with theirs. Positioning monuments within the frame of colonialism conjures in me a more tangible, guttural reaction.


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