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14 – Documents in Bronze and Stone

Memorials and Monuments as Historical Sources

Jonathan F. Vance

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  • 1 Queen’s University Archives, Emmanuel Hahn papers, series II, box 7, file 17-13, Report of Board o (...)

1In 1925, in passing its verdict in the competition to design Winnipeg’s civic war memorial, the judging panel declared for the winner with the following words: “The sentiment is simply and directly expressed in a manner about which no doubt can be felt and no questions need to be asked.”1 For these judges, the winning design was not open to interpretation; it had one meaning and one meaning only, and that meaning would endure for all time.

  • 2 Charles Withers, “Place, Memory, Monument: Memorializing the Past in Contemporary Highland Scotlan (...)
  • 3 Courtney Workman, “The Woman Movement: Memorial to Women’s Rights Leaders and the Perceived Images (...)

2Nearly a century’s worth of experience with commemoration later, it seems ludicrous to suggest that the meaning of a monument could be so static. Indeed, the design that the judges confidently asserted was self-evident now seems distinctly less so. However, provided one is familiar with the artistic vocabulary, Emmanuel Hahn’s design is still decipherable – the central column is a cenotaph or empty tomb, an ancient form of funerary architecture that was popularized after the First World War, and the draped figures on either side represent Service and Sacrifice. Furthermore, any monument, as a communal artifact, is more static than we might imagine. It is a text, in that the iconography and the inscription do not change over time. In most cases, it remains on the same site in the urban space, although more than a few memorials have been moved, for a variety of reasons. Improving traffic flow is perhaps the most common reason – the war memorial in Windsor, Ontario, was moved when it became an obstacle to the redevelopment of downtown streets. However, we should also remember that the removal of monuments frequently coincides with regime change, and not only in the former Soviet bloc or, most recently, Iraq. Charles Withers has written persuasively of the proposed destruction of the monument to the 1st Duke of Sutherland, near Golspie in Scotland, on the grounds that he was one of the driving forces behind the ruinous Highland Clearances and should not be commemorated with such a heroic vocabulary.2 Similarly, Courtney Workman has detailed the efforts to have the monument to suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott returned to the rotunda of the Capitol building from the basement, where it had been moved by opponents of the Nineteenth Amendment.3 Finally, the debate that surrounded the erection of any monument in the first place is part of the historical record, and can be subjected to traditional modes of analysis.

3What makes the monument a particularly malleable kind of historical document, however, is its interaction with its setting, both social and physical. Civic groups might use the monument as a stage to air contemporary debates, in an attempt to overlay a new meaning on the old. Because they tend to occupy prominent sites in the public space, monuments often become magnets for individuals wanting to air causes quite unrelated to the monument itself. By the same token, many a monument became neglected and forgotten when urban change gradually transformed the busy thoroughfare on which it once sat into a rarely travelled road. Looked at in these terms, the monument is constantly changing in a way that a written document is not. A letter says the same thing whether it is held in the National Archives of Canada or the Archives of Ontario. A monument, however, changes dramatically when its physical space or its social usage changes.

  • 4 See Susan Rubin Suleiman, Risking Who One Is: Encounters with Contemporary Art and Literature (Cam (...)

4All of this is certainly true for traditional monuments, so much so that it hardly bears pointing out. But a new genre of monuments – what scholars have called the postmodern monument4 – adds another range of complexities to their use as sources for historical study. Such monuments, even if they do not always look very different, have very different characteristics from the traditional. A discussion of those features reveals the ways in which future historians will be challenged in trying to come to terms with the new memorials that adorn our landscape.

5The first striking characteristic is interactivity. In a traditional monument, the space between the viewer and the structure was to be maintained as a buffer. The monument was not to be climbed on, leaned against, or touched – indeed complaints about people laying hands on memorials can be found in virtually any local newspaper from the last century. In this reasoning, the monument was there only to be looked at; in observing, one would reflect upon its meaning and lessons. Indeed, debates over the optimum height of the memorial revolved around symbolic considerations – how high should the individual or event be elevated in the collective memory? – as much as practical – the higher the statue was situated, the less likely it was that someone would try to sit on its lap. The tribute to Queen Victoria in Hamilton, Ontario, is typical-people took advantage of its convenient location in Gore Park to sit on it, but city administrators did all they could to discourage such shows of disrespect.

  • 5 For details of this project, see http://memorial.pentagon.mil/; and Alicia Bessette, “Inscription (...)

6The postmodern monument takes a very different approach. It creates a memorial space which viewers are invited to enter, to interact with the different elements of the structure. That interaction, their response to the monument, becomes part of the monument itself – the viewer becomes an actor in the commemorative process, rather than simply a detached bystander to that process. A typical example is the memorial which is proposed for the victims of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, a landscaped park with benches representing each of the dead.5 This is not a utilitarian memorial in the classic sense – it was not created to fill a pressing need for 184 benches on the lawn of the Pentagon. Rather, it is a memorial whose commemorative force lies in its inherent interactivity. Individuals physically enter into it, becoming an element of the memorial; the person sitting on the bench and reflecting upon 9/11 is a part, albeit a transitory one, of the memorial.

7Secondly, there is a general reluctance to use lengthy inscriptions on postmodern monuments. Traditional memorials (and one could use virtually any Great War memorial for illustration) tended to value text, if not the names of the dead, then a list of the values for which they supposedly died – truth, honour, justice, liberty. The inscription on the war memorial in Chatham, Ontario – “This monument / lovingly and gratefully commemorates / the gallant men of / Chatham and Kent County / who in the Great War 1914-1918/took up arms, or died / for God, for King and country / for loved ones, home and Empire / for the sacred cause of justice / and the freedom of the world” – certainly leaves nothing to the imagination, and no room for interpretation. This inscription, like so many others from the same era, exists to tell the viewer precisely what the monument means, and therefore what the First World War meant.

  • 6 See, for example, the controversy over the recent decision by Parks Canada to rewrite the text on (...)
  • 7 See Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 21-22; (...)

8Postmodern monuments tend to shy away from text, in the full knowledge that getting the right words can be highly contentious.6 In a milieu in which every word must be negotiated between a welter of groups with an interest in any given monument, the fewer words the better. At the same time there is the realization that language itself, no matter how much effort is taken to make it bland and uncontroversial, will always admit of a contested meaning. A good example of this phenomenon occurs on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, dedicated in 1982. Often characterized as a postmodern monument, its inscription is nevertheless contested: “In honor of the men and women of the armed forces of the United States who served in the Vietnam War. The names of those who gave their lives and of those who remain missing are inscribed in the order they were taken from us. Our nation honors the courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty and country of its Vietnam veterans. This memorial was built with private contributions from the American people. November 11, 1982.” Here, one might be tempted to interrogate two specific portions of the text. The phrase “they were taken from us” begs an important question that the use of the passive voice dodges: who took them? – the North Vietnamese army and the Viet-cong, or the United States government? And the reference to “courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty and country” brings to mind all the Big Words that Paul Fussell argued had been made irrelevant by the First World War, and that architect Maya Lin had tried so hard to avoid in her design.7 Even a straightforward text like this, then, says much more than it seems to.

  • 8 George T. Noszlopy, Public Sculpture of Birmingham, Iincluding Sutton Coldfield (Liverpool: Liverp (...)
  • 9 See Jonathan F. Vance, “The Great Response: Canada’s long struggle to honour the dead of the Great (...)
  • 10 I am grateful to Galen Perras for his thoughts on this point.

9Perhaps ironically, a typical postmodern monument in this sense might be Canada’s National War Memorial, which predates the Vietnam Memorial by some forty years. In an echo of the tradition of inscribing memorials to individuals with only their surname (for example, Birmingham’s monument to James Watt, one of the pioneers of the steam engine, bears a one-word inscription: “Watt”8), Vernon March’s Ottawa memorial has only the dates of the Great War, to which the dates of subsequent conflicts have been added. The reason for this choice may have been practical – March had such trouble with well-meaning observers critiquing the figures that he may have been reluctant to tackle an inscription.9 Furthermore, dates are inherently bilingual, an important consideration on a memorial to be raised to the dead of a bilingual nation.10 Perhaps the planners felt that, by 1939 when the monument was unveiled, no words were necessary. Finally, it may have been a conscious decision to enable the memorial to be more inclusive – when the monument has no words, it invites the viewer to provide their own text – although it is difficult to imagine the government of the time thinking in these terms.

  • 11 Colin Mclntyre, Monuments of War: How to Read a War Memorial (London: Hale, 1990).

10Finally, traditional memorials relied heavily on allegorical content. Every design element had a specific meaning, every allegorical figure could be understood. Everyone knew what the broken chain or the laurel wreath meant, everyone could recognize the angel or the lion. Everyone, for example, would know what was meant by the memorial at the Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby, England, a small statue of St. George slaying the dragon. There was a constancy in the meaning of allegorical and iconic symbols which meant that, even without the inscription which reads “There are dragons still,” the monument itself was not open to interpretation. How could one possibly misinterpret the meaning of the Sheriff School’s? It was, therefore, possible for Colin McIntyre to subtitle his 1990 book How to Read a War Memorial, because such memorials had a vocabulary that could be deciphered fairly easily, provided one had a rudimentary knowledge of contemporary iconography.11

  • 12 See, for example, Paul Gough’s interpretation in, “Canada, Conflict & Commemoration: An Appraisal (...)

11Contrast this with a typical postmodern monument, like the one which honours the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (the Wrens) in Galt, Ontario. There is no vocabulary there, only a single figure of a woman in naval uniform. The Sheriff School’s memorial can only mean one thing, but this memorial can almost mean anything – from a traditional celebration of martial values and the defence of the nation, to a critique of old-fashioned notions of heroism and courage and a lament at the masculine perpetuation of conflict. Or, it can mean nothing – it can simply be a Wren. It is up to the viewer to bring to this memorial whatever interpretation they wish. In the postmodern monument, iconography has given way either to realism (as in Galt) or abstraction (as in the new Canadian War Memorial at Green Park in London, England) – either way, there is no longer a vocabulary, or at least not one that can be understood without detailed descriptive notes from the sculptor or an art critic.12

12The combined effect of these three characteristics is to ensure that each postmodern monument is not one but many. The interactivity, absence of words, and lack of allegorical elements all invite viewers to bring their own meaning. If one hundred people visit one single monument, they will have one hundred different responses; in effect, because the response is integral to the commemorative intent, this means the single monument becomes one hundred different monuments. Here, again, the Vietnam Memorial is instructive. If a still grieving widow approaches the wall and lovingly runs her fingers over one name, the memorial takes on a specific meaning. If a veteran in full dress uniform approaches the wall and throws a crisp salute at another name, the memorial takes on entirely different meaning. In between these two will be countless other shades of meaning.

  • 13 Sarah Fanner’s Martyred Village: Commemorating the 1944 Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane (Berkeley: U (...)

13Of course, one might argue that even traditional memorials drew forth a myriad of responses, which is perfectly true. If we look at a photograph of any war memorial unveiling from the 1920s or 1930s, we have no way of knowing what every single person in attendance thought of the monument, or what meanings they elected to draw from it. We can, however, interpret the meaning that the monument’s creators intended it to elicit. Traditional monuments were didactic, instructing passers-by what to remember, the person or the event, but also how to remember it. Whether or not people chose to remember it in that way is another matter. The important point is that these memorials attempted to direct a response. As a result, the memorial becomes very useful to the historian. If it does not reveal what a community thought about an event (although I would argue that it can tell us quite a bit on that score13), at the very least it reveals what elites wanted that community to think about an event.

  • 14 For details of the memorial, see http://www.bstterypsrkcity.org/ihm.htm

14The postmodern memorial, in contrast, makes a virtue of not trying to direct a response. It still tells you what to remember, but says nothings about how to remember it. Such monuments attempt to permit multiple meanings, and even shifting meanings. They may be constructed of the same bronze or stone, but they strive for a degree of impermanence that almost contradicts the materials of which they are made. Where the traditional memorial tried to tell a story, the postmodern memorial provides a space in which people can tell their own story. The traditional monument was text; the postmodern monument is context. The Irish Hunger Memorial, in Battery Park, New York, for example, simply acts as a stage (a reproduction of a rural Irish landscape, complete with cottage and stone walls), while a collection of poems, songs, recollections, recipes, speeches, and declarations inscribed all over the monument provides an ever-changeable script.14 On that stage and with that infinitely manipulable script, every viewer can perform their own commemorative act, each of which will be different because each personal response to the physicality of the memorial will be unique.

  • 15 See Sarah Shields Driggs, Richard Guy Wilson, and Robert K. Winthrop, Richmond’s Monument Avenue ( (...)

15The combination of these three characteristics provides significantly greater challenges for the historian who intends to use the postmodern monument as source material. We can still take clues from the monument’s location and from the debates which surrounded its erection. There is much to be learned, for example, from the debate over the placing of the memorial to tennis star and philanthropist Arthur Ashe, on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, which revolved around the politics of commemorating an African-American in a memorial space which, until then, had been largely reserved for whites, and white heroes of the Confederacy at that.15 But we can no longer “read” a monument in the way that we once could, because the postmodern monument consists of two inextricably intertwined and mutually dependant parts: the physical monument itself, and the response of each viewer to it. If we try to read such a monument through a traditional analytic approach, we will be getting only half the story, and perhaps not the most important half at that.

16However, if certain avenues of enquiry are much less revealing when applied to the postmodern monument, others have been opened up. We could learn a great deal from an analysis of the artifacts that are left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and catalogued by the National Parks Service. We could interview people about their responses to the memorial to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, a field of empty chairs, each representing one of the victims, and two monumental arches, which signify the before-and-after of the tragedy. We could even set up a camera and see how people interact with the Famous Five Monument on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Such approaches might reveal much about the human role in the postmodern commemorative process, an element which was simply not a factor in traditional modes of memorialization.

17This, in turn, will demand a different kind of inter-disciplinarity from the historian. To work with traditional monuments, one was advised to become familiar with art history, classical studies, literary theory, and historical geography, in addition to the usual historical modes of analysis. Those skills are still required, but increasingly one will have to turn to conceptual models from anthropology, sociology, psychology, and cultural theory. In short, historians will have to focus less on the structure of the memorial itself, and more on the way humans interact with that memorial.

  • 16 See, for example, James M. Mayo’s persuasive War Memorials as Political Landscape: The American Ex (...)

18The one thing that we must keep in mind, though, is that commemoration remains a deeply politicized act. An armada of historians have convinced us that there is no such thing as an apolitical monument.16 However, the postmodern monument propagates the fiction that it is possible to create an apolitical memorial. By stripping a monument of its meaning and letting viewers superimpose their own meanings, it holds the promise that we can somehow create a non-politicized monument.

  • 17 Quoted in Fred Turner, Echoes of Combat: Trauma, Memory, and the Vietnam War (Minneapolis: Anchor (...)
  • 18 Quoted in Albert Boime, The Unveiling of the National Icons: A Plea for Patriotic Iconociasm in a (...)
  • 19 Turner argues that, with the wall, “the war’s sharp edges have been sanded down and the conflict, (...)

19This, of course, is nonsense. The very absence of an attempt to direct a response is, in itself, a kind of direction. In this context, we might return again to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was defended by its most vociferous supporters as completely apolitical. As Jan Scruggs, the memorial’s key organizer, put it, “The Memorial says exactly what we wanted to say about Vietnam – absolutely nothing.”17 For some opponents, this was precisely the problem; sculptor Frederick Hart’s criticism was that the design was fatally flawed because “Lin’s sculpture is intentionally not meaningful.”18 For other opponents, the wall had all too much meaning-it was the black gash of shame, the memorial to losers. Ironically, it was the right-wing critics of the wall who were correct: the wall is highly political (although not in the way they argued it was19), every bit as political as Frederick Hart’s realistic sculptural grouping of soldiers. In a second level of irony, this grouping, which was added to assuage the complaints of traditionalists, has been seen by Wall supporters as a politicization of their ostensibly apolitical memorial.

20Rather than going deeper into this rather circular argument that raged in Washington in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it is simply sufficient to make one observation: the very fact that both sides debated the issues so passionately affirms that the apolitical monument is a chimera. The very act of erecting a monument, regardless of its form, constitutes a political statement. But there is a key difference which has crept into the commemorative process of late. The traditional monument wore its politics openly, for all to see – it made no bones about the agenda it was seeking to push. The postmodern monument, on the other hand, hides its politics carefully; not only must they be teased out of the debate that surrounds it, but they are also ever-changing. This, perhaps, provides the ultimate challenge to future historians in this field: by inviting viewers to bring their own interpretations to the commemorative process, the postmodern monument can be all kinds of politics simultaneously.

Notes

1 Queen’s University Archives, Emmanuel Hahn papers, series II, box 7, file 17-13, Report of Board of Assessors, 22 December 1925. For the strange story that saw Hahn’s design replaced by a cenotaph designed by Gilbert Parfitt, see Victoria A. Baker, Emmanuel Hahn and Elizabeth Wyn Wood: Tradition and Innovation in Canadian Sculpture (Ottawa, 1997).

2 Charles Withers, “Place, Memory, Monument: Memorializing the Past in Contemporary Highland Scotland,” Ecumee 3, no. 3 (1996): 325-344.

3 Courtney Workman, “The Woman Movement: Memorial to Women’s Rights Leaders and the Perceived Images of the Women’s Movement,” in Paul A. Shackel, ed., Myth, Memory, and the Making of the American Landscape (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001), 47-66.

4 See Susan Rubin Suleiman, Risking Who One Is: Encounters with Contemporary Art and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Roxanna Myrhum, “Art From the Ashes,” Harvard Political Review 1 April 2002; Jacqueline Barbera, “Monuments and Meaning,” Contrapposto [California State University, Chico], at http://www.csuchico.edu/art/contrapposto/contrapposto98/pages/%20essays/barbera.html

5 For details of this project, see http://memorial.pentagon.mil/; and Alicia Bessette, “Inscription in the Earth,” Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin (summer 2003): 2-3.

6 See, for example, the controversy over the recent decision by Parks Canada to rewrite the text on the plaque commemorating the Frog Lake Massacre in 1885, discussed in the Ottawa Citizen, 10 July 1999.

7 See Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 21-22; Maya Lin quoted in “Vietnam Veterans Memorial: America Remembers,” National Geographic 167, no. 5 (May 1985): 557.

8 George T. Noszlopy, Public Sculpture of Birmingham, Iincluding Sutton Coldfield (Liverpool: Liverpool University Pres. 1998), 32.

9 See Jonathan F. Vance, “The Great Response: Canada’s long struggle to honour the dead of the Great War,” The Beaver 76, 5 (1996), 28-32.

10 I am grateful to Galen Perras for his thoughts on this point.

11 Colin Mclntyre, Monuments of War: How to Read a War Memorial (London: Hale, 1990).

12 See, for example, Paul Gough’s interpretation in, “Canada, Conflict & Commemoration: An Appraisal of the New Canadian War Memorial in Green Park, London and Reflection on the Official Patronage of Canadian War Art,” Canadian Military History 5, no.l (1996): 26-34.

13 Sarah Fanner’s Martyred Village: Commemorating the 1944 Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) describes how locals rejected and ultimately ignored the memorial raised by regional elites, which they felt did not adequately express the meaning of the massacre.

14 For details of the memorial, see http://www.bstterypsrkcity.org/ihm.htm

15 See Sarah Shields Driggs, Richard Guy Wilson, and Robert K. Winthrop, Richmond’s Monument Avenue (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 87-96.

16 See, for example, James M. Mayo’s persuasive War Memorials as Political Landscape: The American Experience and Beyond (New York: Praeger, 1988).

17 Quoted in Fred Turner, Echoes of Combat: Trauma, Memory, and the Vietnam War (Minneapolis: Anchor Books, 2001), 178.

18 Quoted in Albert Boime, The Unveiling of the National Icons: A Plea for Patriotic Iconociasm in a Nationalist Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 319.

19 Turner argues that, with the wall, “the war’s sharp edges have been sanded down and the conflict, now smoothed into a traditional tale of national altruism, has been slipped safely into the library of American myths.” Turner, Echoes of Combat, 184.

Auteur

Holds the Canada Research Chair in Conflict and Culture in the Department of History at The University of Western Ontario. He is the author of many books and articles, including Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War (1997) and High Flight: Aviation and the Canadian Imagination (2002)

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2005

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