The other side of public monuments
Reflecting on the past and present
Reflecting on the past and present
Public monuments, memorials and art are often created and installed in urban environments. They aim to commemorate historical events, memorialise certain people, or even to help large spaces create a more intimate personal experience.
Urban environments provide accessible spaces for communicating ideas about history, culture and politics. They can work to construct ‘public memory’, often as declared by the victors of a certain nation, and can take on the function of significant lieux de mémoire (sites of memory). They can connect to ideas about a shared heritage and national identity, such as at the Nazaire French Military Cemetery, also known as 'Notre Dame de Lorette', which is dedicated to the fallen soldiers of WWI.
On one hand, this kind of heritage can be seen as honouring historical moments and people. On the other hand, we need to acknowledge that it is created by the economically and politically dominant group and can often be imposed on those that do not necessarily have such proposed shared heritage. Therefore, what is memorialised is often a controversial construction of heritage, and this kind of public art is vulnerable to strong reactions both for and against it.
We saw this especially after the murder of the American George Floyd in May 2020. The very history and ideals of the US were - and continue to be - laid bare for examination. This tragic event also led to frank discussions about public art and monuments and what they represent. These discussions also created ruptures in Europe and the UK.
Seen in the image above, Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London, was erected to honour Admiral Horatio Nelson. He defeated French leader Napoleon Bonaparte ensuring he would not invade Britain at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson vehemently opposed the abolition of slavery proclaiming in a letter:
I have ever been and shall die a firm friend to our present colonial system.
Thus, the hegemonic function of public commemorative art first noted in the 19th century with the emergence of a wealthy class who could afford to have it commissioned, reflected a silencing of other voices. The contributions of those who were left out of the story are now being reexamined as a nation shifts how it looks at its history.
For example, Black soldiers of the British Empire who served England during WWI were not acknowledged for the important contributions they made to the war effort in the same way as their white counterparts. The documentary Memorials To The Missing by Stephen Wyatt, brings into focus the missing representation of Black soldiers in the Cenotaph War Memorial at Whitehall. The memorial has been the scene of protest during the 21st century, largely due to Britain's failure to recognise more than 45,000 soldiers who died in the war and who did not receive appropriate memorials. The history of WWI is not complete if Black and Asian people’s contributions are omitted in Europe.
Demonstrating against the memorialisation of a heritage of economic, social and political domination and a one-sided history that was not inclusive remains a concern for marginalised groups in many European nations.
In the 21st century, we are witnessing a marked shift away from a short-sighted understanding of certain historical events and a move toward a more nuanced approach - a way towards a creative public memorial that is more inclusive in its meaning.
In this way, memorialised events can bring attention not just to a mythic heroic understanding of national identity, but also to a history that includes oppression and prejudice. One important example of this is the Das Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin).
This memorial, designed by American architect Peter Eisenman, does not impose meaning, but rather in its construction represents a historical event and also invites its viewers to converse about representations such as state murder, loss of state and human rights, and responsibility for those actions against the sanctity of human existence. It encourages its audience to pause and compels them to consider history in all its horrific embodiment. This, in the end, should be the function of all memorials.