CHI – Monuments Debate

TO REMOVE OR NOT TO REMOVE?

Moving beyond an all-or-nothing approach to monuments, memorials, and US historic commemoration.

Resources for understanding the role of commemoration in public life and engaging with monuments in your communities 

UNDERSTANDING AND ENGAGING WITH

MONUMENT DEBATES

  • making meaning: the six dimensions of understanding monuments
  • thinking thoroughly: four popular objections and misconceptions
  • considering the future: eight potential approaches
  • bringing it home: practice your new skills →

WHY DO MONUMENTS MATTER?

  • Monuments are shortcuts for evoking identity and belonging and for declaring the value of our identities in public.
  • Monuments are one of the most tangible vectors for raising strong feelings are concentrated substitutes for historical events and figures.
  • Monuments are not merely works of history, they are tangible and physical elements in our daily lives.
  • Monuments can purposefully capture and emphasize select aspects of history.
  • When monuments direct attention to certain aspects and narratives of history, they also bracket others.

MAKING MEANING:

THE SIX DIMENSIONS OF MONUMENTS

When engaging in monument debates, it is important to consider all aspects of a monument in order to fully understand its many functions and potential effects. Using a multi-dimensional approach can reveal important insights about a monument’s current and desired role in public life.

Monuments can be best understood by six dimensions:

1. POLITICAL

How are monuments connected with political orders?

Who gets to decide what belongs in public?

2. HISTORICAL

Whose histories are represented?

Whose are missing?

3. AESTHETIC

What materials are used?

Are these valuable artworks that need preservation?

4. ETHICAL

What ought monuments represent?

What do we do with morally problematic histories?

5. EPISTEMIC

What do viewers come to know through monuments?

6. AFFECTIVE

What feelings do these monuments evoke?

Example #1:

Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment

Boston, Massachusetts

Example #2:

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse, SD

THINKING THOROUGHLY:

POPULAR OBJECTIONS AND MISCONCEPTIONS

Thinking through the monuments debate requires us to take a closer look at some of the most popular arguments made in the public arena.

What questions are at the foundation of these arguments?

What misconceptions might they reflect about the role of commemoration and monuments in public life?

How can we use a multi-dimensional understanding of monuments as well as insights from psychological science to respond to these common objections?    

Anyone engaging in discussions about how to deal with controversial monuments are likely to encounter these four arguments:

1. REWRITING HISTORY

Is removing a monument the same as erasing history?

Argument:

Removing or altering a monument is the same as removing or altering history.

Response:

History and a monument – any monument – are different things.

2. EX POST FACTO MORALIZING

Should we judge (and potentially condemn) historical figures based on modern moral standards?

Argument:

Removing statues to controversial historical figures imposes modern moral standards and expectations onto the past, offering an unfair evaluation of these figures.

Response:

1) There are cases where our contemporary moral standards would have been very recognizable to those who lived in earlier eras, and

2) There is nothing really wrong with making a contemporary judgement about the past.

3. THE RED HERRING ARGUMENT

Is the debate itself causing more harm than good?

Argument:

Debates about memorials and memorialization can become contentious and violent, getting in the way of finding areas of agreement and making “real” as opposed to “symbolic” gains.

Response:

Symbolic gestures can have very real political effects, and we shouldn’t underestimate the harm caused by problematic monuments and the political potential of symbols

4. THE SLIPPERY SLOPE ARGUMENT

Where does it stop?

Argument:

The removal of some statues — like statues to confederate leaders — will lead to the uncontrollable removal of too many others — like the nation’s founders.  

Response:

Worries about slipping cannot justify a refusal to start down the slope. All they can justify is descending carefully and stopping where appropriate.

CONSIDERING THE FUTURE:

EIGHT APPROACHES

Communities, grassroots organizations, and public officials across the United States have addressed contestations about monuments in a wide range of ways.

Eight approaches are frequently used to address conflicts about monuments and commemoration:

DEACCESSION

  • removal of a monument, whether temporary or permanent

RESIGNIFICATION

  • reshaping monuments; changing their meaning through physical or artistic intervention

DEFACEMENT

  • typically involves damaging or altering the monument significantly; immediate and direct; often done without official approval

FABULATION

  • critical process in which communities and artists work both independently and together to design objects for their commemorative landscapes

DESTRUCTION

  • demolition of a monument; permanent

ABSTENTION

  • refusal to concretize or represent historical figures and events within a commemorative landscape

PRESERVATION

  • maintaining existing monuments and repairing defaced ones

CONSTRUCTION

  • building new monuments

BRINGING IT HOME

PRACTICE YOUR NEW SKILLS

You now have the tools to engage with monument debates thoughtfully. You know that monuments are multi-dimensional with political, historical, aesthetic, ethical, epistemic, and affective aspects and effects. You understand the common arguments used in monument debates, and how to respond to their misconceptions. And you have a sense of eight possible solutions for dealing with contentious monuments.

Don’t feel confident in the above yet?

or

How can you apply these skills in your community?

1. POLITICAL

How are monuments connected with political orders?

Who gets to decide what belongs in public?

2. HISTORICAL

Whose histories are represented?

Whose are missing?

3. AESTHETIC

What materials are used?

Are these valuable artworks that need preservation?

4. ETHICAL

What ought monuments represent?

What do we do with morally problematic histories?

5. EPISTEMIC

What do viewers come to know through monuments?

6. AFFECTIVE

What feelings do these monuments evoke?

What is the Contested Histories Initiative?

Amid rising social tensions, polarization, and misinformation about our past, exploring our collective understanding of and relationships to our histories is deeply important if we are to project a future where all of us structurally and actually, belong.

Beyond Conflict, the Institute for Historical Justice, and The University of Boston (?) are partnering to launch a multi-year, interdisciplinary initiative to explore, understand, and aggregate learning and narratives of contested US histories in anticipation of the 2026 anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. 

To remove or not to remove? 

Moving away from black-and-white responses to monuments, memorials, and US historic commemoration

POLITICAL

How are monuments connected with political orders?

Who gets to decide what belongs in public?

HISTORICAL

Whose histories are represented?

Whose are missing?

AESTHETIC

What materials are used?

Are these valuable artworks that need preservation?

ETHICAL

What ought monuments represent?

What do we do with morally problematic histories?

EPISTEMIC

What do viewers come to know through monuments?

AFFECTIVE

What feelings do these monuments evoke?