WHAT IS THE CONTESTED HISTORIES INITIATIVE?
The Contested Histories Initiative (CHI) is a global effort to examine the issues surrounding statues, street names, and other historical legacies in public spaces with an aim to identify principles, processes, and best practices for decision-makers, civil society advocates, and educators confronting the complexities of divisive historical memory. In partnership with Beyond Conflict and the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation (IHJR), the CHI is launching a US initiative in advance of the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Building off of IHJR’s rich database of resources and case studies designed to help navigate and address contested monuments and memorials across Europe, the global CHI will, in partnership, develop additional materials which reflect the diversity of opinion across multiple disciplines and experiences in the U.S. and globally.
In 2026, the Contested Histories Initiative will bring together key stakeholders in the U.S. and globally in a national convening that seeks to center these issues on the national agenda, provide an opportunity for shared learning, and offer a set of recommendations and access to resources for communities seeking to address contested histories.
The first in a series of multi-disciplinary publications and resources, this white paper provides resources for community members, researchers, funders, scholars, and practitioners to understand and engage with the role of monuments and commemoration in public life, and provides guidance for people to make practical and informed decisions about commemorative landscapes in their local communities.
Monuments are shortcuts for evoking identity and belonging. They are one of the most concrete tools for signaling values and declaring identities in public and function as concentrated substitutes for historical events and figures.
A monument is not merely a work of history, but a tangible and physical element in our daily lives. Monuments speak to the values and beliefs of a community. What, who, and how we memorialize matters to how community members see and understand their histories and themselves.
A richer understanding of what monuments are can help us gain clarity in some of the debates around commemoration. Examining these six dimensions of a monument can help us build a mutli-dimensional model of the monument and its role in public life.
How are monuments connected with political orders?
Who gets to decide what belongs in public?
Whose histories are represented?
Whose are missing?
What materials are used?
Are these valuable artworks that need preservation?
What ought monuments represent?
What do we do with morally problematic histories?
What do viewers come to know through monuments?
What feelings do these monuments evoke?
EXAMPLE: Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment in Boston, Massachusetts
The work depicts Colonel Shaw, a white commanding officer, riding on horseback while the first all-volunteer Black regiment of the Union Army marches besides him down Beacon Street. Though the monument is dedicated to the deeds of the entire regiment as well as their sacrifice during the Civil War, the two most prominent inscriptions on the memorial, located on the pedestal and the bronze sculpture, are focused on Shaw, the commander.
Consider the following epigraph: “Omnia relinquit servare rempublicam” (He left behind everything to save the Republic). The inscriptions along with the placement of Black soldiers in the background has resulted in some calling the monument problematic. Furthermore, it was not until the 1980s that the names of Black soldiers were etched into the monument.
With this background in mind, how would an examination of the Shaw Memorial yield different points of emphasis utilizing a multidimensional approach?
HOW DO PEOPLE DEAL WITH MONUMENTS?
Eight approaches are frequently used to address conflicts about monuments and commemoration:
HOW CAN YOU APPLY THESE SKILLS IN YOUR COMMUNITY?
More tools to help you address contested histories and monuments in your communities are on their way!
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Continue exploring debates around contested histories and practice your new skills using these great resources from our partners: