The Value We Place On Metal and Stone; Monuments in America

1. Definition of a Monument:

The official definition of a monument is “something erected in memory of a person, event, etc. as a building, pillar or statue.” The name monument comes from the Latin term Monitor, which means “to signify all things which call to mind the memory of some subject to those absent from this place or time.” Since the development of ancient civilizations, such as Ancient Egypt, the practice of memorializing or honoring someone or something came to be. At these times monuments were largely made in honor of the great and powerful. Over the course of history, people created monuments to honor and preserve the memory of a person, place, or event, big and small. In many instances, these statues and monuments honor war heroes or the victims of a war and other influential members of society. These war memorials offer insights into the ways in which national cultures conceive their pasts.

For this reason, monuments can carry political and social implications in how an audience may chose to interpret what they represent. Many factors contribute to the interpretation of a statue and what it may or may not symbolize. The geographical positioning of a statue affects the way the audience values the statue, for example a statue of Robert E. Lee may be received differently in a town in the south compared to a northern city. Monuments are simply objects that we then place value on and emotion into. Since historical events upon retrospective examination can be viewed as controversial, the monuments honoring them can create controversy as well. This relationship between history and a nation show the connection that the people have with that event and how they view and choose to remember a time in the past.

Source: Hamilton, Annette. “Monuments and memory.” Continuum 3, no. 1 (1990): 101-114.

(https://goo.gl/images/4JgXHs)

2. Monuments and Memory: 

Monuments carry a deep connection with history and memory. History and memory are not synonymous. Memory is “life, borne by living societies founded in its name” and history is, on the other hand, “the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer” (8). Various cultures and countries influence how history is portrayed and what is memorialized. “In the United States, for example, a country of plural memories and diverse traditions, historiography is more pragmatic. Different interpretations of the Revolution or of the Civil War do not threaten the American tradition because, in some sense, no such thing exists” (10). The definition of the present as defined by the nation, is greatly influenced by the past and the history of the country.

Monuments and memorials stemmed out of this national desire to preserve a country’s heritage and history. By honoring the past it helps to develop the type of values that the nation hopes to portray and express in the future. The Washington Monument stands tall over the capital of the United States and nothing can exceed its height according to building code in Washington D.C. It symbolizes the power of America and the desire to express this throughout the world.

Source: Nora, Pierre. “Between memory and history: Les lieux de mémoire.” Representations (1989): 7-24.

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3. American Example:

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. is a national symbol. The “Lincoln Memorial was conceived as a symbol of national consensus, linking North and South on holy, national ground” (141). We know this location as the setting of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In King’s speech he begins by stating, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation” (157). It is where thousands protested the Vietnam War, where the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom occurred.

For decades the Lincoln Memorial represents the history of the past and also represents a symbol of protests to change the future. Not only is it a symbol of the nation, but it also is the location for many historical political protests. In 1939, an African-American woman by the name of Marian Anderson sung the song “My Country ‘Tis of thee” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The concert was held by a civil rights leader and soon it became an exciting new beginning for the Lincoln Memorial as a stage for progressive ideas. It was not the first use of the Lincoln Memorial as a grounds for protest but it was the first mass gathering of black protestors attempting to gain national publicity. This particular setting is interesting given the uncertain relationship between African Americans and Abraham Lincoln himself. Those protesting utilized the memory of Lincoln in their favor as a “political weapon, in the process of layering and changing the public meanings of the hero and his shrine” (136). Pierre Nora called the Lincoln Memorial the best American example of a ‘memory site’ which is a place where “we struggle over the tensions between our experience of the past (memory) and our organization of it (history)… Memory sites are loci of struggle between the official groups that often create them and the vernacular groups that inevitably interpret and reinterpret them in competing ways” (137).

Source: Sandage, Scott A. “A marble house divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the civil rights movement, and the politics of memory, 1939-1963.” The Journal of American History 80, no. 1 (1993): 135-167.

4. Trinity Example:

Directly in the center of the quad we have our own Trinity example of a monument. Originally made to be placed over his grave, the statue of Bishop Thomas Church Brownell who founded and was the first president of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut in 1823, stands tall over Trinity’s campus. In the statue he stands with his right hand outstretched and his left hand holding a Bible, which is a pose representative of traditional orators. The statue first was erected in 1869 and stood on the college’s original location of Bushnell Park and was later moved to Trinity College’s current campus in 1878. The statue is made of bronze and sits on top of a 16-foot-tall granite pedestal. The statue was gifted to the college by Brownell’s son-in-law, Gordon W. Burnham.

He stands at the center of the quad and is the backdrop for matriculation, convocation, and eventually graduation every year for all incoming and graduating classes.

Source: https://commons.trincoll.edu/commons-2/artwork/statue-of-bishop-brownell/

Statue of Thomas Church Brownell at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut

5. Symbolism of Monuments:

As mentioned before, monuments are not just blocks of stone created for people to look at in awe. They are made in representation of someone or something. Sometimes the symbolism of these statues or monuments change over time and develop new meanings. An example of this would be the Statue of Liberty found in New York, New York. The Statue of Liberty, also know as “Lady Liberty” came to the United States as a gift from Frenchman Edouard de Laboulaye. It was created to celebrate and honor the centennial of the American Declaration and the United States of America. Its original name was “Liberty Enlightening the World.” The Americans built the pedestal and the French sculpted the statue. Funding was slow and difficult but eventually she was built and shipped in 350 separate parts across the Atlantic Ocean. She arrived as a symbol of the nation’s birth but grew into much more than that. During this time period, many immigrants were entering into the United States by way of Ellis Island, New York. Those immigrants who sailed past her on their way into the America that they had dreamed of saw her as a beacon of hope. She became an emblem and a mascot of sorts to the millions of immigrants who came to America following a dream of a better way of life than where they had come from. A comfort of sorts that they had at last arrived at their destination.

On October 28, 1936 on the Statue of Liberty’s fiftieth anniversary President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke, “It is the memory of all these eager seeking millions that makes this one of America’s places of great romance. Looking down this great harbor I like to think of the countless numbers of inbound vessels that have made this port. I like to think of the men and women who, with the break of dawn off Sandy Hook, have strained their eyes to the west for a glimpse of the New World.” His profound words further highlight the theme of monuments as areas of emotion and artifacts that symbolize more than they may initially intend.

Source: Lazarus, Emma, and Valenti Angelo. The new colossus. Project Gutenberg, 1949.

6. Term’s Transformation:

Monuments traditionally commemorate veterans, philosophers, and society’s most influential members, but in more modern times we have seen the introduction of pop culture into monuments. An example of this is the Rocky Balboa statue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The scene in the movie shows Rocky running through the streets of Philadelphia with the famous Rocky Theme song cheering him and the Philadelphians that join him along his trek up the Art Museum steps. When he reaches the top he throws his hands up in victory and this is the exact moment that the statue memorializes. The statue was introduced to the city for the filming of Rocky III later donated to the city that now remains as a monument to a fictional boxer…but it is so much more than that to the city of Philadelphia. As one of the city’s most famous pieces of public art the statue sees thousands of tourists each year. Initially, there was much negative response to the sculpture claiming that it was an ugly movie prop and that it should not be at the base of the city’s esteemed art museum, some claiming that they hoped it would be dumped into the Schuylkill River. This debate over whether it was appropriate to keep Rocky where he was, demonstrates a debate over public art and memorialism, in its portray of a moment in pop culture and not in relation to the history of Philadelphia itself. Despite the fact that the statue represents a fictional character the city of Philadelphia continues to rally behind it, believing that it is a metaphor for hope and a symbol that “greatness can come out of this city” and an artistic representation of the hopes and dreams of Philly.

During the Super Bowl LII, the statue came under attack by Vikings fans and Patriots fans, adorning him in the opposing team’s gear. This action rattled the city of Philadelphia in what it represented. Rocky stands for Philly and for all of it means and therefore, Eagles fans believed that the only colors he should be decorated in are green and white. This is an example of the social consequences that statues can create. An entire city can rally behind a statue of a fictional man who they believe embodies the city’s goals and aspirations. People from other places recognize this statue as just that and target it in a way to create an uproar. Although not a political statement or a largely historically significant commemoration, the shift of statues from honoring war heroes to pop culture emblems may not be as terrible as the initial protestors thought.

Source: Burling, Elizabeth J. “Policy Strategies for Monuments and Memorials.” (2005).

Rocky running up the Philadelphia Art Museum steps. (https://goo.gl/images/4JgXHs)

7. Controversy Behind Monuments:

In the summer of 2017, controversy arose in Charlottesville, VA over a statue of Robert E. Lee. Questions over whether a statue of the Confederate General should be honored and maintained during this day in age and what is represented arose. Riots and protests began all stemming from the statue. The statue shows Lee on horseback with just the words Robert Edward Lee written on it. White nationalists marched on the city to protest its plans to remove the statue that had been there since 1924. Residents of the city, as well as members of the N.A.A.C.P. wished for it to be removed. This debate highlights the overall issue of whether confederate soldiers should be memorized at all. “The violence this weekend was one of the bloodiest fights over the campaigns across the South to remove Confederate monuments, and the statue remains a lightning rod in Charlottesville.” This sentiment demonstrates the severity of the issue at hand. The struggle between the north and the south still holds its roots, one hundred and fifty years later. It goes beyond waving the Confederate flag and showing your ‘loyalty to the South’ but to statues that at one point in time people were accepting of and now questions are arising on why we should memorialize someone who did not support the nation that we currently are a part of.

This highlights the various values and emotions that people place on monuments. The meaning behind a statue or a building created in honor of someone or something can create controversy and conflict. A person viewed as a hero to one group may be viewed the opposite by another.

Source: Fortin, Jacey. “The Statue at the Center of Charlottesville’s Storm.” The New York Times (2017).

8. Animals and Monuments:

In 1925, a statue of a dog (either a Husky, Alaskan Malamute, or Siberian wolfhound), by the name of Balto, called Central Park in New York City his home. Balto was a real dog, he rose to national fame in January of 1925 as the leader of a dog sled team. Balto set out with his team on a 650-mile trek to deliver a diphtheria anti-toxin that would successfully thwarted an epidemic in Nome, Alaska. The trip only took them five and a half days to complete. Nome, Alaska is the town where the Iditarod sled dog race ends and Balto, along with his team, participated in as well. When word of this story of triumph over nature and human and animal connection and cooperation got out to the rest of the world, Balto and his team went from local heroes to national ones. The story would be repeated for generations as the quintessential tale of survival. Soon after the event, decisions were made to create a commemorative statue of Balto in Central Park in New York City.

There is a great human connection between humans and animals and particularly humans and service animals. A statue was erected of Sirius, the only rescue dog to die in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. We create attachments to animals in the same way that we do to human beings, therefore, it makes sense that we would want to memorialize those creatures who impacted our lives in similar ways to the influential human beings that we see preserved in stone and metal.

Source: Kean, Hilda. “Balto, the Alaskan dog and his statue in New York’s Central Park: animal representation and national heritage.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 15, no. 5 (2009): 413-430.

Balto Statue in Central Park, New York, NY (https://goo.gl/images/v6oTNL)

9. Famous Speech:

On January 18, 2009 President Barack Obama gave a speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. This speech was given two days prior to his inauguration and was in honor of the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech given at the exact same location. He chose to speak at this location for what it means to the American people and the historical significance it beholds. He states “what gives me that hope is what I see when I look out across this mall. For in these monuments are chiseled those unlikely stories that affirm our unyielding faith–a faith that anything is possible in America.” This idea embodies what a monument is to society. How an object can become so much more through the placement of emotions and value on it. He describes the Washington Monument saying, “rising before us stands a memorial to a man who led a small band of farmers and shopkeepers in revolution against the army of an Empire, all for the sake of an idea.” He then references Martin Luther King Jr. stating, “directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King, and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that their children might be judged by their character’s content.” Lastly he references Abraham Lincoln and the memorial created in his honor, “behind me, watching over the union he saved, sits the man who in so many ways made this day possible.” As the first black president Obama was referencing the strides that Lincoln took in preparing the nation to reach this momentous day, through compromise and strife he united the two sides of the Civil War and also in the process, emancipated the slaves. He then states that it is not the stone and marble that he finds the most hope in, but in the American people themselves and that these memorials embody these values and that this common thread “runs through every memorial on this mall; that connects us to all those who struggled and sacrificed and stood here before.”

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/18/us/politics/18text-obama.html

President Barack Obama giving a speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial (https://goo.gl/images/fL9SPd)

10. Fun Facts: 

The Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. is 555 feet tall. It was built in two separate phases, one was private from 1848-1854 and the other one was public from 1876-1884. Throughout this timeframe there were many different versions and plans of what it would look like. Eventually, it was built after the shape of an Egyptian obelisk as a demonstration of ancient civilizations and their timelessness. It was built as a tribute to George Washington, the “most essential Founding Father.” At the time that it was built it was the tallest building the world. Originally the elevator installed in the monument was steam-driven and took 10-12 minutes to reach the top of the monument, it was later replaced with an electric elevator that shortened the ride time.

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