Posted by: The staff | June 27, 2010

Should (New) Monuments be Forever?

From:  Harrison

This early postcard reproduces a painting of French troops on the battlefield of Rossbach in 1806 destroying a Prussian monument commemorating the French and Austrian/Holy Roman defeat there in 1757:

For my particular ruminations, the postcard is more a prompt than an analogy, since the historic preservation policies and laws under which the National Park Service operates generally prevent a destructive- or iconoclastic response to monuments that are present on the lands it manages but that prove, to some viewers, ineffective or otherwise unwelcome over time.  Monuments, after all, help the Park Service fulfill congressional mandates to “mark” troop positions at many battlefields.  Monuments proposed for Park Service-managed sites are now vetted for appropriateness at several levels of review.

Situated in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery and maintained by the Park Service, the visually dominating monument to General Alexander A. Humphreys and his division of Pennsylvania troops should therefore feel no unease in its bronze soul despite my personal view of its inappropriateness on a ridgetop that Humphreys and his men failed, however gallantly and dramatically, to capture during the December 1862 battle, and in a cemetery that does not host Humphreys’ grave:

(Moreover, one might argue that Humphreys’ skill as Army of the Potomac chief of staff during the Overland Campaign helped Federal forces to eventually neutralize the tactical power of the same ridgetop, and then bloodlessly occupy it in the process of converting Fredericksburg into a vast hospital in 1864.)

Nevertheless, and as John Hennessy has written recently, the mandate to maintain and preserve some categories of interpretive devices raises the possibility of battlefield parks becoming outdoor museums of historical expression, confusing the stories conveyed to visitors and even hiding the wartime terrain-features that helped inspire the preservation of those places in the first place.  Battlefield monuments, moreover, can obscure not only visual resources but also other stories and historical actors that, while lacking monuments of their own, have been shown by new research or new perspectives to be vitally important at the same places.

Moving beyond the category of national parks, and speaking of all battlefields regardless of who manages those, I do harbor a personal curiosity about whether future monuments could be designed and installed with a “sunset clause”—stipulating that they would be removed after a certain amount of time, after, say, five or ten years.   Such a clause would allow for rotating, full restoration of visual access to the surrounding landscape that a given monument had obstructed; a reconsideration of the monument’s message(s) and location in light of historical information discovered after its installation; the maximizing of artistic variety among a given battlefield’s collection of monuments; and a continual shifting of the spotlight among different stories and historical people—such as a different regiment that fought on the same field.  It’s my hope that, for monuments proposed at a battlefield, public historians can experiment with making routine and thus non-ideological (and less literally destructive, since a monument removed with minimal damage would have a better chance of securing relocation to another public or private historical venue) the same impulse that’s depicted on my old postcard.  This process indeed occurs constantly but, again, in a frequently destructive way, as this list of recent monument removals and alterations shows.

How might a system of sunset-clause monuments look on the ground?  Obviously, their temporary nature would discourage the expense and bulk necessitated by the traditional, bronze-and-stone approach that has given rise to structural behemoths on a number of battlefields.  Not far from where I write this, the City of Charlottesville hosts an ArtInPlace program that reviews proposals for and then installs public sculpture beside streets for eleven-month periods.  While ArtInPlace, to my knowledge, has not yet marked places or events from Charlottesville’s military history, which includes sites connected to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and even the Cold War, the program nonetheless offers a kind of example for the experiment that I envision for a battlefield.

Whether in terms of scale (as with the new installation shown below, beside a sidewalk on the Corinth, Mississippi battlefield) or of shelf-life–or of both, ideally–I’m convinced that less can be more.

Noel G. Harrison

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Responses

  1. At risk of turning things political, which discussions like this are bound to do, I will suggest that the removal of monuments in other countries is rooted in the coming or passing of totalitarian regimes, something which this country has been blessed to avoid for two hundred and thirty-four years. It says a great deal about the nature of this nation when we can allow the commemoration of those viewed as “erring brothers” to coexist alongside those of the status quo. We are not uncertain of our present footing. We are confident in who we are.
    One hundred and forty-nine years ago, a house divided was reunited, and by the end of the nineteenth century, thirty-four years after the armed conflict, the nation prided itself in the fact that there was true reconciliation. This is not to say that residual or resultant issues did not manifest themselves throughout the next century, but, as a nation of United States, the nature of the system works out the kinks.
    Now, for us, a decade into yet another century, where there is not a single living participant of the years 1861-1865 remaining, it would be shameful of us to exercise a “cultural cleansing” beyond the addition of possible further interpretation “in situ”.
    These monuments mark the places and circumstances of our history, and an eradication of history opens a door to a repetition of past mistakes. Cultural amnesia eradicates lessons learned. We have no precedent of handling our twists and turns as anything more than stepping stones along the way to greatness. This is the pride of America. To politicize in today’s agenda, the actions and deeds of those individuals long removed from the arena of life, would be a regrettable choice.

    • John,

      You couldn’t have said that better or more eloquently. I just finished Michael Kammen’s long history of public history, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture. He echoes you, and you echo him, by concluding that “the government of the United States is notably non-coercive about national memory.”

      I should reiterate, however, that my post specified this was my personal vision for an experiment with future, proposed monuments someplace, not existing ones.

      Your point about recognizing and respecting particular eras, though, has pushed my thinking further and made even more appealing, for me at least, this notion of experimenting with a sunset clause. Would not a program of rotating monuments—again, limited to future ones—accurately reflect an era (ours) where fresh blizzards of digitally accessed primary sources inspire revision and re-evaluation (and to my personal chagrin on occasion, interpretive obsolescence) at ever-increasing rates? Is the digital age not its own, legitimate lens through which we view battlefields and which will inevitably manifest itself on the landscape (even if in ways other than that which I propose above), much as the New Deal, Mission 66, and War Department periods, and the imperatives and access-technologies they emphasized, physically shaped Civil War interpretation?

      Noel

  2. Considering the financial investment that groups make toward installing true “monuments”, the knowledge that they could or would be moved around down the road, might become a deterrent towards there efforts. People like the idea of permanence when considering memorializing. The other consideration is the inherent cost in archaeological site testing with every move, something that would become burdensome. Even with simple, less intrusive installations, such as the new trail system at Spotsylvania, careful study is made before any disruption of soil. However, in keeping with the Park’s mission to be au courant, it is a given that future generations will require some additional “annotation” let’s say, as curriculums shift like tectonic plates. The reality is that our history is always subject to the whims and hierarchy of educational systems yet to come.

  3. Like Noel, I am convinced less is more.

    It is of my opinion (and coincidentally this was the tone of the Petersburg National Battlefield General Management Plan 2005 edition) that the battlefields are the greatest monument to the troops. Efforts by a variety of organizations to memorialize every half foot of ground troops contested 1861-1865 to me is a waste of resources while battlefields are constantly lost. Reroute the money to preserve the lands where people battled, suffered, died, won and lost and save the granite and marble for more important things.

    Others mileage will vary.

  4. Emmanuel and John, Great points I hadn’t considered in this cogitation about monuments. Thank you both. Noel


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