Interpretation and Bias in Public Memory, Part One

A pair of posts shared by Andrew Deci, which can also be read on his personal website.
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By Andrew Deci

PART ONE

NOTE: The following post is an excerpt/compilation of excerpts from an essay I prepared for class at the University of Mary Washington. The class, “Public Memory” was a senior seminar which explored interpretation of history and how preservation interacts with that interpretation. It was perhaps my favorite class in college. The readings were focused on two books, Sense of History by David Glassberg and New History in an Old Museum by Richard Handler and Eric Gable.

I’ve divided the essay into two portions; come back tomorrow for more ramblings on interpretation, bias, and public memory.

Each value-stricken generation has a different (or at least changing) interpretation of history, the monuments erected to history, and of how history should be thought of in the future. Although organized groups that erect monuments have a message they want conveyed, each audience member interprets that message in a different way.

Take for instance the World War I memorial in Massachusetts discussed in the book Sense of History. After World War I, the city of Orange sought a way to memorialize its sons who went off to the Great War. Many wanted the standard “triumphant arch” popular during that era that symbolized victory (and as a symbol of loyalty and patriotism). The veterans wished to have a “living memorial” installed, whereby the city would get a beneficial venue and memorialize their efforts in Europe. Eventually, the American Legion installed a cannon and a boulder that memorialized the dead and honored the pursuits of the veterans. As generations changed and American values shifted from honoring the war to learning from the war, another faction wanted to memorialize the war in a different way. Pacifists wanted a memorial that would teach the horrors of war to future generations. Eventually raising the money, they installed a monument depicting a soldier talking to a child; a symbolic monument.

As years progressed, this monument (and more importantly the square upon which it sat) took on different messages. Originally, the square and monument were created to honor the dead and proclaim victory – during the 1970s the monument stood for the horrors of war and war resistance. Residents protested the Vietnam War with the monument in the background.

So what does the monument ultimately convey? Certainly there is no right answer; just as artists do not control the meaning of the artwork, neither do the erectors of monuments. The audience’s interpretation controls the meaning and as generations change, the messages monuments deliver to us also change.

The Victorian Era produced a large number of memorials and set the framework for our modern memorialization efforts. Caught in a liminal stage in American history, the American Victorians were an ‘enlightened,’ resource-laden population that looked to the past in a very nostalgic way. In addition, the Victorians used their control of history as a tool in fending-off coming threats from abroad.

Different from other generations, the Victorians held large quantities of resources – the new industrial era had fueled the growth of an elite class with massive amounts of money. This class enjoyed philanthropy, giving away their money as a tool for establishing how wealthy they were. Nostalgia for ‘how thing were back then’ gave way to a more academic view of history – and for the preservation of sites and the building of monuments. In particular, the Victorian Age struck America at a key time: the Civil War was far-gone enough for it to be remembered as a somewhat happy experience based on valor and honor, but not so far out that personal memory was still apparent.

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