Monuments and Memory, by Keyan Ye

September 18, 2020

[Reading List]

Racialized Landscapes: Representation and Points of Divergence

“Take James McGill Down” is an initiative kickstarted in 2020 by the Black Students’ Network of McGill and students of colour. It urges McGill University to acknowledge the role of slavery in the founding of the university by removing the statue of James McGill and replacing it with a physical memorialization of the people enslaved by him. This initiative is part of a generalized call for action in the academic and public realms to reassess the meaning of these physical manifestations of cultural memory, decades and sometimes centuries after their construction. Monuments populate the built landscape through stories and narratives. The narratives, which surpass the temporality of events they refer to, often reflect racialized systems. These systems contain social and political inequalities, which collide with a history of social justice uprising worldwide. Although monuments can invoke profound and painful connections to systemic racism, they are also objects of interest for historic preservation. This challenges the place they should (or should not) occupy in our society in 2020. This essay aims to identify points of divergence within such debates, especially where racial processes have been spatialized.

From a semiotic perspective, monuments produce meaning through symbols the interpretation of which is learned through culture.

Monuments have been erected in times of great change and profound disruption in history. Their permanence aspires to communicate memories from the past to the present. As physical structures such as buildings and institutions and non-visible structures such as political agendas and legal jurisdictions have evolved, monuments require a critical re-evaluation to address future perspectives in terms of ethical standpoints. Semiotics theorist Charles Sanders Pierce, referenced by Black visual culture and academic Courtney R. Baker, and, studied non-linguistic sign systems and their capacity to produce meaning in a variety of ways. “Icon” and “index” have either physical resemblance or evidence of what is being represented, while “symbols” require an interpretative consensus on their meaning. Unlike photographs that replicate the past, monuments ― as symbols ― link signifiers to sometimes completely contrasting signified references depending on personal opinion, background, beliefs and culture. This seems to be a common problem when specific actors are depicted in monuments. While they allude to frame a broader significance, that of the historical moment, they cannot be neutral or objective. In contrast, monuments that demonstrate a certain level of ‘abstraction’ increase the scope of the “signified” and seem to be more socially accepted. Examples such as the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial in Washington D.C. and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin use geometrical masses in a non-hierarchical manner that convey meaning to a transect of history with the use of symbols that have a relatively neutral cultural interpretation.

Monuments share a collective narrative and re-evaluation of their future potentials should be read in the same way.

In reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement, local and international protests have led to a number of monument removals across the United States.1 The statue of Robert E. Lee in Virginia is part of a series of monuments celebrating the white supremacist heroes of the Confederate States2 built after the American Civil War (1861-1865). Slavery was a central theme in the conflict that led to the war between the Northern states and the southern Confederate States, aka the “slave states,” which had ceded from the United States of America. The South lost the war, yet the Confederate monuments and memorials funded and built since the Civil War argue to depict white supremacy and justify slavery. Thus, the statue of Lee echoes an inherent history of systemic racism and enslavement. The demonstrations in Virginia in June 2020 against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd reanimated the debate on Confederate monuments such as the Robert E. Lee statue. The Governor Ralph Northam’s announcement of the removal of the statue from the state capital had repercussions around the country and around the world3 which testify that the preservation of these living memories is contested more than ever. Architectural historian Dell Upton thinks that “in all cases great goods and great evils coexist incommensurately and no final accounting convincing to everyone can be made”4 which reveals the complexity of history shaped by individuals. Thomas Jefferson, Mohandas Gandhi and Indro Montanelli are all examples of renowned contributors to human rights while their “personal actions fell far short of their professed ideals.”5 An important idea here is to stop centring the debate on the appropriateness of the monuments based on the personal lives of the depicted individuals and shift the discussion to their collective narrative. By analyzing the broader context, it is clear that many institutions and our public realm present traces of a colonial past that have not only disregarded the rights and freedoms of Black people but also Indigenous people and women of colour. Actions like replacing, removing or relocating monuments or, as Duke University scholar Jessica Namakkal calls it, re-naming as decolonization, would mean considering all streets, universities, institutions, infrastructures and so on that express this collective meaning. Overall, regardless of one’s position in the debate of the future of monuments, it is important to consider them as a whole, invoking a collective narrative and stop analyzing them individually.

Monuments are artifacts of our history, but they are intrinsically part of the public realm, unlike history books.

As stated previously, it is challenging to separate a person’s personal life from their contributions to history. Although personal actions cannot be justifiable, advocates of freedom and civil rights provide a legacy that is generally not censored in history books. Architectural historian Dell Upton insists on the distinction between history and the commemoration of history. An obvious example would be Adolf Loos as an influential and pioneer of modern architecture and as a child molester. Nonetheless, his theories are still widely studied in architecture schools around the world. However, an essential distinction between characters in history books and in monuments is that they physically occupy the built environment that is deemed public. The Richmond judge declared that the Robert E. Lee statue belonged to the people. Like the Uncle Sam statue at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, those monuments occupy central places in parks, university campuses, public plazas, etc. As objects occupying the public landscape, monuments possess an inherent power to represent culture and the favourable or adverse responses resulting of those representations. The place monuments occupy in our present times is a complicated question, and the topic of monuments and memory isolates different points of divergence. They aim to remind that monuments are time markers which capture very sensible and contested collective memory. This session will discuss and imagine creative ways to rework those memories as they carry onto the future.


Aimee Ortiz and Johnny Diaz, “Removal of Confederate Symbols in the U.S.,” New York Times, September 12, 2020.

South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina.

3 Johnny Diaz, Christine Hauser, Jason M. Bailey, et al., “How Statues Are Falling Around the World,” New York Times, September 12, 2020.

Dell Upton, “Monuments and Crimes,” Journal 18, June, 2020.


12 responses to “Monuments and Memory, by Keyan Ye”

  1. Muhammad Awan says:

    Monuments, as you stated, “aspire to communicate memories from the past to the present.” The use of the word “memories” is interesting, because memories can be distorted, and so certain monuments – like the Robert E. Lee statue in Virginia – can depict a distorted historical narrative, that is more in line with people’s opinions of history rather than history itself. In this regard, you made a very good point that remembering history as being shaped by individuals is a flawed practice – for this will not be a neutral or objective endeavour. So, shifting the discussion from individual lives to collective narratives is needed. This, along with the finding that monuments with a certain level of ‘abstraction’ seem to be more socially accepted, points to a way forward that involves setting our sights away from these outdated forms of commemoration towards the powerful examples in Washington D.C. and Berlin that you mentioned.

  2. michellebrais says:

    For me, two aspects of these reflections on monuments stood out. First, it was eye opening to examine how the erection of statues and monuments of historical figures are made to seem like the society has a collective consensus of what marked our history in a city, region or nation. I never thought to second guess who is being commemorated and whether the moments in history that they represent are the ones that I agree should shape our collective identity. Everything that I was taught in history in high school, here in Montreal, about the settlers are emulated in monuments such as the Maisonneuve monument in Place D’Armes which commemorates several figures implicated in the creation of Ville-Marie on Iroquois land and the cross on Mount-Royal, which is an iconic part of Montreal’s landscape, which also represents Maisonneuve’s creation of the city and the religious mission that the settlers came with. We are constantly reminded throughout space, not only through monuments but also through nomenclature of institutions, streets, airports, and train stations, of the same people and same stories which taught us that the white people are the rightful owners of this land and their (often racist) practices are what were essential to shaping our culture today. Second, I resonate with Keyan’s point about analysing statues not based on the individual’s character and practices but rather to look at the sum of the monuments and the collective meaning that they express. It may be pointless to attack each monument individually and rather lobby for the changing of all colonial monuments and urban nomenclatures. On a different note, when imagining what could replace these monuments, I wonder if it is even a good practice to sculpt out specific individuals to symbolise our history and our values. Are people and faces the best way symbolise our diversity? Does putting individuals on a pedestal not send a message of self-madeness? Isn’t part of the issue of remembering specific people, forgetting about the support and collective effort that were essential to building our society in those times?

  3. Rachel Law says:

    A very interesting pair of readings and a succinct reflection, Keyan!
    Reflecting on monuments as a collective truly shifts the narrative. In that vein, these monuments as symbols carry collective meaning. Their embodied significance and meaning are inflated, reinforced, and perpetuated throughout our collective storytelling, which is formalized in our education and history books delivered and written by the ruling class.
    The location of these public monuments is also worth considering. Baker noted that most of these public monuments are located at institutions. The relationship between “knowledge and exclusionary power” is explicit in the conception of these institutions. As highlighted in Nelson’s work last week, Harvard was designed to suppress and erase the indigenous people and maintain the “divine right” of the whites (Nelson, p. 68). Not only do monuments conflate the values of the past, but their presence affects the behaviours of those in the space that they occupy, suppressing some while amplifying others.
    In recent protests and discourse, citizens and activists have participated in actions to decolonize spaces marked by monuments, subverting the widely accepted and expected behaviours and attitudes in these public spaces. Artist Terry Kilby captured a 3D scan of the Robert E. Lee monument on June 15, 2020, after several BLM protests in the area. Kilby stated in an interview: “It had transformed… It was now serving as a beacon of hope for people during the Black Lives Matter movement… It is carved in digital stone right now. There is no taking it back.” Kilby found a way to preserve protest and public discourse by immortalizing a moment in time. He captured the construction of a (new) monument.

  4. Aamirah says:

    The truth that monuments are part of the collective memory, is as you stated proof that they “cannot be neutral or objective.” I agree that the ability to distort history and its narration through a physical object simply reinforces existing and past hierarchies. Stories and events of the past are filtered through the white lens, leaving the rest to question whether their own histories are worthy or of value to the collective. This fulfills erasure of the abused from history without any additional action on part of those who to seek to maintain a status of power.

    The point that monuments need to be analyzed as a whole rather than at the individual level, leaves me to believe that a significant problem is the use of the figure as the monument. It fuels tendencies of idolization, the likes of which we can easily see today through mediums such as social media. The ease of filtering out the bad to present an image of near or complete perfection parallels to the use of monuments as a reconstruction of the personal image in a way that best appeals to the masses. I wonder how differently historical narratives would carry through the years, trickle through our memories, and be contested, were it never represented through figures, but rather through abstract shapes and forms.

  5. Zoe Goodman says:

    As Keyan expressed in her essay – when specific actors are depicted in monuments, they cannot be considered neutral. The Vietnam Veterans War Memorial in Washington D.C. and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin as mentioned in Keyan’s essay shift the narrative from the individual to the collective. Abstraction seems to be successful in re-thinking the way we erect monuments today. These two abstract monuments are also architectural. They provide an interactive, emotional, spatial experience for visitors with less direct cultural symbolism.

    How do we deal with existing disputed monuments like the statue of James Mcgill? The baker reading points to one interesting solution. Artists Ti-Rock Moore and Nicholas Brierre Aziz produced images and videos which complete change the meaning of the monument they engaged with. Maybe a way to deal with disputed monuments is altering them so that their narratives are turned on their heads.

  6. Tara Selvaraj says:

    If individuals are commemorated for professional feats by the work and achievements of the many, perhaps they should bear the burden of the immoral action that was not just singular to them. I would argue that questioning the moral nature of individuals that monuments, streets, and institutions have been named after has enabled us to learn alternate histories. Currently, monuments are marked as flawed and contested as we see they have further repressed certain historical narratives. It’s important to give these narratives a voice, whether existing monuments are replaced or kept and new ones added. These uncovered histories should be commemorated, alongside existing monuments, to remind us of our past, a history we may not be proud of – and to create a new collective memory of this changing time that responds to the history of our past.
    They are also bringing to light that history was regarded to be in the control of a few powerful individuals. We should question this way of teaching but also the power hierarchy that has existed. If monuments are to remind, to advise, or to warn, perhaps it is the time to commemorate acts of resistance to remind us to question our power structures and to warn there will be resistance.

  7. Olivera Neskovic says:

    As a more aware and informed society takes the place of those who lived alongside slavery and racism in silence, the monuments of the past no longer continue to serve that society in the same way. An element of temporality seems to be missing from public discourse, often fueled by “the concept of ‘historic preservation’, [which] is often used to thwart changes in the civic landscape” (Upton). How are we often quick to demolish or deface a historic building, full of stories, life and meaning, in the name of “progress”?

    Although abstract forms are objectively more neutral as monuments, as stated by Baker in The Loud Silence of Monuments, the
    monument consists of three parts: index, icon and symbol, none of which need to be represented by a figure in order to portray their inherent meaning. A particular meaning or feeling can be conveyed through an abstract symbol, sometimes even more strongly and the meaning need not always be “good”.

    Many examples of relatively abstract monuments erected in the Soviet era, but hold an incredible power, nonetheless. There form may be interpreted objectively in many ways, but they too represent power, societal norms, and historic events. The time of their erection remains also the same. A similar example arises in Upton’s work, in the form of a Confederate obelisk. Perhaps the argument is not as simple as the form of the monument. I believe it is about rethinking the space that the monuments take up and reframing the conversation about “removal”.

    The power of the examples in Baker’s piece is not that the reimagined monuments are abstract, it is that they are blatantly not. Placing contemporary ideas, figures or icons that better represent the collective trajectory of society today, is shocking enough, since we are so damn stuck in our old ways.

    Perhaps we have just “outgrown” these figures and monuments, once idolized. The issue with complete erasure and removal of visual history, as discussed by Dell Upton, is that it removes the story from the public eye. How can we perhaps, like many of the monuments of Berlin and the Berlin Wall, spatially describe the hole which exists in our understanding of slavery within history? I believe there is a chance here to dive into the public re-education. Is it enough to design a space for these “fallen” monuments – like the museums of Rome and Greece, where the statues and domestic items of fallen empires are protected and described in objective detail? How can we rethink the space around these fallen monuments to describe the void in our collective knowledge?

  8. Christina Mahut says:

    Thank you Keyan for this eye-opening essay.
    I find these diverging points of views to be very conflicting. Specifically, statements involving what it means to preserve or erase history, and the distinctions between history and the commemoration of history. In a way, in their assertion of permanence as intemporal structures, it feels as though monuments are preventing the creation of further history.
    As Keyan mentioned, there is a difference between history books, that log and archive, and track, to preserve knowledge, and the commemoration of history, which deems a specific element of history valuable enough to be a central part in public urban landscapes. It seems that some key events of history are missing in history books, while these same elements are celebrated in public space.
    Will we get to a point where our whole city is no longer reflective of our collective social values (and how do we define these?)? Are our cities anchored in the past if the collective narrative cannot be touched, cannot change or evolve?

  9. Genna Kalvaitis says:

    Thank you Keyan for a thoughtful and important essay.
    The question of “what place should monuments take up in 2020” brings two important things into focus for me. First, monuments take up physical space, PUBLIC space, and that is powerful. Second, the perception and importance of monuments is temporal and to ignore this is to deny the shifting of collective human culture throughout time.

    Arguing about the merits and faults and specific memorialized individuals is a challenge and one I’m not going to attempt to pin down. The power of a spacialized public monument is however something definitive and undeniable. As they claim space in the public realm, it is imperative to acknowledge that they are informing our culture and speaking to a certain narrative. Within the public space they communicate and commemorate so much more than the memory of a historic event.the power and agency to address the public narrative should rest in the hands of the public. Does this present a challenge as public perception changes over time? Certainly. To ignore this change, however, is irresponsible and unethical.

    The shifting of our collective cultural narrative is one that deserves critical attention and effort. This does not constitute or call for the erasure of history as some opposed to this seem to argue. It acknowledges the divergence between the narrative of the monument and that of the public. This becomes especially critical in issues of race, as certain narratives of evoke pain and clearly contribute to the perpetuating of ideals that are racist and fundamentally incorrect.

  10. Michael Nugent says:

    Both the Upton and Baker explore the roll of monuments and the monomialization of historic figures within a period of social self-reflection as Western society (particularly North America) reconciles with the morality of its past and the role which slavery, dehumanization, marginalization, and systemic oppression of ethno-racial grounds played in the formation of the world we currently inhabit.
    Upton explores this through the frameworks of legal institutions and governing bodies, highlighting tension between growing public opinion and the preservationist policies citing an abstract “public” benefit as a means of maintaining the status quo. However, it raises the question of whether governing bodies and enduring institutions actually reflect and are representative of the “will of the people” and acting upon that will, or if they are primarily concerned with their own preservation. Baker quotes Karl Jacoby, “once we know this past, we need to ask ourselves what the responsibilities of this knowledge of our history places on us, the living”. If statues are truly intended for “public” then as a public, we must evaluate and decide what to do with our monuments. As a society, we must decide what social and moral values we choose to celebrate and want our society to reflect. As Baker discusses, the majority of Confederate monuments were constructed decades after the Civil War, with the goal of celebrating and monumentalizing the racial superiority and humanization which was core to the Confederacy. These values are in direct conflict with our current social values and morals and go against the views of the majority of the public. As a public, we have the agency and moral obligation to decide what we and how we want to monumentalize.

  11. Andrew Ashbury says:

    Thank you Keyan for pointing us towards these readings and for guiding a really interesting discussion today.
    The symbolism and iconography of new monuments is a fascinating question for us as architecture students today, as it is for all fields of design: who or what, if anything, should be highlighted by statues or buildings–or as pointed out in today’s discussion–by stamps, currency, and endless other public and institutional media? Explicit symbols are certainly rare in contemporary architecture today, in favour of more minimalist approaches or affective priorities that avoid embedding specific narratives, remaining “neutral” in their references. This avoids some of the problems highlighted by Dell Upton’s essay where flawed individual histories make a statue unacceptable, no matter what the statue was originally intended to celebrate. Furthermore, I certainly share the growing revulsion towards the specific traditional figures celebrated by many Canadian monuments like Sir John A. Macdonald or James McGill. In our group’s discussion today however, arising among other’s ideas and prompts, I found myself second guessing my usual design instincts that would favour neutral, non-specific strategies towards symbols: I realized that I feel there is still a powerful role to be played by future monuments by celebrating a specific person, such as an underdog figure of these ongoing movements for racial justice. That potential power for a monument to highlight a specific story, one that has been traditionally erased and overlooked, is urgently needed today in Canadian cities and on our campus.

  12. Christopher Clarke says:

    Monuments are nothing new, nor are their purposes. They have been built by humans for millennia and are done so to convey a message to their audience, the populace. However, the society determines that meaning through learned histories (Baker, 2019), often reinforcing the idea of one race’s superiority over another. Thus, the monument becomes propaganda, and perpetuates those negative and untrue denotations. In doing so, the dominating race continues it supposed superiority, while reinforcing the inferiority of those they have dominated in the past, often to both groups of people.
    Furthermore, monuments are architectures, in that they create a phenomenological event within the space that they occupy. That phenomenology can be the feeling one receives simply due to its massing and location on a site, or it can be influenced from learned experience from the stories that are passed down from on generation to the next (Baker, 2019). Although monuments of Indigenous people and generally erected for spiritual or information purposes, such as the Inuksuit of the Inuit, which, depending on their organization, can mean a marking of a deceased person or location; many colonial monuments are erected during times of unrest (Upton, 2020), and often depict a person in power of the often racist oppressors.
    Monuments of the later must fall; so that those they affect negatively, often those that come from oppressed races in a society, can be at ease. Thus, fallism, as it is coming to be known (Hicks, 2020), can allow those that experience the intergenerational trauma of slavery and colonialism to live without their presence. In this way, that negative phenomenology of simply being in their present in the space that they exist can be eliminated; thereby eliminating reliving those injustices in perpetuity.

Leave a Reply

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.