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.


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