Where do monuments go to die? The question may appear incongruous given the urges that have motivated the making of monuments since the beginnings of human time. Monuments are gestures of defiance and bulwarks of resistance against the inevitability of oblivion. Written, sculpted, chiseled and etched in durable materials resistant to emendation or relocation, they seek to render memories indelible by means of indelible modes of marking and making. The operation usually succeeds for as long as the memories in question linger within the lived experience of a given community. Sometimes they survive for a generation, even two. On rare occasions they persist for longer periods, particularly when associated with moments of collective trauma or battles over collective identity.
Once such collective memories fade, however, the monument crosses a threshold. If it is to live on, it must accrue new meanings (civic, political, architectural or personal). Otherwise, it confronts the fate that the Austrian writer Robert Musil declared as the ultimate destiny of all monuments: invisibility. “There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument,” writes Musil, “they are no doubt erected to be seen [..] but at the same time they are impregnated with something that repels attention, causing the glance to roll right off, like water droplets off an oilcloth, without even pausing for a moment.” Like ours, the world Musil lived in was brimming over with monuments and historical markers. The vast majority of them were visible but unseen. At some point in past, perhaps at the very moment of their inauguration, they became little more than empty memory containers as is the case of so many monuments dedicated to the likes of Columbus, Bolívar and other revolutionaries throughout South America, neglected were it not for the spotlight that protests occasionally shine on them. Invisibility in plain sight is where the vast majority of monuments “go to die.”
As Musil hints, the modern era has long struggled with ambivalence when it comes to historical monuments. On the one hand, it continues to churn them out: at an equal or greater pace than at any other time in human history. On the other, it is haunted by their persistence. The reasons are multiple. Many monuments seem undemocratic, carrying the cult of great men over into a present characterized by the politics of popular sovereignty. Others appear to elide or bury the actual violence and injustices of the world they memorialize. Some still lure the community’s gaze backward towards a misty, rose-tinted vision of the past instead of setting its sights on the challenges of the present and future. Monuments mythify and mystify. And most speak the less and less familiar language of ancient or early modern monumental forms. This is why modern artists and architects from Vladimir Tatlin and Mies van der Rohe to Jochen Gerz and Maya Lin to Doris Salcedo, have dedicated themselves to the production of counter-monuments. This is also why thinkers like Lewis Mumford considered monuments as antithetical to modernity itself: “The notion of a modern monument is veritably a contradiction in terms. If it is a monument, it is not modern, and if it is modern, it cannot be a monument.”
The unease just alluded to has often crossed my mind over the course of the past few years as memory markers throughout the New and Old World have come under renewed scrutiny and pressure. Whether memorials to conquistadors like Francisco Pizarro or Pedro de Valdivia, to the slave-owning generals of the Confederate South or to Central American strongmen, the works in question are, without exception, unexceptional. They recycle conventional, classically derived forms in the service of narratives of conquest, assertions of power or postures of defiance. So, while they mostly pass unobserved as works of sculpture, architecture or art, they continue to mark a buried wound in the body politic that is unburied at the time of social flash points: moments of upheaval like the ones we have been living through in the wake of such events as the killing of George Floyd. The range of solutions proposed for such unwelcome residues of the past includes elimination, modification, substitution, transfer and recontextualization. Each has its strong arguments for and against it. What remains a given, in my view, is that no uniform solution recommends itself. This is because each and every monument tells a story. And that story is time-, site-, and monument-specific.
As a historian, curator and designer, I am generally disinclined to embrace practices of demolition, although I recognize that there are legitimate instances in which the social wound a monument marks is simply too deep or the sheer mediocrity of the work argues against preservation. The problem with outright acts of erasure is that they tend to be expressions of presentism, which is to say, the belief that only present things truly exist or matter, by extension, that our responsibility to the historical past and future is, at most, a secondary consideration. In order to address an abiding sensitivity or injustice, they efface the very marker that points to the source of what ails the body politic. Rather than prompting reflection upon this history, they proclaim a fresh start. Yet, in the absence of a critical engagement with that past, just how certain can we be that the present and future won’t continue to be just as haunted as was the past? Demolition is akin to what psychoanalysts refer to as repression. Repression is a strategy that works… up to a point. At that point, the repressed sets to work plotting its return (often with a vengeance).
The above conviction is rooted in my personal experience as chief curator of BZ ’18-’45: a repurposing of Marcello Piacentini’s Monument to Victory in the northern Italian city of Bolzano. Built in 1926-1928, this squared-off triumphal arch was the first monument erected by Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. Literally built out of the ground-up remains of a prior Austrian World War I monument, funded in part by the voluntary donations of ordinary Italian “patriots,” the Monument to Victory is an unabashed work of nationalist propaganda: the victory in question was that of Italy over Austria and its southern Tyrolian allies. It was also the cornerstone of Mussolini’s efforts to “Italianize” and “fascistize” the capitol city of this majority German-speaking region that was once annexed to Austria. The result was predictable: from the time of its completion, the monument was continuously targeted for demolition by antifascists and separatists, while it was celebrated and employed as a staging ground by Italian nationalists and neofascists. After 70-plus years of conflict, with the collective memories of the interwar period already beginning to fade in the minds of younger members of the populace, a panel of Italian and German historians and archivists persuaded the region’s leadership that the time had come to “normalize” the Monument to Victory. A team of designers, curators and historians was appointed to undertake this politically sensitive task. I was the sole foreign member of that team.
After several years of work (2011-2014), much of it carried out in secret due to political sensitivities as well as the objections of preservationists, the monument was restored to its original grandeur but visibly altered in the process. The once closed-off mausoleum was, as it were, “disinterred,” opened up to the public and transformed into a documentation center that rigorously reconstructed the history of the region during the 1918-1945 period on the basis of the best contemporary scholarship. The history of the monument itself as a work of architecture and complex of artworks was reconstructed in parallel with the historical narrative. At the heart of the itinerary around the mausoleum is a room that serves as “the living archive of the city of Bolzano”: a site for public engagement with the region’s historical archives. The exterior façade was modified and its symmetry disrupted by the addition of an LED ring around one of the columns.
Spinning day and night, this mark of contemporaneity announces not only events taking place below the monument within BZ ’18-’45, but also (and more importantly) symbolically re-weds the monument to the Bolzano of today. Despite the controversy that accompanied its opening, BZ ’18-’45 is now regularly visited by up to 60,000 visitors a year, including large delegations from local schools, and serves as the hub for public programming that critically examines the history of the Alto Adige region during the span of two world wars and two dictatorships.
What I have just described was a complex operation, well suited to “normalizing” a significant work of architecture by one of Italy’s most prominent mid-20th century architects. Doubtless, it is ill-suited to confronting your standard run-of-the-mill representation of Stonewall Jackson or Christopher Columbus or bandeirante. But the observably catalytic impact of such a careful, comprehensive approach on the politics of a once divided region has persuaded me that, in the long run, modification, recontextualization and even substitution are more productive propositions than outright elimination, particularly when these practices involve the critical or creative reuse of elements from the predecessor monument.
Repurposing is nothing new. Monuments have been subject to alteration throughout the course of human history. Ancient rulers revised inscriptions on edifices of political significance like the Roman Colosseum where the 5th-6th-century epigraph that celebrates the building’s restoration once read “Emperor Caesar Vespasian Augustus ordered a new amphitheater to be made from spoils.” It sufficed to insert the letter T between the first two words to shift credit for the building’s restoration from Vespasian Augustus to his son Titus Vespasian Augustus. Likewise, at the Athenian Parthenon, buildings were frequently altered, recycled or rebuilt with a sharp sense of the political symbolism involved. Far from erasing the dynamics of privilege and power, such operations expose them, leaving traces of the process by which, layer upon layer, meanings accrue, clash, and intermingle. It is the density of the resulting palimpsest that invites deeper, more sustained modes of critical and civic engagement, not to mention granting flavor and texture to the world’s historical cities.
When it comes to effective strategies of alteration or recontextualization, it is important to note that permanent interventions often take a back seat to provisional repurposings. Cases in point, to cite only instances that involve the use of laser projection, include Krzysztof Wodiczko’s 1998 site intervention at Boston’s Bunker Hill Monument (transformed into a stage on which mothers spoke of their lived experiences of violence and tyranny); the Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction’s fleeting transformation of the façade of the Guggenheim Museum into a protest billboard in March 2014; and, bringing us full circle back to the present, Dustin Klein’s 2020 projections of images of black citizens killed at the hands of police, as well as historic figures like Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman and Billie Holiday, onto the lone remaining Confederate statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia—the Robert E. Lee Monument. Lawsuits may come and go, memories may flare, smolder or burn out, legislation may creep forward or languish in committees, but such event-based interventions can activate monuments from the past in the present with a unique power and poignancy. Evading the pitfalls of permanent solutions, walking a tightrope between present needs and preservationist urges, they mine the expressive power of frictions between eras, ideologies and even styles of memory marking and making.
I have left one strategy for last because it’s the one that most directly addresses the question of the eventual resting place of controversial monuments: transfer. Relocating a monument is a forceful gesture. It reframes the work and, when it involves placing it in conversation with other monuments, it invites comparative reflection upon the context within which and the conventions according to which each work was forged. Given the degree to which site imbues monuments with so much of their significance, relocation doesn’t just strip away past meanings but generates new ones (as in the case of Napoleon’s strategic integration of pilfered Egyptian obelisks into the urban fabric of imperial Paris). Rather than defusing, relocation establishes a new framework of meaning which implies the need for a no less weighty critical and curatorial hand than do strategic repurposings like BZ ’18-‘45.
So let’s conclude with an idea that has been gaining traction over recent years in the United States: the building of a monument cemetery or park made up of relocated monuments to the southern Confederacy. The idea has much to recommend it. But how precisely might it be implemented?
It could be envisaged as an open-air depository like the Las Vegas Neon Museum with its 150 unrestored neon signs assembled willy nilly, where decommissioned monuments are exposed to the elements in a manner that reduces their status to that of relics or ruins that have been cut adrift of history. Or it could be shaped into a site for critical reflection on the identitarian myth of the Confederacy as it developed at the turn of the 20th century and how this myth translated into a politics of monument making. Or it could be developed into a site where the memories of the Confederacy and Confederate war dead are respectfully preserved and cordoned off from contemporary society, yet the very act of concentrating them in a single place runs the risk of transforming that location into a site of pilgrimage for groups that seek to keep the myth of the Confederacy alive. In summary, there is no escaping the entangled character of the choices that have to be made when it comes to shaping collecting memories. As Musil notes, the vast majority of monuments may lie buried in plain sight. But, seen or unseen, their fate, natural or induced, rests in the hands of the living.
Jeffrey Schnapp occupies the Carl Pescosolido Chair in Romance and Comparative Literatures at Harvard University. He is the faculty director and founder of metaLAB (at) Harvard, an idea foundry, knowledge design lab, and production studio housed at the Graduate School of Design.
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