1 Introduction to Memorials and Monuments

In 1841, the British historian Thomas Carlyle posited that the history of the world was really the biography of great men. Ten years later he argued that when an individual seeks to commemorate one of these great men, it reveals as much about them as it does about the object of their veneration: ‘Show me the man you honour, I know by that symptom, better than any other, what kind of man you yourself are’ (Savage, 2009, pp. 8-10). As it is with individuals, so it is with nations.

Memorial or monument?

People regularly use the words ‘memorial’, ‘monument’ and ‘commemoration’ as synonyms. They are all expressions of memory, which can belong to an individual or to a group in the form of a collective memory. Although there is no clean boundary between them, it is often useful to consider them as different, though interrelated terms.

Commemoration refers to the process whereby individual memories are constructed and repackaged for public consumption. This could take many forms, including an Anzac Day service, an Armistice Day ceremony, or a religious gathering. By watching and participating in a commemorative event, the individual expresses their loyalty to shared views of the past and acknowledges their importance to the present.

Memorial is a broad term that can encompass any effort at commemorating an event or person, particularly when it is associated with loss. It can be a statue, but might just as easily be a community hall, a town’s swimming pool, a book, a scroll, a road or a bridge.

Monument is usually used in more narrow terms to describe a built structure which commemorates – though not always celebrates – an event or person.

The placement of memorials and monuments in public spaces recognises that they offer an officially sanctioned view of history. This provides an insight into the values and ideals of the society that constructed them, and which subsequently maintains them or allows them to fall into disrepair. The memorials and monuments are, however, far from being static repositories of a nation’s history. By acting ostensibly as a public noticeboard (Auster, 1997), they become powerful ideological tools that legitimise what is, in reality, an imagined community (Anderson, 1991). For example, the Arc de Triomphe or ‘Triumphal Arch of the Star’ (Figure 1.1) is one of the most famous monuments in Paris and honours those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

Photo of the Arc de Triomphe with cars driving around it.
Figure 1.1: Arc de Triomphe (1836), in Paris, France. Image by Alexandre Prevot. Used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence.

One of the most common types of public memorials and monuments are those dedicated to commemorating war, and by extension, a vision of citizenship grounded in wartime service and sacrifice. The British Marxist historian Raphael Samuels (1998, p. 8) observes that the role of war in shaping a nation has entered into ‘the very marrow of the national idea’. The Soviet War Memorial (Figure 1.2) is located in the Tiergarten, a large public park to the west of Berlin’s city centre. It is one of several war memorials in Berlin, the capital city of Germany, and was erected by the Soviet Union to commemorate its war dead – particularly the 80,000 soldiers of the Soviet Armed Forces who died during the Battle of Berlin in April and May 1945.

A photo of the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin. A large bed of red roses lays in the middle of the ground. In the background a monument stands with a statue of an person on top.
Figure 1.2: Soviet War Memorial (1945) in Berlin, Germany. Image by Ethan Doyle White. Used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Not all memorials and monuments glorify an event or a person, or affirm an ideology. Counter memorials and monuments often look quite different to traditional memorials and encourage the viewer to think about different perspectives associated with the conflict or person being represented. Counter memorials and monuments also recognise the less celebratory events in a nation’s history (Stevens, et al., 2018). They act to disrupt dominant historical narratives and provide a voice for those marginalised or excluded from the historical record.

For example, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial (Figure 1.3) commemorates gay people killed as part of the systematic state-sponsored murder of six million Jewish people by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during the Second World War. It thereby becomes a universal symbol of the continuing persecution of gay people.

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial, which is a large pink triangle with photos of people's faces.
Figure 1.3: Sydney Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial (2001), New South Wales. Image by Koala:Bear. Used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin is another example of a counter monument. It is comprised of 2,711 concrete stelae – or slabs – arranged across a five acre space. Peter Eisenman, the designer, adopted a deconstructivist approach – one informed by the paradox that the historical rupture of the Holocaust had made such an architectural representation impossible (Rosenfeld, 2016).

Photo of many slabs and blocks in the ground covered in snow. This is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin
Figure 1.4: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005) in Berlin, Germany. Image by Chum Chum. Used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

As the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in 2020 showed, some memorials and monuments are no longer considered appropriate because they celebrate views and ideals now considered anachronistic and potentially offensive. It is important, therefore, to understand the social, political, cultural and historical context of memorials and monuments to ensure the version of history that is portrayed reflects contemporary and democratic ideals, particularly those related to freedom, gender, and citizenship. Memorials and monuments should be constantly re-evaluated, a process that might result in removal, relocation or the placement of additional signage to ensure their continuing relevance. Memory begins, as William Kidd and Brian Murdoch remind us, more or less contemporaneous with the event or the actions of the individual being remembered. Public commemorative acts – which include the construction of memorials and monuments and the rituals conducted at them – draw at least some of their significance and their ongoing resonance from contemporary narratives and agendas. As James Young (1993) observes, memorials appear to remember everything but their own past. The statue of Albert Pike in Washington DC honours a senior officer of the Confederate States Army. It has attracted considerable controversy over the years and was toppled on June 19 2020 (Figure 1.5) after weeks of protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, an African American man murdered during an arrest.

Photo of a statue that has been vandalised
Figure 1.5: Vandalism to the statue of Albert Pike. Image by APK. Used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.

In the Australian context, the war memorial or monument is the most common and most powerful presence in the commemorative landscape. Yet there is limited research on the use of memorials and monuments in educational settings, particularly at the tertiary level. At a school level, the national curriculum delivers a sequenced and thematic study of history in the primary years – one that is well able to facilitate an understanding of local, regional and national history. As Peter Brett (2014, p. 19) has argued, the Australian Curriculum: History provides a foundation for rich and experiential engagement by children with local history and state and national historical narratives. Yet equally important is his added observation that this needs to be ‘mediated by thoughtful professional decision-making that promotes key aspects of historical literacy’. This is particularly true in the use of local history such as the exploration of memorials and monuments. Griffin (2011, p. 4) argues that teachers often avoid visits to historical sites as they ‘frequently find themselves out of their depth and feel inadequate, even frightened, when conducting excursions’. The authors of this textbook believe that a guide to the use of memorials and monuments which provides a theoretical framework and practical approaches for both specialist and generalist teachers can help to surmount the challenges for educators and students, whether they are based in metropolitan, regional or remote contexts.

Photo of a statue of a soldier in Brisbane
Figure 1.6: Oxley War Memorial at Oxley, Brisbane, Queensland. Image by Kgbo. Used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.

Discussion questions

  • What is a memorial?
  • Why do people build them?
  • Can they be private or are they always public?
  • What memorials are located near your school or home? What do they commemorate? What message or idea do they communicate to a viewer? Can that message be interpreted in different ways or is their one ‘correct’ reading?
  • Do the memorials look ‘old’ or ‘new’? What is it about them that influences your opinion?

Wider reading

Smithsonian Institution. (1995, January/February). Art to zoo: Teaching with the power of objects. Smithsonian Institution. http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/educators/lesson_plans/memorials/ATZ_Memorials_JanFeb1995.pdf

War Memorials Trust. (2017). Importance of war memorials. War Memorials Trust. http://www.warmemorials.org/uploads/publications/64.pdf

Queensland War Memorial Register. (2021). Queensland War Memorials Register. Queensland Government, Department of Environment and Science. https://www.qldwarmemorials.com.au/


Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso.

Auster, M. (1997). Monument in a landscape: The question of ‘meaning’. Australian Geographer, 28(2), 219-227. https://doi.org/10.1080/00049189708703194

Boissy, R. W. (2016). The affordable textbook revolution. Against the Grain, 28(5). https://doi.org/10.7771/2380-176X.7514

Brett, P. (2014). ‘The sacred spark of wonder’: Local museums, Australian curriculum history, and pre-service primary teacher education: A Tasmanian case study. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(6), 17-29. http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2014v39n6.8

Griffin, J. (2011). The museum education mix: Students, teachers and museum educators. In D. Griffin & L. Paroissen (Eds.). Understanding museums: Australian museums and museology. National Museum of Australia. https://www.nma.gov.au/research/understanding-museums/JGriffin_2011.html

Kidd, W. & Murdoch, B. (2004). Introduction. In W. Kidd & B. Murdoch (Eds.), Memory and memorials: The commemorative century. Ashgate.

Peter, S., & Deimann, N. (2013). On the role of openness in education: A historical reconstruction. Open Praxis, 5(1), 7-14. https://doi.org/10.4000/dms.2491

Rosenfeld, G. D. (2016). Deconstructivism and the Holocaust: Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. In C. Fogu, W. Kansteiner, & T. Presner (Eds.), Probing the ethics of Holocaust culture (pp. 283-303). Harvard University Press.

Samuel, R. (1998). Island Stories: Unravelling Britain. Verso.

Savage, K. (2009). Monument wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the transformation of the memorial landscape. University of California Press.

Stevens, Q., Franck, K. A., & Fazakerley, R. (2018). Counter-monuments: The anti-monumental and the dialogic. The Journal of Architecture. 23(5), 718-739. https://doi.org/10.1080/13602365.2012.746035

Young, J. E. (1993). The texture of memory: Holocaust memorials and meaning. Yale University Press.


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