The Public Monument in North America

Memory and Memorials

1998 American Studies Senior Seminar, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio

Public monuments resonate with cultural meaning despite their familiarity, and, at times, invisibility (as we sometimes pass them on the street without notice.) They participate in the production and management of public memory by privileging certain historical interpretations over others -- interpretations which often (but not always) consolidate dominant American values. All but one of the monuments under study here shape national identity while addressing local (or vernacular) concerns of the people of Ohio.

The Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial erected in 1915 in Put-in-Bay, South Bass Island, Lake Erie commemorates an important naval victory off the Ohio shore and acknowledges the protracted international peace that followed the War of 1812. In the spirit of reconciliation that dominated post-Reconstruction America, The Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery of 1895 in Columbus, Ohio seeks to embrace the Confederate dead and include them among those dutiful soldiers who are remembered to this day in local Civil War commemorations. In front of the Ohio State Capitol in Columbus stands the William McKinley Memorial Monument of 1906, a monument to a slain native son, President William McKinley, who inaugurated territorial expansion, most significantly, by opening up discussions that led to the building of the Panama Canal and authorizing the annexation of Hawaii. More recently, The May Fourth Memorial, erected in 1990 at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio attempts to remember and assuage the pain of lost student lives during a highly divisive time in American history. The University also announced plans this past summer to close off four parking spots at the site of the confrontation in memory of the event. A monument to a unified America, the USS Arizona Memorial, dedicated in 1962 at Pearl Harbor, honors each serviceperson who fell in the surprise Japanese attack of 1941, and, by extension, serves as a fitting memorial to all those who fought for the principles of freedom and democracy during World War II.

The 1998 American Studies Senior Seminar (American Studies 81) concentrated upon these public monuments as cultural artifacts (expressions of the multi-faceted dimensions of American society), explored the often contentious processes of commissioning these memorials, and investigated the wide range of public responses to each work. In this study, we asked and attempted to answer the following questions: Whose history is commemorated in these public sites? How do we make visible the activity of healing, reconciliation, and forgetting in the memorial process? How does the cultural geography (specific siting) of the memorial convey meaning to its varied audiences? What other traditions of commemorative practices have informed the production of these memorials?

Professor Melissa Dabakis

Peg Tazewell

Sean Clement

Will Valentine

Greg McCarthy

Sarah Weisman

April 1998


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