Atkinson Forum Looks at Place, Memory, and the Public Monument
The power of monuments to speak to us, as individuals and communities, has been brought to the fore in dramatic fashion with the removal of Confederate statues and memorials throughout the South in recent years.
Heated debate was conducted in cities including Baltimore, Memphis, and New Orleans, when these memorials were relocated or destroyed, culminating in the clash between white supremacists and activists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, when an activist was struck by a car and killed.
But beyond eliciting such visceral reactions, monuments are an integral component of community development, of establishing place and history, and defining culture, according to Jeffrey Chusid, chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning. In November, Chusid used the recent controversy surrounding Civil War monuments as the foundation for a conversation about how communities identify people and places for commemoration, and how those choices are implemented through planning, design, and art.
That discussion, titled "Place, Memory, and the Public Monument," was conducted under the auspices of the Atkinson Forum in American Studies at Cornell. The two-day symposium was paired with an exhibition, 1000 Portraits, specially commissioned for the forum from the artist Mel Ziegler. The symposium included presentations by a historian, an architect, a cultural observer, artists, and other Cornell faculty. The exhibition, which featured multiple vernacular reproductions of the four presidents from Mt. Rushmore, served as a provocation to the symposium attendees as well as Ziegler's own response to the phenomenon of souvenirs as a kind of second-order form of memorialization.
Edward Ayers, Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond, delivered the keynote address, "Reckoning with Ourselves: Principle and Persuasion in Remembering the Civil War."
As a Civil War historian, Ayers is well versed on the monuments representing that era and their impact on the local and national consciousness. He described his work with the City of Richmond, Virginia, which formed a commission to evaluate what to do with the large number of Confederate statues on Monument Avenue.
Meetings with many local community groups led him to the conclusion that "Debates over Civil War statues allow those statues, after a long silence, to speak to us again. It turns out we still have things to learn from them, but not always what their builders hoped to teach," he said.
Any conversation about monuments must confront the history people think those monuments represent, he noted, but it seldom does. "We need a better language of persuasion. Not merely more reasoned and measured, but fuller and more accurate," he said. "I would prefer that the large number of people who think the Confederacy fought for states' rights understood the only right they fought for was the right to extend perpetual bondage across the rest of the continent."
The monument dispute provides an opportunity to dispel these distortions of the truth about the Civil War and its cause, Ayers said.
"The great Civil War monument is yet to be built, yet to be imagined," he said. "It will need to help us remember the nearly 800,000 Americans who died, and the four million Americans freed. It will need to find its language — a language worthy of the stories that we need to remember."
Chusid, in his talk, touched on the importance of monuments and memorials to planning. "We know that they project, or advance, political goals and intentions and often involve a public political process to make them happen. They also often represent, facilitate, or further economic goals and development schemes," he said.
In addition to expressing or affirming a community's values, he noted, monuments and memorials are physical elements within the cultural landscape. "They have materiality, which involves craftspeople; and builders and design, which involves artists. They have scale. Some are hardly noticeable; others impact their surroundings significantly, often becoming important elements of urban design," he said.
Chusid presented memorials in Los Angeles; Mostar, Bosnia; and Berlin as sites where public history, place, and community intersect. In L.A., the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument was designed to recognize the Mexican history of the city by creating an artificial Mexican street and marketplace that remains a popular tourist attraction.
The Stari Most bridge in Mostar, built in 1566, was destroyed in 1993 during the war in Yugoslavia, in what Chusid said was described as "an act of killing memory." The bridge, with local support, was reconstructed 15 years ago, a memorial of conciliation that made international headlines.
Chusid continued his discussion of wars and memorials with a look at Berlin and its vast array of monuments and memorials both large and small. They include monuments and statuary from wars past that have been repurposed and placed in a new context, stones that commemorate the victims of Nazi oppression, and an old church ruin converted into one component of a modern memorial.
J. Meejin Yoon (B.Arch. '95), an architect and designer of the firm Höweler and Yoon Architects and the newly appointed Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of AAP, is creating a special place at the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville to memorialize the enslaved laborers who built and worked at the university in the 19th century.
That memorial, comprising a large circular form built in a field on the grounds formerly used as a garden worked by the enslaved, was designed with significant input from the university and local community, she explained.
"UVA did not designate a site, a budget, or scale. But they did designate that the memorial should come out of a true and genuine community engagement process," Yoon explained. "That is really a challenge because not everyone feels comfortable even coming to community engagement meetings."
Yoon and her team of designers and artists visited local schools and churches. They provided an online survey and an Instagram account to share the planning process. The result is the Freedom Ring, an open space designed for public gatherings and tied to the city's annual Freedom Day march and celebration. It includes names of the enslaved carved into a stone memorial, and "recognizes the life and the resiliency of the enslaved and the human spirit," she said.
The symposium also included a presentation by Erika Doss, professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame; and a panel discussion featuring Thomas J. Campanella, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in CRP; Sandra E. Greene, the Stephen '59 and Madeline '60 Anbinder Professor of African History at Cornell; Emily Bergeron (Ph.D. CRP '17), assistant professor in the Department of Historic Preservation at the University of Kentucky; and Jennifer Minner, assistant professor in CRP. Artist Mel Ziegler's work, 1000 Portraits, was on display in Bibliowicz Family Gallery in Milstein Hall from October 11 to November 15. The artist, curator, and former art department chair, Patricia Phillips, held an evening discussion of Ziegler's work and career, much of which has focused on the act of commemoration and the importance of memory.
By Jay Wrolstad