Remembrance of things past

As I have visited a dozen monuments of World War II in the past few weeks – to the RAF in the Battle of Britain, to the Londoners who helped fight bombs and fire in the Blitz, to the Jews murdered in the Holocaust, to a man who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1939 – I have had at the back of my mind one New York Times article contemplating the “half-life” of memorials

Few people know what it actually stands for even when they are standing on it….One generation’s solemn effort to never forget is another generation’s skateboard platform. Never is an awfully long time.

The author was contemplating the Prison Ships Martyrs Monument in New York City, built to commemorate over 11,000 who died prisoners in the Revolutionary War. At the time, it was a tragedy of grave proportions; now, it is something that I had never learned in history books, and might never have known if this one journalist had not stopped there to watch the towers burning on 9/11.

Yet while there is a certain truth to the claim that our true memorials are changes in law and society, to ensure that a tragedy never happens again, but memorials themselves may be critical to broader cultural shifts. Psychoanalysts (Freud’s legacy lives on) have theories of monuments, with “hot” memorials invoking shame and mourning, and “cool” monuments focused more on reflection; I’m not sure most memorials are so easily categorized, but whether they invoke mourning, reflection, or a more complex combination of emotion, they can change our perspective on the past.

Memorials create focal points for collective memory, which can be built around the conversations provoked by it, in person or in media. For those who visit memorials to events that occurred during their lifetime, those memorials may contribute to considering one’s own life events in the third person, which can help create emotional distance and help us see how we’ve changed. Constructing memories in the lifetime of those who have lived through a tragedy is more than just a showpiece or a consolation; it can actually change how we view events.

Memorials can also help pass history on to future generations. Our memories are far stronger when they come with emotion, so any memorial that provokes an emotional response has a chance to stick in the minds of the visitors far better than any account in a history textbook. Many memorials also come with a story attached, of who is being remembered and why, and stories also have a far better chance of being remembered than facts alone.

The catch to any memorial, though, is that the story and memory behind it are subject to the same flaws as individual memory. One of the greatest risks we run is “retrieval-induced forgetting“, which means that remembering one aspect of an event will make it more difficult to remember other, related aspects and events. This happens to both speaker and listener in a conversation, and means that memorials and the conversations they provoke might lead to us remembering what is memorialized and forgetting what is not. A memorial commemorating the Home Guard’s actions during the Blitz might provoke conversation of specific instances of incredible bravery by Londoners….which would then make it more difficult to recall any instances of Londoners not being brave, just being people. So is history rewritten, for better or for worse.

Some memorials we have visited may have more lasting power than others. The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, a series of “stellae” of varying heights, some straight and others tilted, in a large field with uneven ground, does succeed at creating a sense of disorientation as you walk through it. On the other hand, it is also a site for hide-and-seek, for children climbing up and jumping off, and for people to pass by with no idea what this structure is. Only the museum beneath it tells the story of the Holocaust; the memorial itself seems like it will soon join the Prison Ships Martyrs Monument in being more architecture than remembrance.


The Jewish Museum, on the other hand, contained a memorial that I expect I will never forget, in the form of an art piece called “Fallen Leaves”: A long, dark space with the ground covered in metal faces, of various sizes, over which visitors are encouraged to walk.


Many of my students made the journey; I felt an emotional hit at the mere idea, and couldn’t bring myself to do it. Even observing, however, their experience could not be ignored, because the metal faces clanked under their feet with the volume of a freight train and the association of chains and crematoria. There is no escaping what you do when you place booted foot on tiny face, and I doubt anyone can walk away from that room without a solemn shiver. That room will never be a skateboard park.


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