Monuments and Memories


"The very notion of a modern monument is a contradiction in terms:
if it is a monument, it cannot be modern, and if it is modern, it
cannot be a monument." The death of the monument has been
proclaimed many times, most famously by Lewis Mumford in The
Culture of Cities in 1938, where he argued that monuments have lost
their aesthetic and social legitimacy. Mumford believed that the
monument is the polar opposite of modern architecture and the
progressive city.The notion of material survival by means of the monument no longer
represents the deeper impulses of our civilization. Indeed, one has
only to behold the monuments that have been built during the last
century to observe how hollow the notion is. These Valhallas and
Lincoln Memorials, these Victor Emanuel Monuments and Vimy Ridge
Memorials, these "Eternal Lights" ... are all the hollow echoes of
an expiring breath, rattling ironically in the busy streets of our
cities: heaps of stone which either confound the work of the living
... or which are completely irrelevant to the living.

The view that memory is an impediment to modernity has been widely
shared by architects, artists, and theorists. The obsolescence of
the monument became almost an axiom of the modernist creed. The
sculptor Donald Judd wrote that "there are no believable new
monuments," and the historian and critic Sam Hunter declared that
"contemporary monuments can no longer plausibly celebrate national
heroes, patriotic or personal virtue or great historical events."
Many more such pronouncements could be cited as evidence of the
presentist temper.

But sometimes aesthetic theory and artistic fashion must yield
before the harshness of lived history. The Vietnam Veterans
Memorial began to change the prevailing opinion that the monument
is dead, not least because it availed itself of a modernist
vocabulary to accomplish its commemoration. The Oklahoma City
National Memorial has had a similar effect. And then came Ground
Zero. The sixteen acres where the World Trade Center stood have
brutally reminded us that monuments are not a moribund artistic
habit imposed on us by social convention and cultural inertia.
Monuments are, rather, the products of primary human needs; and
they serve these needs in a way that nothing else can serve them.
People build monuments not because they do not know what else to do,
but because there are wounds so deep that only monuments will serve
to honor them.

Unfortunately, the haze of modernist theory still clouds the minds
of many architects and planners. They themselves exemplify the
dogmatic mentality that they decry in others. They know relatively
little about the history, the function, and the variety of
monuments, and yet they still presume, like Mumford, that
architecture and urbanism is all that remembrance requires. This
attitude is manifest in many of the designs and the statements of
the architects of the master plans for the World Trade Center site.
No doubt they all want to build something that will honor the dead;
but a combination of arrogance and ignorance leads most of them to
assume that buildings, the more spectacular the better, can do all
the spiritual and cultural work. In "Plans in Progress," the video
that accompanies the exhibit of the models at the Winter Garden,
Ken Smith of THINK Design makes his priorities clear: "If you have
only produced normative buildings and, you know, sort of banal
public space but had a really great memorial, you would have missed
the whole thing. I think in the end you have to have good urbanism
and great architecture and a good memorial, and that would be a
really good re-building." Not a great memorial, but great
architecture and a good memorial: that is the way to avoid

Obviously none of the contestants deny the memorial impulse at
Ground Zero, but many of them wish to replace the traditional form
of the monument, which is primarily petrean and sculptural, with a
new one that will be architectural and urbanistic. This goal is
most succinctly articulated by Peter Eisenman: "What is needed is a
new idea about memorial. In other words--and we have provided seven
memorial sites because we are not building an obelisk or
anything--we are building a public place." As if a public place is
in some sense itself a memorial. Steven Peterson of
Peterson/Littenberg expresses the same ideal: "The city plan can
set out a square that is beautifully placed and that can be/have a
memorial quality, too, but you don't have to have a memorial in it."
What is it about memorials that makes these people nervous? Why do
they believe that commemoration is the enemy of art? Why can't they
think of life and death at the same time? Whatever else Ground Zero
will be, it will always be the site of a national catastrophe, a
vast graveyard.

To be sure, the architects were asked to make a master plan for the
entire site, not a memorial. (The memorial will be selected on the
basis of a competition to be announced later this spring.) Still,
these attitudes and these assumptions are important because the
master plan will establish the placement and the context of the
memorial, and also determine a good deal of its character. Do we
really want the monument to be placed in a narrow strip at the
northern end of the site and to be overshadowed by a forest of
buildings, as it would be in the plan by Skidmore, Owings %amp%
Merrill, or to be subsumed and metastasized into the grandiose and,
at ground level, chaotic scheme of Daniel Libeskind? (Libeskind's
gift for morbidity has oddly failed him here.) Do we really want to
take an elevator to a memorial in the sky, as in United
Architecture's design, or to have seven memorials instead of one, as
Eisenman has proposed? With the exception of Norman Foster's plan,
none of the designs manifests an understanding of the way monuments

It would make sense, then, to learn more about the history and the
character of monuments before our aesthetic and architectural
cliches run away with the site. This is especially necessary since
monuments have generally played a smaller role in modern American
life than in other cultures. Although monuments have been a feature
of human culture throughout the world since the Neolithic Age, most
people now know very little about what monuments do and why they
exist. Fortunately, in the past twenty years or so, there has been a
surge of interest in the monument as a cultural phenomenon, and
scholars from different disciplines have written wisely and
learnedly on the subject.

What is a monument? The word comes from the Latin noun monumentum,
which is derived from the Latin verb moneo. The primary meaning of
moneo is "to bring to the notice of, to remind, or to tell of."
Monumentum consequently is a thing with this function, specifically
something that stimulates the remembrance of a person or an event.
Monumentum could be used for anything with this purpose-- a text, a
building, a work of art; but its primary denotation was a tomb or a
funerary memorial. In English, the word "monument" retains this
basic meaning; it has special reference to a tomb, a cenotaph, or a

Monuments provide an enduring physical demonstration of the fact of
the existence of a person or an event. It marks a spot and it says
who. And it says so forever. It is an object that serves as the
locus of the memories of a person or a group, and it makes those
memories tangible--literally so. Hence the most basic component of
a monument is its marker: the physical object erected to mark a
locus in perpetuity. Owing to the emphasis on permanence, survival,
and continuity, the marker naturally is made of the most durable
materials--stone and metal.

Markers come in a seemingly bewildering variety. Consider, for
example, monuments to the dead: among the most basic types there
are headstones, plaques, slabs, stelae with or without effigies,
wall tombs with or without effigies, free-standing tombs, and
statues. Then there are the monuments to the living--a much smaller
group of objects, as only an exceptionally finite group of living
individuals are ever honored in this fashion. Such monuments are
almost always statues raised on pedestals. They are erected in
praise of what sociologist and zoologists (and now politicians and
journalists) call alpha males: rulers and victors, whether in
athletic contests or in war.

The simplest form of the monument are giant stones or pillars, known
as megaliths or menhirs, a Welsh word meaning "long stone."
Generally, these are aniconic; that is, they do not depict or
represent an image in any way. Indeed, often they are completely
unworked and unadorned. Sometimes they do not even bear an
inscription. Megaliths are thought to be the oldest form of
monument known to mankind. The earliest examples date from the
Neolithic period. And seven thousand years later it is still an
effective type, as the Washington Monument and the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial show.; "Each site is the locus of the most profound
meaning, the focus of the most intense emotion, the repository and
the stimulus of the most central tenets in the collective memory of
the faithful. Yet in all three cases..."

This primordial form of the monument is also perhaps the most
revealing about its fundamental appeal. Human beings feel an almost
instinctual urge to congregate for remembrance and worship at a
stone marker. If we look at the goal of a pilgrimage or the center
of a rite, it is often either a rock or made of rock. Instances of
stone worship are found in every culture, all over the world,
throughout the course of human history. It is with us today. In
Jerusalem, one may observe the members of the three religions
worshipping at rocks: the Christians at the Holy Sepulchre, the
Jews at the Wailing Wall, the Muslims at the Dome of the Rock. Each
site is the locus of the most profound meaning, the focus of the
most intense emotion, the repository and the stimulus of the most
central tenets in the collective memory of the faithful. Yet in all
three cases the rock or rocks at the focus of devotion are aniconic.
They represent the deepest meanings, and they are surrounded within
their precincts by signs of their importance, but the rocks
themselves bear no sign, symbol, or image. The rocks appear to be
just rocks, except for the faithful who come from all over the
world to worship there.

Many of the greatest anthropologists and historians of religion have
written about stone worship. In Patterns in Comparative Religion,
Mircea Eliade began his account of sacred stones by noting their
conspicuousness and their permanence. "For the primitive," he

nothing was more direct and autonomous in the completeness of its
strength, nothing more noble or more awe-inspiring, than a majestic
rock. Above all, a stone is. It always remains itself, exists of
itself. Rock shows mankind something that transcends the
precariousness of his humanity: an absolute mode of being. Its
strength, its motionlessness, its size and its strange outline are
none of them human. In its grandeur, its hardness, its shape and its
color, man is faced with a reality and a force that belong to some
other world than the profane world of which he is himself a part.

Eliade identified a number of special powers and functions that are
at times attributed to sacred stones. Three of these powers seem
especially relevant to the discussion of the monument.

It was a special function of sacred stones to serve as a witness.
Witness stones were common in antiquity: recall the lithos in front
of the Royal Stoa in the Agora in Athens. Witness stones also
appear in the Bible. In the Book of Genesis, it is reported that
Jacob and Laban set up a heap of stones, a pillar, or both at
Gilead to be a permanent testimony to their concord: "Now therefore
come thou, let us make a covenant, I and thou, and let it be for a
witness between me and thee. And Jacob took a stone, and set it up
for a pillar. And Jacob said unto his brethren, Gather stones, and
they took stones and made a heap.... And Laban said, This heap of
stones is a witness between me and thee this day." Similarly, at
the end of the Book of Joshua, it is recorded that Joshua erected a
witness stone at Shechem after the Israelites re-dedicated
themselves to the worship of their God: "So Joshua made a covenant
with the people that day, and Joshua took a great stone, and set it
up there and Joshua said unto all the people, Behold, this stone
shall be a witness unto us, for it hath heard all the words of the
lord which he spoke unto us, it shall be therefore a witness unto
you, lest you deny your god."

It was also the purpose of sacred stones to represent the ancestors
or the tribal deities of a group. In Genesis, when Jacob wakes from
his dream of angels descending on a ladder from heaven, he "rose up
early the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his
pillow, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of
it ... and Jacob said, This stone which I have set for a pillar
shall be God's house." In his analysis of this episode, James
Frazer points to the existence of other sacred stones all over the
world. To cite just one example among many, he reports that "there
is hardly a village in Northern India which has not its sacred
stone. Very often the stone is not appropriated to any one deity in
particular, but represents the aggregate of the local divinities
who have the affairs of the community under their charge."

Stones can represent deceased ancestors as well. Discussing the
religious practices of aboriginal tribes in Australia, Emile
Durkheim observed in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life
that "it will be remembered that the fabulous ancestors from whom
each clan is supposed to be descended, formerly lived on earth and
left traces of their passage there. These traces consist especially
in stones and rocks which they deposited at certain places, or
which were formed at the spots where they entered into the ground.
These rocks and stones are considered the bodies or parts of the
bodies of the ancestors, whose memory they keep alive; they
represent them."

Thus sacred stones serve as the center for the group and as the
group's point of contact with the other two realms of being, the
immortal and the dead. Such points of contact are sometimes
referred to as the axis mundi, the fulcrum of the universe. Frazer,
Eliade, and Robertson Smith agree that the bethel of Jacob must be
seen as such a cosmically pivotal location, since it was not just
the House of God but specifically the place where, by means of the
ladder of angels, communication took place between heaven and
earth. The omphalos or navel stone at Delphi, the Ka'aba at Mecca,
the umbilicus in the Roman Forum, and the rock on the Temple Mount
in Jerusalem are all stones that were widely believed at one time
to be the center of the world. Eliade observes, moreover, that it
is common to perceive a tomb as such a site. He notes that Erwin
Rohde and Jane Harrison, the distinguished historians of Greek
religion, both suggested that the omphalos at Delphi originally
represented a tomb, and that the Roman poet Varro specified that it
was the tomb of the serpent of Delphi. Eliade elaborates: "A tomb,
seen as a point of contact between the world of the dead, of the
living and of the gods can also be a center, an omphalos of the

The second constitutive element of a monument is the memoranda, or
the biographical information preserved by the marker. In ancient
Greek, one of the words for monument and the word for memory are
the same: mnema. But monuments are a special vessel for memory.
They do not record everything about a person or an event--far from
it. They seem to exclude the kind of personal memories that most of
us recall of the departed, and instead to register only an
extremely narrow spectrum of information about the object of our
affection. So what kind of memory do monuments traditionally
preserve? What is it that they report and transmit?

Perhaps the most basic fact that a monument typically records is the
name of the person, the family, the community, or the event that it
commemorates. This primary emphasis on the name was true in
antiquity and it is true today. This hardly needs demonstration.
Nearly every town in America and Europe has a monument that lists
the names of those who died defending their country. Monuments are
witness stones, and the names on them are like names on a public
record or a historical document: a kind of declaration of the fact
of existence.

The issue of monumental imagery is more complicated. Some monuments
have no images. Some have images, but wholly idealized ones: they
may represent a specific person, but they do not attempt to depict
his actual features. And some monuments have images that record the
features of the person in a more or less accurate and
particularized fashion. Of course, there are many degrees of
verisimilitude, and differences of aesthetic skill, between accuracy
and idealization.

Sometimes these differences in conception and execution are owed to
the relationship that can exist between portraiture and honor. In
Renaissance Florence, sumptuary legislation forbade all but a few
highly honored persons from being laid out at their funerals with
their bodies and their faces exposed for the mourners to see.
Though not regulated by law, the same reservation evidently applied
to the decorum of tomb design, with the result that only a handful
of highly placed persons are honored in tombs with portrait
effigies. This honor was not simply a matter of wealth and power:
no member of the Medici family is commemorated in this manner,
although for much of the period they effectively ruled the city. It
was, rather, a matter of station and office. In an age in which the
church controlled burial and commemoration, tombs with portrait
effigies were typically the privilege of princes of the church, of
founding donors of religious institutions, and of persons honored in
civic funerals for their service to the city. One can cite many
other instances of restrictions on the right to have a portrait
monument: in medieval Rome, only popes and archbishops got them,
and in medieval and Renaissance Venice, portrait monuments were
reserved, with few exceptions, for doges and soldiers who deserved
special recognition for their service to the city.

Perhaps all portraiture exhibits a tendency toward conventionality
and standardization, but this seems to be particularly true of
portraits on monuments. On medieval and Renaissance tombs, more
emphasis is placed on the ceremonial garb of office than on the
depiction of individual character. In ancient Greece, monumental
portraiture was almost wholly conventional. Tomb statuary and
stelae depict the dead as idealized types whose features embody
aristocratic stereotypes of moral good and physical beauty.
Convention was the rule as well in statues of athletes, an
important genre of Greek sculpture. Thus Pliny writes that "it was
not usual to model likenesses of men unless for some reason or
other they deserved lasting honor, first for a victory in the
sacred contests, especially at Olympia, where it was the custom to
dedicate statues of all who were victorious; and if they won there
three times, their statues were modeled in their own likeness." As
Pliny so clearly states, the right to a portrait was an honor, and
the right to have an accurate and individualized portrait was an
even greater honor, vouchsafed only to those thought most deserving
of enduring recognition.

The biographical details preserved and expressed by inscriptions
likewise tend to be limited and conventionalized. In addition to
the name, such description is usually confined to a list of offices
and honors, often in an acknowledgment that the deceased has served
the public good in a noteworthy fashion. Even people of remarkable
complexity and achievement are often reduced to the briefest of
honorific terms. Thus the tomb of Cosimo de Medici simply records
that he was called the father of his country, and the monument to
Bartolomeo Colleoni states, "In recognition of his military
authority, perfectly served." In ancient Greece, the inscriptions
on monuments often said little more than that the departed was
agathos kai sophron aner, "a good and wise man." Such brevity is
still typical today.

As these examples demonstrate, the language of inscriptions also
tends to be highly formulaic and standardized. Like the language of
ritual, it shows a great respect for established norms inherited
from tradition, and little interest in innovation or variation. By
means of this standardization, it often limits the commemoration of
an individual to a single aspect: how the dead personified a social
ideal that is regarded as a central and permanent value. Writing of
archaic Greek monuments, Joseph Day has observed that

the man was dead and gone, but the marker and the epitaph provided a
substitute for him; that is, they reduced the complexity of a man to
a simple, permanent, monumental form that represented to the
community of the living what he had now become, i.e., one of their
ideal dead. This state of idealized death could not be portrayed as
a biographical moment like actual death in battle. It was a state
of moral and physical perfection, artificially created by verbal
and visual motifs any contemporary would recognize from previous
acquaintance with literary encomium and commemorative art.

I think that this tendency is often true of monuments and points to
a widespread feature of them: they commemorate the dead and other
figures from the past as personifications of the values of the
group. They do not emphasize personal detail and idiosyncratic
data; they promote the exemplary. According to the rules of both
classical and Renaissance rhetoric, funeral oratory was intended to
be a kind of instructive praise that inspired the audience to
emulate the virtues of the deceased. Monuments often serve the same
function. This points to an interesting fact about monuments. Often
they are meant to preserve not only the identity of the departed,
but also the identity of a social group--the family, clan, city,
nation, or religion--to which the deceased belonged.

The third constitutive element of the monument is the precinct.
Monuments are not placed just anywhere in a city or a landscape.
They tend to be erected in two kinds of sites. The first is along
major thoroughfares, so that the greatest number of people can see
them and remember the persons whom they commemorate. Thus the roads
leading in and out of Athens, Rome, and other major cities were
major sites for monuments in antiquity. The Greek soldiers in the
Odyssey declare that the ideal spot for a tomb is a promontory
overlooking the Hellespont, so that "it might be seen from far over
the sea both by men that now are and that shall be born
hereafter."; "This notion may now make us uncomfortable, living as
we do in..."

The other typical site for a monument is a space of some kind that
has been clearly demarcated and set off from the world at large. To
emphasize their distinction, such spaces are often geometric in
plan, and often marked along their borders with a fence or a
barrier of some kind. Examples of spaces of this kind that
regularly serve as the sites of monuments are graveyards, churches,
or temples (including their grounds), chapels, battlefields, and
central public or civic spaces such as town squares. Such locations
serve to provide common ground for groups. Specifically, they are
places where individuals can go to experience membership, to
re-establish their identity as parts of a special and distinct
social body.

Monuments are erected for groups, such as the family, community,
city-state, nation, or religion, and they are erected specifically
in the particular sites where the members of these groups go to
affirm their commonality or common identity. Thus, the tomb of the
patriarch of a family is set in the church or the chapel of his
clan, and a statue of a national hero is placed in the central
square of his country's capital. But that is not the end of the
story, or of the monument's ambition. Since Durkheim, it has been
widely acknowledged that a clan or a nation defines itself not only
horizontally--that is, in relation to itself--but also vertically:
that is, in relation to God and the sacred.

This notion may now make us uncomfortable, living as we do in a
secular society; but it is important to stress that historically
the spaces of the kind that I am describing have been sanctified.
They are places of high symbolic significance, exceedingly rich in
meaning, and often the sites of group rites or rituals. Owing to
the sacral and symbolic character of the precinct, the members of
the group approach a monument with a high expectation that the
monument will provide an epiphany of meaning, and specifically that
it will be an expression of the identity, the history, and the
philosophy of the group. Today this is still obvious in the case of
sites such as graveyards, temples, and chapels; and, until the
modern era, it was equally obvious in the case of central city
squares. We can see that it is true as well of battlefields. We
speak of a battlefield as Lincoln spoke of it, as ground that has
been hallowed by blood spilled for the sake of a common cause or a
common identity. Like Lincoln, when we visit Gettysburg and its
monuments, we recall our special history and identity, and honor
the sacrifice of the men who died to establish and to preserve it.

In the modern world, it is has also been common to place monuments
in civic parks. These may seem like an exception to the rule, since
although parks are public land, they rarely have the communal or
sacral associations of the sort I have been discussing. The parks
of New York City are filled with statues of writers, statesmen, and
heroes of the past. But none of these monuments, so far as I know,
now serve as the focal point for any group. Nor were they ever
meant to do so. Perhaps that is one reason why they have failed as
monuments, in the sense that the individuals whom they seek to
commemorate are often forgotten.

By their failure, such weak or low-functioning monuments point to
the fourth constitutive element of the monument: the act of
commemoration. There is a tendency among historians and critics to
treat the monument purely as a thing. They often discuss it in
strictly formal and typological terms, or merely as a category of
sculpture. But like many other things in the world, the monument
can only be understood in terms of its use. It is a tool and an
instrument in a series of extraordinarily complex personal and
social processes. The monument cannot be understood without looking
at its dynamic, immaterial dimension--at the acts of remembrance
for which it is used.

Throughout history, high-functioning monuments have been conceived
in relation to regular and even programmatic rites of memory.
Before the modern era, these acts often had the character of
religious ritual. The Medici tombs at San Lorenzo in Florence were
placed at sites where the dead whom they honored would be
officially and ceremonially commemorated throughout the year, and
these rites involved not only the members of the family but also
officials of the state and other institutions, as well as the
canons of the church, whose chief professional obligation was to
say masses in memory of the Medici dead. While perhaps exceptional
in scale, the Medici practice of memorialization was otherwise
typical in late medieval and Renaissance Europe.

The connection between the monument and the rites of memory can be
so strong that many monuments even feature reliefs that depict a
ritual, a ceremony, or a procession. An obvious example is the Ara
Pacis in Rome. It was commissioned in 13 B.C.E. by the Roman Senate
to celebrate Augustus's victories in Gaul and Spain. The two long
sides of the Ara Pacis are filled with reliefs that show a
procession led by Augustus and including the imperial family and
other top civic and religious officials. Scholars differ about
exactly which procession is depicted, but they generally agree that
it is a procession related to the foundation of the Ara Pacis.
Indeed, many Roman monuments illustrate the ritual or the
ceremonial that took place at the foundation of the monument
itself. Triumphal arches often bear reliefs showing a triumphal
entry through an arch; and funerary monuments, whether for emperors
or freed slaves, show the honorific rites that the dead received at
his funeral.

This practice was not confined to antiquity. The tombs of bishops
and popes in the Middle Ages often depict or allude to elements in
the official ceremonial of their burial. This tradition continued
into the Renaissance. The depiction of the dead lying in state on a
bier and beneath a funerary catafalque is fairly common on
Renaissance tombs. All such representations are honorific. They
show that the represented person received the full measure of
acclaim to which his station and his achievement entitled him. And
they are an absolute sign that the person is or was exemplary,
worthy of imitation. Moreover, such representations are
prescriptive: they establish a model or an ideal of the rites of
remembrance that should take place at the site in the future.

The most basic rite of remembrance is for the visitor to leave
something at the site as a mark of love, remembrance, and respect.
It is a universal practice. Around the world and throughout time,
people have poured libations or placed rocks or flowers on the
gravestones of their ancestors, and pilgrims have left votives at
the tombs of saints. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, visitors
leave so many things--flowers, photographs, letters, medals, even a
Harley-Davidson motorcycle--that there is an entire warehouse to
preserve them all. At Ground Zero, there arose a tradition of
bringing banners and T-shirts with handwritten messages to the
fence at St. Paul's Chapel.

I do not mean to be merely nostalgic. Plainly our existences are not
like ancient or medieval or Renaissance or nineteenth-century
existences. We lead lives that are less formalized and less
sacralized, and our acts of remembrance typically do not take the
form of religious rituals. Yet the stubborn fact remains that, even
in our secular and disenchanted and accelerated times, the most
successful monuments are still those that become sites of regular
commemoration. For many Americans, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is
the most powerful monument in the country. There is no liturgical
calendar of rites there, nor is there a prescribed routine or
custom that the acts of remembrance must follow; but the
commemoration is regular, and every day people go there to remember
those who fought and died in the war. It brings us together on
common ground, and it gives us a place where we can literally get
in touch with the past.

A monument is both a personal experience and a collective
experience. "Collective sentiments can become conscious of
themselves," Durkheim instructed, "only by fixing themselves upon
external objects." A monument is one of the means by which an
aggregate of individuals transforms itself into a community that
feels bound together by a common moral experience and a common
historical framework. It is proof that the past is real, and that
the past is still present. A monument is where the mythical and
historical memory of a person or an event comes to earth and, by
adopting material form, lives on. A dolmen in lower Manhattan? We
could do worse. We probably will.

By Andrew Butterfield

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