Remembrance in Stone: Director's Essay

 

"Chiseled in stone," we say, when we mean something is set and settled, or "not chiseled in stone" if there is room for ambiguity. That is the way with monuments. They are chiseled in stone, or set in concrete, or just established through the inertia of historical precedent, and their makers consider them set and settled. Casual passers-by encounter them in plazas or at roadside and, generally, read them uncritically. Stone has authority.

 

This website, Remembrance in Stone, offers a more reflective consideration of historical monuments on the northern plains. Although it sometimes questions the veracity of monuments, more often it simply urges us to think about them, about where they came from and what they mean. It neither accepts monumental assertions uncritically nor sets out intentionally to debunk them. Either such approach would spoil the pleasure of the public in monuments. Rather, Remembrance in Stone provides facts about the monuments, documents them, and urges a deeper appreciation of them.

 

Anyone who thinks that a hulk of stone, or any other human invention, can settle the facts of history is, in that respect, hopelessly na´ve. This is one of the more obvious lessons of history: that what we think about the people and events of the past evolves and changes continuously. These changes in what we think about the past often are contentious. That is why, late in the last century, historians became intensely interested in the phenomenon of memory, or collective memory. They noticed, rather belatedly, that historical memory is important to the identity of individuals and groups, and that collective memory, the agreed-upon account of the past, was a basis for status and power.

 

Monuments, then, are expressions of collective identity. Memory groups form to establish them. Monuments are, however, cumbersome expressions of identity, because they are made of things like granite and concrete. So memory and identity swirl around them, recasting stories around the fixed objects. Occasionally, in places like Moscow or Baghdad, we witness the fall of monuments that simply cannot be made to work anymore.

 

Here are a few observations about historical monuments drawn from the literature on historical memory and observed in our investigation of monuments in our region.

 

  • Monuments come from memory groups. They are created by people desiring to express and perpetuate a collective identity.

 

  • People who create monuments are sometimes confused in their facts or uncertain of their own intentions, resulting in muddled monuments.

 

  • People read and respond to monuments in unexpected ways.

 

  • What people think about monuments changes over time. Some monuments acquire greater gravitas; others fall into disrepute; still others are just forgotten.

 

  • You can learn a lot from monuments, both the things intended by their makers and the things never imagined by them.

 

The engine driving content for Remembrance in Stone is the Senior Seminar in History, HIST 489, at North Dakota State University. In addition to directing the Center for Heritage Renewal, I also teach the Senior Seminar, a nice coincidence whereby I can enlist able students in this investigation of historical memory on the plains. In the seminar we spend a lot of time talking about what monuments are and what they mean. Outside the seminar, students are sent into the archives and the field to document particular monuments. Now I, as leader of both the center and the seminar, invite you, the public, to join the investigation and the discussion.

 

At the Center for Heritage Renewal we encourage grassroots heritage tourism by independent travelers. We offer guidance and venues for travelers who want to find real things, enjoy them, think about them, and talk about them. If you visit one of our monuments and have something to say about it, then by all means do so, using our Facebook group, Heritage Trails. Look us up in Facebook and join our discussion of the heritage landscape of the northern plains. Also, if you know of an interesting monument that ought to be documented and highlighted here, let us know (heritage.renewal@gmail.com). And thanks for your appreciation of the heritage of the northern plains.

 

Tom Isern, Professor of History
University
Distinguished Professor

Director, Center for Heritage Renewal
North Dakota State University

 

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Remembrance in Stone / Center for Heritage Renewal