Week 12: Memory and Materiality

This week’s reading focused on the displaying of public memory in the form of monuments and exhibits. The main reading was Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America by Kirk Savage, which examined the creation of Civil War memorials in the immediate post war period.  Savage stressed the importance of looking at monuments to understand how people viewed a topic since they are “a fixed point, stabilizing both the physical and the cognitive landscape,” and “claim to speak for ‘people'” (4 &6). Thus, Savage began his work by studying the portrayal of slaves before and after the Civil War and found that struggle with portraying emancipation was that people were trying to conserve “the memory of something that had not yet taken form” (18). While public statues on slavery were not built until the 1870s, Savage examined small statues made by artists for private sale in order to understand the ideas around presenting slavery in art. This could be seen clearly in Ward’s Freedman, which depicted an African-American breaking free of his chains, showing him not passively waiting for freedom (53). However, this motive changed once public monuments were built since this statues usually included the image of Lincoln standing above the freed slave, and thereby illustrating Lincoln as a savior of and in some ways dominating over the previosuly enslaved (68). In addition to looking at statues dealing with emancipation, Savage also examined statues built in the South that help creat the ‘Lost Cause’ myth, in which they venerated General Lee as a tragic hero. Finally, Savage explored statues depicting a single standing soldier built in the center of towns, which were designed to honor the living and dead soldiers of the war as well as to recreate the image of the citizen-soldier(162 & 167). However, Savage stressed that to imagine that statues of freed slaves could have been built in the town centers instead, is to imagine a “radically different nation,” showing that what we built and choice to publicly remember illustrates how we define ourselves (166). Indeed, Standing Soldiers and Kneeling Slaves concluded by stating that public monuments are important because they “gradually mapped abstract notions of individual responsiblity and collective purpose onto the material reality of the national landscape” (209).

The other short reaidng for this week was Ken Yellis’ “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars,” which stressed that there needs to be a better way to fight over history and that much of the problems arise because of the uneasiness over the fragmentation of society (334). Furthermore, by looking at an exhibit by Fred Wilson, Yellis believed that it raised questions over how one can present history and how to deal with visitor’s expectations, this could be seen clearly in the exhibits inclusion of a KKK hood in a baby carriage (338). One of the interesting concerns that Yellis raised was that of guiding the visitor and how to balance information text and reaching the emotions of the visitor.

Both of these works are important for my object study since the torpedo and torpedo tubes have been made into a public monument of sorts. Indeed, by looking at them not just as exhibits in a museum but as a monument to the war, it will be possible to look into the time when they were preserved. This will thereby help in understanding the meaning that the people who saved it put onto the torpedo tubes and torpedo since they likely would have seen it was a way to display heroism of World War II.

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