Monuments have always served as one of the most prominent and well-known fixtures for commemoration. Their existence can be traced back thousands of years, and serve as some of the most iconic pieces of art and history all over the world. Yet, many people tend to focus on monuments sheer size and intricate design, rather than on its origin. Who do these monuments represent? What do they stand for? These are the questions I now find myself asking after Harvard Professor Jeffrey Schnapps’ lecture, which encouraged us to examine monuments more closely, and within the context of their time.
Certainly, monuments are important to remembering our past, as they stand as massive, unforgettable reminders of previous achievements, legendary heroes, or, in some cases, notorious villains. As Professor Schnapp discusses in his lecture, many monuments can be viewed as unsavory, depending on what or whom they represent. Schnapp notes that there are many countries, unfortunately, who face this problem, as large monuments can represent darker, less pleasant historical references and reminders of their country. Yet, the answer cannot simply be to remove these monuments, eliminating the history that it represents. Instead, Schnapps argues, it is much more beneficial to learn from these monuments, even regrettable ones, in order to prevent history from repeating itself.
One example that Schnapp’s cites is the Victory Monument in Bolzano, Italy. This monument was created under Italy’s fascist regime, and commissioned by Benito Mussolini himself in 1926. Constructed as a way of celebrating Italy’s victory in WWI over the Austrians and Germans, this monument created some tension amongst the Italian population. Having been constructed in Northern Italy, who’s population felt connected, both in proximity and culture to Austrians/Germans, this monument was viewed as offensive and provocative. Rather than simply remove this monument, however, Schnapp and his team wanted to create a documentation center, one that was dedicated to creating a realm of experience relative to Italy during WWI and WII. Their main objective was to change the experience and meaning of the monument, and shift its purpose from honoring the Fascist regime to honoring the Italian people. In order to do so, Schnapp and his team made a number of renovations to the monument. Most notably, they added an LED ring around one the columns. These columns, which had previously marked the victory of the fascists, were now altered and modernized to show the public that times, and Italy itself, had changed. Then, inside the atrium and crypt of the Victory Monument, Schnapps made a number of other alterations. At the center, Schnapp focused on telling the story of the monument and its history. On the windows and peripheral of the crypt, however, Schnapp decided to tell the story of the region, and about its culture and people at this time. In a sense, Schnapp created a macro and micro historical framework, which was able to tell both sides of the story, and change the purpose of the monument, allowing for people to learn from its history.
I thought this was a interesting lecture, and it will give me a new perspective on monuments. Previously, I had only looked at them as objects of the past, many as attempts for old leaders to immortalize themselves. After this lecture, I see how they can have deeper meanings, and cause tensions like those of the Victory Monument. However, I have also seen how monuments can be changed and altered, to serve a greater purpose than merely a memory. Now, I see that monuments are important beyond their historical value, but also in their educational value. As many have said, one must study the past to define the future.