What makes something worth preserving? Who gets to decide what is worth preserving? How does one balance the suffering caused by something with the need to recognize its history? Professor Jeffrey Schnapp’s talk, “Uncomfortable (Revolutionary) Monuments,” made me contemplate the role of preservation and monuments in the history that we remember. Professor Schnapp discussed the Monument to Victory in the Italian town of Bolzano, a remnant of the country’s fascist regime in the World War II era. He explained the controversy that has surrounded the monument for decades and the recent exhibition that strove to contextualize and acknowledge the monument’s past. The exhibit does an excellent job of navigating the thorny territory surrounding elements of history that are not remembered fondly by all.
How can we balance the unsavory elements of history with the importance of understanding the past? Simply obliterating unpleasant moments is not an option, because learning about the past informs current decisions and future plans. However, the politics surrounding places such the monument at Bolzano, where people of Italian and German descent with opposite views of the ups and downs of the history of the town live together, makes any sort of unilateral decision making difficult. Destroy the monument? Preserve the monument? Let people visit? Keep it closed? These questions do not have an answer that will satisfy everyone.
Professor Schnapp and his colleagues who designed the BZ ’18-’45 exhibit were able to find some answers. The one change to the façade and the information displayed in the invisible underbelly of the monument recognized the architectural importance of the structure while addressing the historical (sometimes negative) effects it had on the community. The people who came up with and executed the plan did an exemplary job of balancing the viewpoints of everyone involved with the monument.
One monument can represent so many facets of a revolution. The winners, the losers, and the undecideds, all affected by the reverberating actions of some Italian men who built a monument, now have a place to enjoy the history, the good and the bad, of the building.
Professor Schnapp’s lecture highlighted the importance of curation. Curators have the power to preserve moments in the past, and they have a great amount of control over the narrative that is presented. With this power, cliché as it sounds, comes a great responsibility to people of the past, present, and future. What gets included in an exhibit? What artifacts are preserved? Which ones are displayed? Do you focus on important figures or the unrepresented masses that played a role in events? The politics of who funds your project, who has the final say over the content of an exhibit, and how the community will react also have a part in the logistics of creating something to represent the past. Leaving a monument such as the Monument to Victory untouched makes a statement, as does destroying it. Curating it makes a different kind of statement, one that attempts to encompass multiple elements of its history.