History in Our Backyards: Monuments and Memorials

This is a guest post by Bryn Walker, who was a Teaching with Primary Sources intern at the Library for the Spring 2021 term. She is currently a student at Emory University, studying history. She wrote another post for the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog, entitled “Teaching with Monuments and Memorials: Defining Monuments,” which can be found here.

Monuments and memorials can reflect values, important stories, and power, and they serve as reminders that history is not just in books, but all around us. As public historian Edward Linenthal writes, “our choices about who gets remembered, what gets remembered, where acts of remembrance take place, and how we express the significance of remembrance is as much – or more – about the future than the past.”

A monument can be a stone structure, a mural, the name of a street or a place, and more. “The History of Detroit” mural and the John Margolies Roadside America Collection are examples of monuments that are not carved marble. A well-known example of a memorial is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was designed by Maya Lin and is represented in the Library’s collections. As you can see, monuments and memorials can take many different forms. Asking questions critically about them is important for understanding some of their deeper meanings and their importance in our present moment.

To help kids to think critically about the monuments and memorials around them, you might begin by asking them what those words mean. What do they picture when they think of a “monument?” Perhaps a solid, static, carved, stone depiction of a famous person? What comes to mind when they think of a “memorial”? Is it something emotional, reverential? Then, dig more deeply into the question by looking at a few examples. The Library has many images of monuments and memorials you could explore together, including the following. But you can also find examples of monuments and memorials in your own hometown.

Photograph by Carol Highsmith, depicting a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama. To the left of the bust, the words "I had a dream" are chiseled in stone.

A bust of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama. Photograph by Carol Highsmith, 2010. Prints and Photographs Division.

Photograph of the Washington Monument, c1910-1920

Washington Monument. Photograph by Harris & Ewing, c1910-1920. Prints and Photographs Division.

Photograph showing a pair of boots with roses draped over them, in front of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Memorial Day, Vietnam Memorial, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Carol Highsmith, 2006. Prints and Photographs Division.

Once you have found a monument or memorial you’d like to reflect on, consider these questions together:

  1. What do you notice? Describe your observations in detail.
  2. Why do you think the artist depicted the subject in the way they did?
  3. When was this monument or memorial created? Why do you think it was built?
  4. Who built this monument or memorial, and why?
  5. Why do you think this person or topic was chosen to be remembered in this way?
  6. How might different audiences perceive and interpret this monument or memorial?  

Create Your Own

Then, consider what you as a family might want to commemorate and make your own monument to honor something or someone that is important to you. You can use the Library’s collections as inspiration.

To brainstorm, have kids consider these questions:

  1. What do I want to create?
  2. What do I want to convey in my monument, based on how I’ve seen others depicted in memorials?
  3. What important elements of the person or thing need to be represented in my monument?
  4. What medium am I going to use to create my monument?
  5. Will everyone see my creation in the same way? Why or why not?

We invite you to share your findings and describe your designs in the comments. We look forward to hearing about them!

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