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Teaching with Monuments and Memorials: Defining Monuments

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This post is by Bryn Walker, a Teaching with Primary Sources intern at the Library of Congress.

I began my research on monuments with an understanding that I would probably only find permanent statues celebrating people who are known, prominent, “great men.” What I have found in the Library’s collections is that everyday people carve out space for themselves and remember their history in public, sometimes in fleeting ways, often not in the form of a statue. It has changed how I define what a “monument” is.

.Andrew Jackson statue in Lafayette Square across from the White House. Wrapped in fencing during Black Lives Matter
Andrew Jackson statue in Lafayette Square across from the White House. Wrapped in fencing during Black Lives Matter Protest. Carol Highsmith, 2020

How do we engage with students about the culturally relevant topic of monuments and memorialization? Beyond that, how do we even define what a monument is?

For example, this photograph from the summer of 2020 puts the statue of Andrew Jackson in conversation with less permanent protest signs; a chain-link fence protects the monument of Andrew Jackson while signs and photographs on the fence protest violence against Black Americans as another type of memorial.

Start by asking your students to generate their own working definition of a “monument” that they can revisit and refine later after they’ve examined a variety of examples from the Library’s collections.

Image of a sample analysis tool
Sample Primary Source Analysis Tool

Then, ask your students to choose and carefully examine an item using this Observe, Reflect, and Question activity, supported by questions selected from the appropriate teacher’s guide. First model with the whole class and the photograph of the Andrew Jackson statue.

Next, direct students to select a monument from the list below and record their own observing, reflecting, and questioning. Encourage students to ask the following questions: what do you notice first? What is surprising? What do you think the monument is supposed to tell us?

Some questions that might prompt deeper observations about these items are:

  • Based on your own working definition of a “monument,” which of these forms of memorialization is a monument?
  • What does this monument tell us about power and permanence?
  • What would one need to create a permanent monument?
  • What do these monuments and memorials have in common and what sets them apart?

Finally, ask your students to revisit and refine their earlier working definition of what a monument is in small groups. Then ask students to share ideas and come up with a classroom definition of a monument. Wrap up by discussing why a more expansive definition of “monument” matters.

To take this activity a step further, ask students to search and select a monument in the Library’s collections!

Share your experiences in the comments!

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