Negotiating identities and histories through monuments and memorial landscapes

Blog contribution by Julianna Nielsen, undergraduate student in the departments of history and political science at the University of Victoria, Canada.

Border walls and fences—as physical and discursive boundaries between ‘here’ and ‘there,’ ‘us’ and ‘them’—construct and communicate sharp differences between communities imagined to be historically, culturally, and territorially bound. Although these physical boundaries impose and express a clear distinction between ‘inside(rs)’ and ‘outside(rs),’ the negotiation and assertion of ‘our’ communal identity is also managed through the creation and transformation of memorial landscapes. The act of dismantling or erecting monuments, which publicly mark and symbolize the memories, identities, and ambitions of the communities for which, and by whom, they were constructed, may be interpreted as an answer to the uncertainties, new horizons, and anxieties engendered by a community’s dramatic social and demographic change.

Rather than approaching and understanding a monument as an object with meaning in itself, I propose an examination of the ways in which monuments and memorial landscapes are made meaningful by the communities co-existing and co-evolving with those edifices and spaces. A statue, in other words, is nothing more than what we come to make of it; the act which removes or erects it, then, is meaningful and political insofar as we make it so. To move towards more concrete examples, I briefly consider the following two ways in which memorial landscapes and monuments of ‘national importance,’ in Canadian and European contexts, have been transformed and challenged within the last few year, each corresponding with movements to (un)settle questions around ‘our’ communal/national identity.

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