Monuments are created with a specific intent, but how they communicate with the viewer varies just as much as the meaning that different people might apply to the object. If you’ve never used monuments, memorials, or the like as the focus of lessons, here are some ideas to get you started.
As an example, let’s consider the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. On the surface, the main aspect of the memorial is the statue of our 16th president sitting in a chair. However, by focusing on the symbolism of the memorial, you can ignite opportunities for learner-led inquiry.
Students could answer the following questions for exploration:
1. What symbols within the memorial communicate the power and authority that Lincoln exercised as president during the Civil War?
2. What symbolism was incorporated into the design of the building that houses the statue of Lincoln?
3. There are two large murals in the memorial that reflect Lincoln’s accomplishments and personality. In what way do they communicate this?
Sometimes, this communication comes across clearly through inscriptions, words, or guidebooks. Yet, it’s often presented as symbolism that requires careful observation, decoding, research, and inquiry—the building blocks for deeper learning and igniting curiosity.
The Story You See
Many monuments use sculpture, inscriptions, and other design elements to clearly communicate information. Investigating these details with students by analyzing how monuments tell a story and what they’re telling is an effective way forward with this topic.
The Tower of Reconciliation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is one of the best examples of a monument that features multiple methods of communication—historic details are communicated through multiple plaques. Additionally, the park’s centerpiece, a 25-foot-tall bronze tower, depicts various episodes crucial to the Black and Indigenous history of the state, with particular emphasis on the Tulsa Race Massacre. Students could analyze the different tableaux on the central column and connect them to historic events.
The Story Behind the Design
One of the things I’ve found most interesting is that even monuments with a seemingly straightforward design are still full of potential for storytelling and meaning making.
Consider the makers of tombstones. They don’t only make tombstones, they also design and build memorials to veterans or service members who were killed or are missing in action, like those at civic centers and state capitals. There’s usually an engaging story behind the people whom the memorial represents or the effort to construct it.
A colossal 50-foot-tall stainless steel statue stands on the banks of the Missouri River in South Dakota. It depicts an Indigenous woman wrapped in a star quilt. With few interpretive elements or resources at the site, you might just assume that this is just a really big statue of a woman. Doing some research on the monument and its creator’s vision uncovers a deeper meaning.
The monument commemorates the fortitude of South Dakota’s Indigenous culture, specifically the Lakota. It’s not only a symbol of Native strength but also a feminist icon. Local columnist Susan Claussen Bunger wrote the following about the monument:
I have a new role model who is solid and sturdy. She literally owns a spine of steel and reminds me of the injustice in the world, but also of strength, perseverance and survival…. She contemplates the world through a poise of conviction and fearlessness. Her name is “Dignity.”
Analyzing the artist’s intent, as well as people’s critiques, provides opportunities for students to look for other works of art that have similar meaning. They can find a statue or public artwork that speaks to them and write their own reflection on its perceived meaning, or they can design their own monument that conveys a specific message, which demonstrates their ability to write persuasively or think critically.
The Story It Doesn’t Tell
The National Monument to the Forefathers is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting monuments in the country. This giant granite monument was built to honor the passengers of the Mayflower. However, what would this monument look like if the Pilgrims weren’t at the center?
Monument Lab, an art and history project based out of Philadelphia, poses these types of questions and engages the public in conversations about monuments and memorials. In one of their current projects, they place the history of a peripheral figure at the center of a house connected to a more well-known person and reflect on the ramifications of that choice.
Students could analyze the symbolism in the reliefs and friezes adorning the forefathers monument and decide if they accurately depict our country’s shared values. Which ones should be elevated or adjusted that are more representative of our values and culture today?
This monument highlights the arrival of the English immigrants and barely mentions Indigenous communities who were already present on the land and whose interactions with the pilgrims were significant to their early survival. Considering what the monument might look like if this story were more inclusive provides important opportunities for learning and discussion.
The Story That Needs Telling
The trouble with monuments is their permanence. Once you carve values or celebrate people in stone, they don’t change even when society inevitably does. This can be a blessing—encapsulating virtues or reminders in a form that keeps them present and visible for all time. However, it can also be a curse, particularly for monuments that communicate outdated or controversial viewpoints.
One such monument that immediately comes to mind is Stone Mountain in Georgia. This gigantic carving, the largest of its kind in the world, is the most visited tourist site in Georgia and the largest monument to white supremacy on earth.
Like many monuments dedicated to the “lost cause,” it was an attempt to reconcile the South’s loss and also served as the backdrop for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan—many of whose members raised money for or personally funded the carving.
In recent years, the park made significant changes to acknowledge its problematic centerpiece. The process of attempting to revise and reconcile what is literally carved in stone is one that can be adapted for the classroom.
Students can tackle the philosophical issue of what else could or should be done with monuments like Stone Mountain. An exercise like this provides excellent opportunities for critical thinking, discussion, and structured debate. Should the monument be cleared from the side of the mountain? Should it be preserved as a historical relic? Is there a way, perhaps, with a student-created guide or website, that it can be used as a teaching tool to inform people about contentious episodes in the history of our country?