Rather than erase history, monument sites should be enhanced to educate later generations


Timothy Daniel, Contributor


Our worries are not new, our decisions not unique. As we debate whether to continue the public display of Confederate monuments, we should refrain from acting with contemporary, generational hubris and instead review how similar situations were addressed in the past. For an interesting and relevant lesson from our own history, we should visit the memorial to our most successful Revolutionary War general, without whose victories at Ticonderoga and Saratoga, our nation in its current form would not exist. Yes, I believe we might all benefit from visiting the monument erected at Saratoga in honor of Benedict Arnold.


Winston Churchill said, “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” Many people want to move, replace or even destroy monuments that are inconsistent with contemporary social and political norms. Others, determined that the “right message” be communicated to our successors, want to add narrative that provides the “correct” interpretation.


The only certainty is that our successors will consider whatever actions we take to be somehow flawed. Their successors will not totally agree with them; nor with us. The best information, the least subject to contemporary passions, lies in the past. Others have been down this road before, as have we in cases such as the Boot Monument to Benedict Arnold.


But first, following Churchill’s advice, let us look for lessons in the history of the ancient world. We know that King Tut, Akhenaten and the 11 Rameses existed thanks to the great monuments of antiquity. Conversely, because of the absence of permanent monuments, we discount the existence of historical legends such as Arthur and Guinevere.


We see a pattern of destruction of historical records. Egyptian pharaohs and Chinese emperors went to great lengths to erase the history of their predecessors. Victors in battle, Roman invaders and Chinese Communists among them, rewrote the history of the vanquished. The destruction of texts, manuscripts and scrolls has been repeated in societies going back to ancient times, from the burning of the Library of Alexandria (Romans, Byzantines and Muslims have separately been blamed) to the Nazi book burnings of the 1930s to the repeated attempts by fundamentalist Muslims to destroy the liberal religious and scientific manuscripts in Timbuktu.


After thousands of years, countless wars, calculated and wanton destruction, climate change, paper rot, metal corrosion and general lack of maintenance, only the most robust monuments have survived. Often the narrative history of the monuments, whether in the form of inscriptions carved into stone or storytelling artwork, no longer exists. In those cases, the monuments are a tease. We know there is a story, but we have to look elsewhere for the narrative.


The importance of monuments to historians cannot be understated. Edward Gibbon acknowledged this in the first chapter of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Unfortunately, our traditional treatment of monuments provides historians only one snapshot, dated if they are lucky, of the history of the monument. Too often it is the history of its destruction.


We should help future historians by changing the process by which we interact with monuments. We can do this by documenting how public perceptions of monuments change over time. We can start a tradition by which every generation adds its own interpretative narrative to prominent or controversial monuments. The narrative can be added through generational plaques or markers at existing monument sites.


To allow sufficient time for reflection and evolution of thought, we should plan to display narrative from at least 10 generations. Generational plaques could be housed in an interactive display no larger than a kitchen table. The plaques from succeeding generations might say, “We honor…” or “We question…” or “Those honored here supported beliefs popular in their time but that we now know to be unjust.”


Finally, let us see what we can learn from the 1887 monument to hero- turned-traitor Benedict Arnold. The inscription calls Arnold the “most brilliant soldier” of the Continental Army and notes that he won the decisive battle of the American Revolution. Nowhere does it mention him by name. Even 100 years after America’s independence, Arnold’s name was too odious to include. Yet his contributions were too important to be dismissed. If the views of successive generations had been recorded, one suspects we might have seen his name enter the record, recounting both his triumphs and attempted treachery.


Let’s strengthen our liberal democracy by honoring our history — the good and the bad, the victories and the defeats. Let us add to the narrative, rather than manipulating, hiding or destroying it. Let us learn from our history even if we don’t respect all of the acts and actors who created it. Let our participation in the historical narrative be as meaningful as the monuments themselves.


Web Source: https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2017/08/11/rather-erase-history-monument-sitesshould-enhanced-educate-later-generations