Historical Commemoration and the Present

“Its [the Age of Marble’s focus on statues of prominent politicians] key concerns lay elsewhere: in asserting shared values at a moment when the United States was torn by the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction” — Mason B. Williams, The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble for The Atlantic.

This particular line got me thinking about the place that such monuments hold in society: Are they physical structures meant to commemorate past achievements, honor historical moments, as one would think? Or do they hold a far more present purpose?

Here, Williams argues that the purpose of statues, plaques, and structures named in honor of historical actors (almost exclusively old white politicians) were not entirely, if at all, meant to earmark the past. Public history has a reason for being that is intrinsically rooted in the present. Such structures can be used to remind warring groups of a shared goal, to honor values that are lacking in the present, to draw communities together, or to champion a moral, ethical, social, or other such cause. The naming of the Enid Cook dorm building can be seen in this same light: The Bryn Mawr community was (and still is) reeling from various attacks on the campus’ black community. Most disturbingly, at least to me, were the administrative movements to close down, change, and redesignate spaces reserved for the use of, and cherished by, the PoC community at Bryn Mawr. While many other measures were taken to rectify this issue and resolve the matter, the naming of the Enid Cook Center can be seen as a part of this resolution. It honors the black history at Bryn Mawr in a very public and very traditional way. It serves the purposes of preserving and honoring history, often seen as the reason for such monuments and dedications, while also serving the public (read: campus) need for resolution, rectification, and remembrance.

Similarly, the destruction of such monuments and the rededication of buildings to remove the reference to a now-unacceptable practice or worldview serves much the same purpose: championing the causes and healing the wounds of the present. Wiping Wilson’s name from Princeton’s systems and buildings would not change the historical record. It would not make his stance, so widely accepted in his time and so vilified in the present, any different. It does, however, make a statement about what is acceptable today, in modern society. Public history is not, at heart, a historical venue; it is a modern venue that deals with modern issues by referencing, resurrecting, and dismantling the past as necessary.

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