A New Perspective On
The Nature Of Public Monuments
by
Donald Reynolds
 

  Although monuments are often perceived simply as another form of public sculpture, they are first and foremost most reminders — the word comes from the Latin monere, which means to remind — and symbols of our traditions and values.9 We build monuments to people and events because those people and events are important to us for the values they possess or represent. In addition to communicating our traditions, beliefs, and values from generation to generation, monuments also help us to come to terms with the unknown, the unexplained, and the mysteries of life — as well as with our deepest emotions at the social and at the personal level, such as the pain we feel at the death of a love one.

Survival Through Celebration
“The past is not dead history,” [René] Dubos has written, “it is the living material out of which man makes himself and builds the future,” insisted the eminent scientist and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning So Human an Animal.13 From our past come the timeless, universal, and elemental truths that governed our earliest evolution, determined our gradual development as human beings over eons of time, and by which we slowly achieved our intellectual and spiritual potential that has enabled us to produce symphonies, conquer disease, and explore the mysteries of the universe. When we lose touch with the past, we lose touch with the inner self, Dubos believes. We are cut off from what he calls “the deepest layers” of our nature, a kind of genetic and cultural memory bank, that repository of experiences and images that enables us to understand and deal with that mysterious and wonderful world of the past, which keeps us in tune with our origins and with the rest of the cosmos...14

“In assuring continuity with the past through our public monuments, we assist our own survival,” by means of what art historian Wayne Dynes calls the “triad of survival — observation, contemplation, and preservation.”17 The social anthropologist, Francis Huxley, would say that monuments objectify those truths, which constitute our cultural heritage, and so provide us with permanent and tangible means to study and analyze them.18

“The wise man preserves that which he values and celebrates that which he preserves.”19 I think the key word in this adage is “celebrates.” It is not enough to gather at the base of a monument once a year and engage in religious, commemorative, or other ceremonies in which we honor the person or the event. Those celebrations are important, to be sure, and they contribute to our awareness as well as to our own edification and enjoyment, as we join with others to honor the values we cherish and wish to preserve.

Celebration in the fullest sense, however, is not restricted to the formal ceremony once a year or on anniversaries. The word comes from the Latin and means “much frequented,” suggesting continuity of involvement. To celebrate a monument properly, then, is to incorporate it into the everyday life of our society at all levels. Monuments should inspire us to study and analyze the people and events they commemorate and to contemplate the values they perpetuate. The monuments in our neighborhoods, for example, should be part of our grade school curriculum, and they should be objects of continuing study at the college and university level. Monuments should be mini-laboratories of human values and the objects of interdisciplinary study and research.

It is through celebration, then, that the monument becomes a living force within our society for greater understanding and respect for human values...

Monument to Neglect
If we do not integrate our monuments into our daily lives through preservation and appropriate celebration, we forget them, neglect them, and even destroy them with improper maintenance. Witness the tragedy of the Washington Arch in New York City, not only one of the nation’s most important tributes to George Washington, but also one of America’s architectural and sculptural gems of the City Beautiful Movement, deserving of preservation and celebration for its monumental significance as well as for its artistic merit.30 Yet, the monument is disintegrating, and the City of New York has erected a fence around it to protect the public from the statuary and ornamental marble falling from the monument... Unfortunately, the root cause of the monument’s destruction, which is neglect, has yet to be addressed. That is because the Washington Arch is not properly regarded as a monument. It has lost its meaning because it is not integrated into the community through appropriate celebration...

A philosophy of celebration that fully integrates society with its public monuments acknowledges that monuments, before they are public art, or components of urban planning, or civic design, are primarily symbols and embodiments of traditions and human values, and that monuments are tangible and permanent means by which we perpetuate those traditions and values.

If we are to reclaim our “monuments to neglect” and prevent their continued deterioration and outright destruction, we must adopt this philosophy of celebration, and we must develop a policy of preservation and education to implement that philosophy.

Our preservation policy must assure that we maintain and preserve our public monuments in perpetuity. Such a policy requires that standards and guidelines be established and supervised by professionals in dialogue with the community. There must be full and open disclosure of all conservational methods and techniques employed.

Our policy of education should take the form of education programs at the elementary and high school levels designed to produce a generation of citizens who are familiar with our public monuments and instructed in the historical, cultural, and aesthetic principles they embody.

Our colleges should expand their liberal arts curricula to include the interdisciplinary study of public monuments. Classroom and laboratory work should be supplemented by internships.

Curriculum development in public monuments at the university level should encourage research and publication. Chairs should be endowed to assure continued research and development in the field of public monuments.

Through symposia, lectures, special programs, and publications, the general public should be informed of the various aspects of our public monuments and the timely issues pertaining to them.33

9.Johnson, “Do You Know...”Reynolds, Monuments and Masterpieces,pp.xi-xii.
10. Donald Martin Reynolds, “Monuments to Neglect,” Symposium on Public
Monuments, reprinted in Sculpture Review 40,no.1 (1991): 20-25, and American
Arts Quarterly, Fall 1991, pp.4-7
13. Dubos, So Human an Animal, p. 242.
14. Ibid., p. 76.
17. Wayne Dynes, “Monument, the Term,” Symposium on Public Monuments.
18. Francis Huxley, The Way of the Sacred (London:Bloomsbury Books, 1989), p. 60.
19. Reynolds, Monuments and Masterpieces, p. xii; “Monuments to Neglect,” Sculpture Review, p.23; American Arts Quarterly, p.6.
30. Reynolds, Monuments and Masterpiece, pp. 356-66. “ Monuments to Neglect?”
New York Newsday, April 18, 1989, p. 60. “Monuments to Neglect,” Symposium,
Sculpture Review, American Arts Quarterly.
33. To achieve those objectives, the Monuments Conservancy, a not-for-
profit corporation, was established by the author in 1992...