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Markers, Memorials and Monuments in the Public Space

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas Poulin
April 25, 2022

We have seen rancorous debate around statuary in public spaces. Some wish to have existing statues removed, while others seek their protection. For public administrators, the role is not to control debate, but to facilitate it. To accomplish this, we must embrace James Madison’s view of government—keeping as many people as happy as possible while concurrently disappointing as few people as possible, as little as possible. We must understand it is not the marker, memorial or monument causing the conflict, but instead the perceived intent behind it.

Markers, Memorials and Monument

Markers are relatively straightforward. Their language is simple and direct, commonly focusing on a specific historic event or personage. In the United States, the most common form is the highway historical marker. Markers such as these are generally value-free, fostering little conflict or debate.

Memorials take many forms. Their purpose is drawing attention to a specific event or individual. The intent behind them is keeping a memory of a loss or tragedy alive. They can be simple or complex. An impromptu, simple memorial may be erected along a highway by family members in remembrance of a lost loved one. The public sculpture and fountains associated with the National 9/11 Memorial in New York City are an example of a more complex memorial. The intent between the two is identical. When people remember, we promote ongoing reflection of the salience of the event and how it left a lasting impression upon us.

While memorials tend to be value-laden, they typically generate limited conflict or debate. When debate occurs, it is likely about the form and location, not whether a memorial is appropriate. There will be direct support from those directly affected. There may be at least passive support from those understanding how others might wish to memorialize an individual or event, even if they were not personally affected.  There will be some who are not in support, but remain quiet, not wishing to intrude upon the grief of others.

Monuments, like memorials, take many forms. The difference between the two is intent. Monuments to specific events or individuals seek to elevate them—not only memorializing them, but suggesting they are worthy of shared admiration and respect. Monuments are value-rich endeavors. With differing values present in the community at any time, monuments may generate controversy even during development, especially if the perception is that those in power are seeking to promote their own values. Even with consensus in the community at the time the monument is created, societal values and demographics evolve and a monument deemed appropriate earlier might be perceived differently several generations later. These value-conflicts towards monuments are the cause of many of the recent debates.

Monuments and the Public Space

This article is unconcerned with whether a particular monument is appropriate, instead focusing on the role of public officials. The debate on values occurs in the political and social arenas. Public officials must be focused on how this affects their management of the public space, including parks, roadways and areas inside and outside of government buildings. The public spaces are jointly owned and used by the community. Shared ownership gives everyone vested rights in their use. The public official’s role is to understand their concerns, seeking to address them effectively, understanding that in any value-laden discussion it will be impossible to satisfy everyone.

During these debates, some will argue the continued merit of existing monuments, while others will argue they were inappropriate at the time developed or that they have become so based on changing values or the availability of greater information concerning the individuals or events in question. Some will argue removing a monument erases history, while others argue without full context the monument distorts history. Some will argue the monuments should remain, but additional information should be presented for context. Some will argue existing monuments deemed offensive be placed in a museum setting where they may be interpreted historically. Some will argue their removal as they are no longer relevant given the passage of time, and the individuals or events remembered are no longer significant to our lives.

Each of these options for dealing with monuments is valid, and each is suitable for public debate. However, it is critical public officials do not become active debate participants. They may facilitate meetings and discussions, soliciting opinions and recommendations. They should discuss the practical and legal challenges associated with any recommendations made. However, they must remain wary of being seen as actively partisan in the debate. The role of public officials is to create the vision of the community as shared with public agencies or through elected officials. This is never more so than when the debate concerns itself with the community clarifying its vision of itself.  If public officials become involved in the debate, injecting their own values, they are more likely to generate greater disequilibrium than facilitate the development of an acceptable, equitable resolution.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is an HR training and development consultant and serves as Senior Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected]

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