Ever since I researched the meanings of monuments in the cultural landscape in Mexico City, I’ve been fascinated by the cultural politics of memory and heritage. The removal of a statue is a cultural 180, acknowledging what was once honored and revered is now something that does not worthy of that distinction. This sort of change is not without protests on both sides and a cultural rearticulation of who “we” are when “we” make a public memorial.
As a graduate student I wrote my dissertation on the meanings within the symbolic landscape. Since very few are clamoring to read my 500-page dissertation, this is a sampling that shows one of my major points: changes in the symbolic landscapes are indicators that there are shifts in how individuals and communities are interpreting their identity and understanding their history. Here are 2 examples from that Mexico City research, one 2015 example from South Africa and one controversial one from the Penn State campus.
Example#1: Cecil Rhodes Statue in Cape Town, South Africa
Cecil Rhodes was the namesake for the Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University and the colonial names of Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) and Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia). He was deeply connected to British colonialism and was one of the most ambitious colonizers that expanded the British Empire. This week a statue of Cecil Rhodes on the University of Cape Town campus was removed. See the BBC article, Yahoo News!, and PRI podcast for more details.
I didn’t dream that the “historical narrative” of this memorial would ever be complex or a contentious issue. After the release of the Freeh report with incriminating evidence that Joe Paterno actively concealed the truth in regard to the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal, I wrote what I felt should happen to this monument in a brief op-ed. Not necessarily forever, but for the here and now.