A monument can be a memorial, a work of art, a physical object, or something else entirely. Its meaning shifts depending on the audience and era. English and art history scholar W. J. T. Mitchell and archaeologist James Osborne take a look at monuments from present-day United States back to ancient city-states in modern-day Turkey.

W. J. T. Mitchell is the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in English Language and Literature, Art History, and Visual Arts, and editor in chief of the journal Critical Inquiry. His interview has been edited and condensed.

Monuments are born at a certain moment, and then they live through history—they try to recall something from history, and then they have a history of their own. Sometimes they don’t start out as monuments. Walls are particularly vulnerable to this. Think of the Great Wall of China: a monument to the grandeur of the Chinese empire. Think of the Berlin Wall. Or a monument in the making: the security wall on the West Bank.

Critical Inquiry has published a number of essays over the years on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was highly controversial at the beginning, and then the public relationship to it evolved. Particularly when people started to bring their own memorials to it, in these gifts and testimonies. Over time it became so powerful and effective because it did not compel one kind of response: “You have to admire this. You have to look up to it.” People could do dozens of different things with it.

One of the most important things about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: because it is a big mirror, you can see yourself in it. You’re looking at these 50,000 names, in the order they died, but the names are carved in this reflective black granite, so you seem to be looking into a parallel space with a veil of names over it.

It succeeds on both sides: doing what a monument at its best can do, which is to evoke public memory without settling its meaning, but leaving it open for reinterpretation and new experience.

That monument is a contrast to the hero on the horse, which is one of the monumental clichés. In those statues, it’s almost always a man, a “great” man. When it’s a woman, it’s usually an abstraction, like the Statue of Liberty. It’s not a singular figure unless maybe it’s Joan of Arc.

There’s also the question of the material and the immaterial monument. In the film Do the Right Thing, there are two contrary monuments. One is the pizzeria owner’s Wall of Fame, a photo montage of all of the great stars in Italian American culture. Down the street is Señor Love Daddy, who has a little low-wattage radio station. And he is playing all the monumental tunes of the black community as sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday.

This idea that the real monument is not material is important. In the great Athenian funeral oration in 400 BC, Pericles talks about the fallen heroes of Athenian democracy and the Athenian empire. He’s talking about the Parthenon and all the statues around, and saying: These things are not the real monuments. What we have to remember is what these all stand for. There’s something more important than this piece of rock.

James Osborne is assistant professor of Anatolian Archaeology in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. This essay is adapted from remarks he gave at the Franke Institute for the Humanities, which were also edited for an article in the Journal of Social Archaeology.

As an archaeologist who is anthropologically oriented, I couldn’t help but notice how recent events taking place at Confederate monuments echo the treatment of monuments in the 3,000-year-old city I excavate in southeastern Turkey. Just as Confederate monuments are being taken down, defaced, and transplanted, statues that stood 3,000 years ago or more were likewise being constantly reevaluated, often with highly destructive results.

One of the most recognizable features of capital cities in the Syro-Anatolian city-states of 900–700 BCE was their colossal statues. Most are standing figures of a king, with bases in the form of striding lions or bulls. They are frequently placed in monumental buildings associated with royal power, and associated with ceremonial treatment, such as cup marks for libations.

But such associations describe the significance of the statues’ context only at the time of their installation and intended use. Their subsequent treatment, it turns out, includes counter-monumental practices that complicate the traditional interpretation of these statues strictly as representations of royal power.

Of the seventeen monumental statues that I have examined, ten were discovered in various states of destruction, ranging from a few large chunks of statue to many dozen small fragments.

Seven of the statues with relatively complete bodies and heads nevertheless had their noses removed—too great a number to be an issue of preservation—while hands, eyes, and eye inlays were also frequently removed. These removals were intended, possibly, to rob the ancestor of his or her sensory capabilities, such that it was no longer able to “smell,” “see,” or “touch.”

The usual culprit invoked for such acts of destruction are the invading Assyrians at the time of their conquest. But equally plausible is the likelihood that some of the broken statues were destroyed by citizens of their own kingdoms.

Either way, damaging the face of these statues was a clear act of resistance to the message of royal power presented by the monuments. Particularly intriguing are the cases showing both nose removal and total statue destruction. Because there are statues that have had their noses removed but were not otherwise destroyed, it seems that several of these statues were alternately venerated and reviled as their reception moved back and forth between different communities of people over time.

The unusual status of monuments as existing in social contexts long removed from their period of formation requires us to acknowledge that the meaning of monuments lies not in the objects themselves, nor strictly speaking in the eyes of their beholders, but in the fluid relationship between them. This viewpoint leads to the realization that although monuments may be physically stable, their associated memories are highly mutable.

Photo Creds: 
Photo courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; photography by Domenico Arnica


I do believe that Pericles died in 429 B.C. Therefore, he could not have delivered "the great Athenian funeral oration in 400 BC" as stated in the excerpt from Dr. Mitchell's otherwise enlightening interview regarding monuments.