Why Are We Forgetting To Order the Pedestals?

LincolnClassPerhaps I’ve spent too much time studying how Americans have used public spaces to commemorate and remember their past, but I don’t get overly emotional around statues and other such sites.  My first thought is almost always about the people – including the profile of the individual/group – who chose to shape a particular landscape with some kind of commemorative marker and the values that they hoped to impart to the public.  In addition to the intentions of those who established the site there is the history of how the space is interpreted and consumed by subsequent generations.  In all honesty, I rarely think about the object being commemorated.  In short, for me public spaces of historic remembrance are almost always about the living.  In most cases the objects themselves have little to do with shaping public behavior, especially if they sit atop pedestals.  You can have a barbecue, play chess, or engage in polite conversation without ever considering the namesake of the location. 

In the past few decades, however, we’ve seen a welcome change in the world of statuary.  Statues can now be found sitting on benches or in stride, ready to engage any and all passerbyes.  There is something refreshing about this change.  No doubt, for some the reverence that has traditionally been attached to these objects has been lost; according to this view such objects are appropriately placed at a distance away from common folk in order to strike a sense of awe and wonder.  The values they impart are to be considered timeless.  I don’t believe there is anything timeless about commemorative sites; the land used for the Lincoln Memorial was a swamp before it was completed in 1922.  The objects themselves as well as the surrounding landscape are by their very nature open to interpretation and change.  We decide what they mean and how we will engage them.  That’s what I love about the placing of statues on the ground level.  The objects engage us and in turn shape the way we interact with one another.  Consider the room in the National Constitution Center, which contains statues of the men who took part in the convention of 1787.  You are just as likely to find visitors engaged in serious conversation as you are making faces and having their photographs taken.  The room itself is constantly in flux depending on who is in it and how it is being utilized.  It’s all good.

Lincoln seems to be a popular candidate for such purposes.  Although I always enjoy visiting the Lee Monument in Richmond I just can’t imagine sitting next to him on a park bench.  I wouldn’t know what to say.  Because of our collective memory of Lincoln, which emphasizes his “everyman” qualities, it is easy to imagine running into him and striking up a conversation.  While we all know the bench sculpture of Lincoln and Tad at Tredegar in Richmond, there is a new one at the Gettysburg Visitor Center, which you can check out at the Gettysburg Daily blog.  I hope this is a trend that continues.

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13 thoughts on “Why Are We Forgetting To Order the Pedestals?

  1. ericwittenberg

    Kevin,

    In the case of the Longstreet carousel horse at Gettysburg, it was specifically to save money, which is too bad. That's why Longstreet and horse are smaller than they should be, and also why they are ground level. I firmly believe in doing something right or not doing something at all, and the Longstreet monument is a great example of that.

    Eric

    Reply
      1. margaretdblough

        It was never intended that this statue include a pedestal. I saw the maquette (sp?) (a miniature version of the proposed statue) when it was unveiled at the first Longstreet Memorial Fund Symposium in Gettysburg in September 1995. It didn't have a pedestal from the beginning. As William Garrett Piston, whose book “Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant” inspired the project said at the dedication, “It does not mean trying to put Longstreet on a pedestal above other people, but returning him to the pantheon of Civil War heroes who deserve to be admired. . . .NOTHING could be more fitting then, that this statue of James Longstreet which we dedicate today REST NOT on a pedestal of myth and marble, but on the solid ground of reality.” (Dr. Piston did not read from a prepared text; the text that is in the Book of Honor that the LMF published after the dedication was transcribed by a friend of mine Maripat Grams from the PCN broadcast of the dedication ceremony because she was so impressed by his speech.)

        I'm glad you like the statue. I do and so do the Longstreet descendants who were there in force at the dedication.

        Reply
    1. margaretdblough

      You're wrong. None of what you discuss was done to save money. I was very involved in the project. The only thing that involved money issues was that they initially looked into using the design approved by Helen Longstreet. That design would have cost an inordinate amount of money to do nearly 50 years later.

      Reply
  2. chandlerpritchett

    I think you'd be really interested in the work of some of my friends in Memphis. This collaborative, led by Richard Lou, did an hour-long performance piece in front of a statue of Nathan Bedford Forest. Wendi Thomas wrote a great article about it in the Commercial Appeal: http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2009/jun/2… that includes a great video.

    Reply
  3. Dave Pelland

    Like neckties, hemlines and sideburns, monuments reflect the fashions of the eras in which they are dedicated. At Gettysburg, the 1960s monuments along West Confederate Avenue clearly reflect a different aesthetic than the 1880s regimental monuments that line Hancock Avenue. Similarly, today's monuments, which skew toward the impressive (if hard to photograph) polished black granite, will eventually fall out of favor as future generations decide to honor the significant achievements of their era.

    As for Longstreet, I would have preferred a larger horse, but understand why the model displayed in the new Visitors' Center museum wouldn't have built today.

    Reply
  4. Dave Pelland

    Like neckties, hemlines and sideburns, monuments reflect the fashions of the eras in which they are dedicated. At Gettysburg, the 1960s monuments along West Confederate Avenue clearly reflect a different aesthetic than the 1880s regimental monuments that line Hancock Avenue. Similarly, today's monuments, which skew toward the impressive (if hard to photograph) polished black granite, will eventually fall out of favor as future generations decide to honor the significant achievements of their era.

    As for Longstreet, I would have preferred a larger horse, but understand why the model displayed in the new Visitors' Center museum wouldn't have built today.

    Reply

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