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Outrage: ‘if memorialisation is everywhere, it becomes mere virtue-signalling’


Historically, memorials have honoured valiant heroes, but a social trend is emerging: to memorialise victims who were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time

Edwin Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall in London, designed in 1919, is a solemn Portland stone monolith that serves to honour ‘The Glorious Dead’ of the First World War. Designed in two weeks (his sketches were drawn and approved within six hours), it is designed as a sepulchre to the memory of those whose bodies are buried or lost in unknown foreign fields. Gavin Stamp described Lutyens as ‘the greatest British architect’ whose portfolio included many Arts and Crafts-style homes, medieval castles and even the planning of the colonial seat at New Delhi. But his simple Cenotaph monument unveiled in 1920 – a tribute to the almost one million dead from the Empire – is also a fitting tribute to his work.

The inscription to ‘The Glorious Dead’ is a reflection on sacrifice for a cause. Frederick George Scott’s poem from which the phrase originates is an In Memoriam to the dead of the Boer War who gave their lives for Empire. It bemoans their loss but celebrates the valour of their colonial project; it weeps for their souls but holds aloft the bravery embodied in their sacrifice for a patriotic cause. It does not present the fallen as victims but heroes.

‘These were not intended to be private sites of grief, but as community homage and national pride’

However much we may oppose the folly and the barbarism of that loss, however much we may reject the historic project and political basis of those conflicts, their memorialisation is a moment of honour. Memorials such as the Cenotaph commemorated human sacrifice; and the 44 First World War memorials that were subsequently created acted as public shrines and ceremonial locations of remembrance and respect. These were not intended to be private sites of grief, even though families may undoubtedly have treated them as such, but as community homage and national pride. Together with the wartime incantation ‘Lest We Forget’ (taken from Kipling), these are moral enjoinders to national unity through the fighting spirit.

New York’s Twin Towers memorial could not be more different. In an understandable reflection of our times it comprises a reflecting pool for self-reflection. It seems more of a narcissistic monument. Unlike memorials that celebrate the life or the valour of others, in many ways this one promotes an unhealthy obsession with the now rather than the eternal. It portrays a morbid identification with the dead and, worse, an infatuation with the self.

As a monument to catastrophe this memorial could never countenance a dedication to ‘The Glorious Dead’ and instead offers a therapeutic environment for us to identify with the victims. We weep as much for ourselves as for them. There is nothing inherently wrong with empathy, but this is indulgence. In today’s context even visitors are invited to play the role of survivors of the trauma (after all, instead of suggesting that this is a rare act of terrorism, we are required to believe that there but for the grace of God go I). In this way, this is not a generous memorial but a decadent one. Its ‘Survivor Tree’ (contained, we are told, within ‘one of the most eco-friendly plazas ever constructed’) is ‘a physical reminder’ of our isolation rather than a sense of communality.

‘The new monument is more about us today and serves often to satisfy the demand that our continued pain is acknowledged’

Clearly Lutyens comes from a different age to our own and each new historical period uses memorials to promote particular myths about itself. This short article can only generalise a social trend conveyed by Erika Doss’s book, Memorial Mania, that catalogues the recent infatuation with memorials. Australian researcher Quentin Stevens states that many of these new memorials acknowledge ‘a diversity of social groups and historical events, and the constant unearthing of more knowledge about the past, have generated many new claims for public recognition … for new memorials to enter into increasingly complex and extensive geographies of memory. Conflicts arise among the panoply of memorials’. If memorialisation is everywhere, then it can easily become denuded of meaning and becomes mere virtue-signalling. Like apology-culture, when everyone does it, it loses its power and validity. These new claims for public recognition reflect contemporary identity politics and the unsavoury scramble to declare we suffered more; we are victims too. The new monument is more about us today and serves often to satisfy the demand that our continued pain is acknowledged.                                              

Many contemporary memorials are often simply about remembering and emoting, saying more about the post-Diana period in which we live than the object of the monument itself. They are the flabby, quivering lower lip to the stiffer Victorian upper. Modern memorials are what journalist Alex Stein once called symbols of the ‘sentimentalisation of mourning’. Admittedly, ritualised theatricality has always been the stock in trade of the memorialisation of death, but lately memorials have tended to degrade historical events to the status of the psychological trauma experienced by the visitor.

Many campus activists who find themselves traumatised by historical events have demanded that we tear down the valedictories of that era because they somehow offend their contemporary sensibilities. Nowadays, many people seem to perceive themselves as co-victims, sometimes identifying with the victims of with the memorialised perpetrator. They effectively obliterate the particular significance of historical events.

‘The commemorative aspect of memorials – the appeal to higher ideals – is gradually fading as more people reject a fixed view of history’

While many of us have been rightly appalled by ISIS’s destruction of Palmyra and other relics, it seems that when contemporary Western societies try to expunge past representations of which they disapprove, they face less criticism. Students in South Africa have vandalised public symbols, notably statues of Queen Victoria, allegedly to rid the country of a colonial stain. The Oxford University version of the #RhodesMustFall campaign invoked the removal of statues of colonialist Cecil Rhodes. Elsewhere in the UK, there is increasing defensiveness about museum collections acquired during colonial adventures, notably that of the British Museum. While in Ukraine, the Kiev government has ordered the destruction of all Soviet-era statues, Ghanaian students demand that the statue of Gandhi be removed. They are playing out today’s political rows and making history play by today’s rules.

The commemorative aspect of memorials – the appeal to higher ideals – is gradually fading as more people reject a fixed view of history. The introspection of the contemporary age had given rise to the sanitised memorialisation movement: one that seeks to exclude memorials to those with whom we cannot directly identify. It is being replaced by those who wish to airbrush out those with whom they disagree. From Lutyens’ inclusive inscription commemorating ‘The Glorious Dead’; to the 9/11 passive remembrance simply of ‘The Dead’, we now find ourselves haunted by a contemporary movement that condemns the mere concept of any ‘Glorified Dead’.