Chiseled in Stone
“Chiseled in stone,” we say, when we mean something is set and settled, or we say “not chiseled in stone” if there is room for ambiguity. That is the way, too, with the historical monuments we have emplaced on the plains. They are chiseled in stone, or set in concrete, or just established through the inertia of historical precedent, and their makers consider them set and settled. Casual passers-by encounter them in plazas or at roadside and, generally, read them uncritically. Stone has authority.
Anyone who thinks that a hulk of stone, or any other human emplacement, can settle the facts of history is, in that respect, hopelessly naïve. This is one of the more obvious lessons of history: that what we think about the people and events of the past evolves and changes continuously. These changes in what we think about the past often are contentious. That is why, late in the last century, historians became intensely interested in the phenomenon of memory, or collective memory. They noticed, rather belatedly, that historical memory is important to the identity of individuals and groups, and that collective memory, the agreed-upon account of the past, was a basis for status and power.
Monuments, then, are expressions of collective identity. Memory groups, like the Grand Army of the Republic or the Sons of Norway, are formed to establish them. Monuments are, however, cumbersome expressions of identity, because they are made of things like granite and concrete, unable to move, let alone change. So memory and identity swirl around them, recasting stories around the fixed objects. Occasionally, in places like Moscow or Baghdad, we witness the fall of monuments that simply cannot be made to work anymore.
My little research center at North Dakota State University has established a website, Remembrance in Stone, to catalog and contemplate the historical monuments of our region. This online reference offers a more reflective consideration of historical monuments on the northern plains. Although it sometimes questions the veracity of monuments, more often it simply urges us to think about them, about where they came from and what they mean. It neither accepts monumental assertions uncritically nor sets out intentionally to debunk them. Either such approach would spoil the pleasure of the public in monuments. Rather, Remembrance in Stone provides facts about the monuments, documents them, and urges a deeper appreciation of them.
Here are a few more observations about historical monuments drawn from our investigation of monuments in the region.
1. People who create monuments are sometimes confused in their facts or uncertain of their own intentions, resulting in muddled monuments.
2. People read and respond to monuments in unexpected ways.
3. What people think about monuments changes over time. Some monuments acquire greater gravitas; others fall into disrepute; still others are just forgotten. We have a lot of monuments here on prairies that have just been forgotten.
4. You can learn a lot from monuments, both the things intended by their makers and the things never imagined by them.
You can find Remembrance in Stone at heritagerenewal.org, website of the Center for Heritage Renewal. Drop us a line if you know of a forgotten monument we ought to pull into our catalog.