Addressing the historic value of controversial memorials in public spaces

Posted in: Cultural Resources

View of the Gettysburg Battlefield
View of the Gettysburg Battlefield

Honoring divisive historical figures or events invites controversy. The removal of a confederate flag and public memorials across the country in recent years is increasing tensions regarding public memorials. When addressing this issue with a client, I’ve found the answer is far from simple.

A recent commemorative works policy statement from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation helps address the issue of controversial memorials. In brief, does the object in question:

  • Directly confront history’s difficult chapters.
  • Provide robust public involvement and education.
  • Consider a range of treatments and alternatives.

History is not static. Historian Christopher Hill stated: “History has to be rewritten in every generation, because although the past does not change, the present does; each generation asks new questions of the past and finds new areas of sympathy as it re-lives different aspects of the experiences of its predecessors.”

The ACHP adopted a policy statement in March 2018 concerning the management of controversial commemorative works such as public memorials and monuments. The policy statement provides eight guiding principles to promote informed decision-making.

Public memorials and monuments are owned by local, state and federal agencies. These agencies must abide by ACHP principle number 4, requiring an evaluation to determine if the work qualifies for a National Register of Historic Places listing. Many public memorials and monuments likely do not qualify for the listing and thus do not require specific preservation treatment by the owner.

For memorials and monuments that do qualify for listing in the National Register, principle number 7 provides four treatment alternatives. The owner can:

  • Retain it unchanged on its site.
  • Retain it on site and provide context through on-site interpretation.
  • Modify it to address community concerns while maintaining its physical integrity
  • Remove it from its site and preserve it elsewhere

If there is federal money or approval involved, then moving or changing a NRHP-eligible commemorative work must address Section 106 and also assess any direct and indirect impacts.

The dilemma for cultural resource professionals

The tricky part for owners is attempting to eliminate or reduce changes that diminish the historical significance of a memorial or monument. This is the start of the dilemma. Principle number 7 provides for the relocation of commemorative works through curation, display, and interpretation. This could diminish its historical significance.

The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties guidance can be used eliminate or reduce any adverse effects. These standards address the importance of maintaining spatial relationships. They also indicate that in most cases relocation should be considered a “no-no” when applying the National Register Criteria for Evaluation. This begs the question: do historic preservation regulations promote honoring controversial public memorials? We will have to wait to understand how this dilemma can be resolved in practice with case studies and best practices.

Chad Moffett

About the Author

Chad Moffett enjoys different types of historic preservation projects and helping our clients. “Every place has a unique and interesting history. Discovering and understanding these stories and how history affected the built environment is an exciting challenge,” he says. Chad specializes in developing balanced solutions that meet client needs while respecting historic resources for future generations.

Read more posts by Chad Moffett

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