We become what we behold — the power of monuments

“As a society, we celebrate monuments to war,” we wrote in this space 16 years ago. “Even a small newspaper like ours will regularly run photographs of a wreath being laid on a monument —— perhaps on Memorial Day, perhaps on Veterans Day —— in honor of those who died fighting in a war. Often such monuments are at the center of our towns or the focal point of our village squares.”

We wrote these words in 2005 because we were celebrating a different kind of monument — a Peace Pole being dedicated by the students at Pine Bush Elementary School in Guilderland.

The pole was planted in a revamped garden. On its sides, in 12 different languages, this message was written: “May Peace Prevail on Earth.”

“We have chosen the languages of Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swahili to represent all the continents of the world, as well as the diverse cultures that we are lucky to have here at Pine Bush Elementary School,” said the program for dedication ceremony.

Each of the children surrounding the pole said the words in the dozen different languages: Ten-year-old Skylar Mead spoke the words in German; nine-year-old Anna Jacquinot said them in Hindi. Eight-year-olds Luxi Peng and Alicia Chen recited them together, in perfect unison, in Chinese.

All at once, it seemed like Guilderland, New York had something in common with Lahore, Pakistan. There, on Jan. 15 that same year, a peace pole was planted in the midst of tensions surrounding the murder of a Shiite religious leader in a Sunni-dominated nation. It seemed there was a link, too, with Chiang Mai, Thailand, where a peace pole was planted on Feb. 14, 2005, the Day of Friendship.

The World Peace Prayer Movement that was started in 1955 by Japanese poet and philosopher Masahisa Goi grew to a non-sectarian organization, headquartered in New York, recognized by the United Nations as a non-governmental organization. Poles have been planted at the pyramids of El Giza, at Gorky Park in Russia, in Sarajevo, at the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, and near the Allenby Bridge on the border of Israel and Jordan.

“Will one small garden in Guilderland with a peace monument make any difference at all?” we asked 16 years ago. Perhaps not, we answered, but it could be a beginning for a new generation to look at the world differently, to try to forge cross-cultural understanding that would prevent the bloodshed that has shaped our world so far.

We are heartened now to read the first comprehensive study of monuments in the United States; the Monument Lab surveyed 50,000 monuments. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is using the lab’s audit in a $250 million project to facilitate “broader expressions of the multiplicity of American stories in our public spaces so that our collective history will be more completely and accurately represented in them,” writes the foundation’s president, Elizabeth Alexander, at the start of the lab’s report.

The lab defines “monument” as “a statement of power and presence in public” and notes conventional structures often misrepresent history and fail to do justice to our collective knowledge and experience.

The audit names the top 50 individuals recorded in U.S. public monuments. Not surprisingly, the vast majority are white men. The list includes just three women — Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, and Sacagawea — and only five Indigenous or Black people.

Our nation’s founding was on stolen Indigenous lands, the audit notes, and much of our country’s foundation was built by enslaved laborers. “Monuments,” the report says, “serve as places to harness public memory and acknowledge collective forgetfulness as twin forces holding up this nation.”

The audit, in which the lab’s research team spent a year scouring almost half-a-million records of historic properties, found that monuments have always changed, the monument landscape is overwhelmingly white and male, the most common features of American monuments reflect war and conquest, and the story of the United States as told by our current monuments misrepresent our history.

For example, the lab’s data contains 5,917 records for the Civil War, but only nine records for monuments commemorating the Reconstruction following the war.

The ratio of records that refer to war and peace monuments is 13:1. The ratio of war to love is 17:1. The ratio of war to care is 59:1.

One of the report’s calls to action is to support a profound shift in representation to better acknowledge the complexity and multiplicity of this country’s history. Another is to reimagine commemoration by elevating stories embedded within communities that foster repair and healing.

The current story told by our monuments misrepresents our history. Monuments, the report says, play an outsize role in shaping historical narratives and shared memory. “They also can erase, deny, or belittle the historical experience of those who have not had the civic power or privilege to build them,” the report says. “Where inequalities and injustices exist, monuments often perpetuate them.”

Although we’re pleased that Central Park in New York City for the first time ever now has a statue depicting three real women — suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth — we think there may be a better way to commemorate our history than with likenesses of people.

In the Albany County towns we cover — the Hilltowns, Guilderland, and New Scotland — most of the commemoration of history takes place in roadside markers. John Haluska noted, as he repainted many of Guilderland’s historical markers, none marked the accomplishments of a woman.

Currently our history columnist, Mary Ellen Johnson is conducting research to enable us to place an historic marker to commemorate the contributions made here by enslaved people.

Beyond the markers, we have cemeteries that tell history to those who explore them. One of the features we love of both Boston and Philadelphia, where the Monument Lab is based, is that they are cities that have preserved their cemeteries. Visitors and residents alike can learn history by reading gravestones. Locally, Peter Lindemann has conducted tours of the Cobleskill Rural Cemetery that reveal that community’s history.

While we appreciate the banners of Hometown Heroes that many of our towns have recently hung from utility poles, we wish that all of the heroes being commemorated were not soldiers. We have other heroes — teachers and nurses, farmers and builders — who could be recognized, too, for heroic efforts.

Beyond that, we’ve been struck with two recent dedication ceremonies to monuments that serve the public without erecting a statue.

A rededication ceremony was held in September for the Slingerland Family Burial Vault, which had fallen into ruin, and was resurrected by a cadre of community caregivers.

At the ceremony, Susan Leath, the Bethlehem town historian, spoke of the fourth-graders from Slingerlands Elementary School who visited the vault where she taught them about Teunis Slingerland’s encounters with native people in the 1600s.

She also taught them that both John and Leah Slingerland’s fathers had served in the American Revolution on the patriots’ side while a Slingerland cousin remained loyal to King George. Leath stressed the importance of local history’s connection to state and national history, as embodied in the vault.

Voorheesville’s historian, Dennis Sullivan, recently led a tour of the village in which the buildings themselves provided a history lesson The architecture of place is an important way to learn about our past — and why we constantly advocate for preservation. The buildings from our past tell us about the often unnamed people who built our nation.

Finally, earlier this month, we were struck by one of the loveliest dedication ceremonies we’ve ever written about. Lauren and David Iselin made a sizeable contribution to put the fundraising to conserve New Scotland’s Bender Melon Farm “over the finish line,” as Mr. Iselin put it.

On a bright autumn Saturday, they dedicated David’s Trail, in memory of their son, who died of a heart attack at age 27. There will not be a statue of David Iselin. Rather, there will be a peaceful place with a trail dedicated to his memory.

“The sun came out,” said his mother on that Saturday morning, “so David is shining down on us with his big, beautiful smile.”

“This trail is the perfect fit with David,” said his father. “It is a gentle trail, no big hills or rough patches …. He had a gentle soul … It’s a fitting way to keep him in our hearts.”

What a wonderful gift for all of us.

“Now that this surveying, analyzing, and learning has begun, we cannot turn back,” writes Elizabeth Alexander. “We cannot unsee what we have seen. We cannot unknow what we now know.”

She is right. What we need to do is act on what we know. In our own towns, we can look to commemorate in meaningful ways, with examples illustrated here, our history.

We can learn from the long-ago children of Pine Bush: A monument doesn’t have to be a representation of a person. It can be a symbol of something much grander and more unifying.

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