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Something New: Asking Students to Re-Imagine Historical Monuments in Their Communities

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The former state hospital in my town has been repurposed into an office building and luxury apartments. I drive by it regularly on my way to the grocery store. Its existence inspired the research I began in 2015 seeking to better understand the care of mentally ill women in the late 19th century. My initial curiosity about that building has contributed to my reading dozens of books on the history of mental illness and women’s healthcare, in addition to spending many, many hours in libraries and archives.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed my research considerably. The archival work I was conducting is paused for the time being because access to the libraries is no longer available. Moving all of my courses online and planning for a seemingly un-plan-able fall semester have meant that time I would have spent this summer on research and writing has instead been dedicated to lots of online meetings and e-mail discussions about this past spring and the fall semester ahead. And yet, the voices that have spoken to me through my research still constantly weigh on my thoughts.

 

Group exercise classes were allowed to resume outside last week here in Massachusetts so my favorite yoga teacher held our class in the courtyard space at the former state hospital -- beautiful green grass, benches, flowering trees and shrubs surrounded the students who remarked on the beauty and tranquility of the space. What played over and over in my head, however, were the stories of men and women who had lived amidst the walls of what formerly was a state institution for those deemed “insane.” I was struck in that moment by how easy it is for history to be forgotten and stories lost -- for kind, well-meaning people to have absolutely no idea of the space they are in, its history and significance. 

 

The history teacher in me had to resist the urge to interrupt students’ friendly banter about the beauty of the place with anecdotes of the sadness that would have surrounded us in that same space many years before. The experience has me thinking about voices that are lost as we re-purpose old spaces and contemplate the monuments that decorate our communities. Most of us spend very little time considering their meanings or wondering why one building is saved and others are demolished; why one person is memorialized and others forgotten, until we are forced to consider such questions. Right now, for example, statues of Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt, and Confederate leaders, among others, are being removed nationwide. It is time, as a society, to start really thinking about whose likeness should be erected in  place of these relics of the past.

 

Part of my planning for fall, then, is to design an assignment that will ask students to “replace” -- in essay form -- a historical monument/statue in their community. I’m asking the students to think not only about the history of the chosen monument as it stands today -- what/who it memorializes, when it was built, etc -- but also about ways in which the local community has celebrated or protested the memorial’s existence. What reactions does the current monument elicit from people in the community?  From visitors? And, most importantly, to the student, does the monument represent the community’s past, present and future? 

 

I’m hoping that this assignment will force students to think more seriously about the issue of historical monuments: who makes decisions about the figures that a community chooses to publicly revere and why. For my students here in New England, I think this is especially relevant to ensure that they do not see the issue of Confederate statue removal as specific to only southern states but as a challenge to all communities throughout the United States to do better.

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.