Four Questions: Why Some Memorials Last and Others Fade
Susan Crane, a UA historian, discusses our inclination toward remembrance — and the reasons, over time, that we tend to forget.

Research, Discovery & Innovation
Nov. 2, 2016


Pearl Harbor and the attack on the USS Arizona "figured so big in people's memories that when 9/11 happened, it was the first thing many people thought of," UA historian Susan Crane says.
Pearl Harbor and the attack on the USS Arizona "figured so big in people's memories that when 9/11 happened, it was the first thing many people thought of," UA historian Susan Crane says.

Memorials play a part in both remembering and forgetting major events and historical figures, and the meaning of memorials — such as the Statue of Liberty, the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail and even the Berger Memorial Fountain at the University of Arizona — can significantly change over time and across generations. 

Historian Susan Crane, an associate professor in the UA Department of History, studies such phenomena, and also why people build memorials at all. 

"When you lose someone you cared about, people talk about having memorial services or a gravestone or a marker of some kind. The reason people want that is so that they have a location for their memories, something external, outside your own head," Crane said.

"It's a place where you can go and think about a person you lost or a cause you cared about or an important event," she said. "If enough people care about the same thing, they can also gather there with a common purpose. I think the impulse is wanting to externalize the memory and the caring into some kind of physical object."

However, some memorials lose their influence as spaces meant to house memories.

"There are all of these historical cases where people decided they wanted a memorial, or they wanted to tear something down, or they wanted to build a museum, or they decided not to save a historical site," Crane said. "All of those decisions are constantly being made in western societies in the 19th and 20th centuries, and there's no real rule for what is the right thing to do."

In advance of her talk on Thursday at the UA about memorials, which is free and open to the public, and as the University prepares to dedicate the USS Arizona Mall Memorial on Dec. 4, Crane answered some questions about memorials.

Q: How do memorials help us both remember and forget major events and historical personages?

A: Remember the movie "Field of Dreams"? It's a baseball movie from the late 1980s where Kevin Costner plows a cornfield, builds a baseball stadium and then the Chicago Black Sox show up and actually play there. In a way, the baseball diamond is like a memorial to this team that never got a chance to play again. The catchphrase from the movie is, "If you build it, they will come." Well, the thing with memorials is, if you build it, they will probably come for a little while, but then they won't. A lot of money and a lot of thought goes into memorials and people care a lot about them. And then, over time, sometimes, the immediate urgency and passion that people associate with that memory fades, and you end up with something like the World War I memorial fountain (the Berger Memorial Fountain) in front of Old Main right now, which most Arizona students recognize as a landmark but don't know as a memorial. There's not that impulse toward memory that there was before.

Q: How do the meanings of memorials change over time?

A: For the generation that builds the memorial, there's usually a personal connection that is felt through relatives or through a connection to the event itself. It's pretty unlikely that people will put a lot of money into something that they don't feel passionately connected to. But, then, once those people are gone, sometimes the passion passes on to the next generation and sometimes it doesn't. It depends on whether there has been constant contact with the memorial, and whether people feel that it's still relevant to their lives and make a point of visiting it over time. If they have an excuse to visit it, like an anniversary associated with it or some kind of event that's commemorated annually, then you might have a group of people assemble. If there's no event and it's not a major national landmark, the chances are that people will stop going.

Q: How do people deal with difficult memories that, perhaps, they'd rather not remember — and yet are very important to remember?

A: With the memory of the Holocaust, there are places outside of Germany that are dedicated to the victims. But within Germany, they didn't have a memorial to the Holocaust until the 21st century. Why? Because there was so much controversy over the appropriate way to do this. Some people said, "We should never build a memorial because it closes off discussion about the meaning of the memory," and in some ways I agree. With something like genocide, it's better to be constantly aware of  it and have to deal with it, and an official memorial might appear to offer closure. Some people might say, "Well, we have a national memorial. Haven't we done enough to remember the Holocaust now?" Also, when you have a national memorial, and it becomes a tourist attraction, then all the schoolkids have to go there, and it just becomes an item on a checklist. Boring, genericized and meaningless — even with the Holocaust. So there's that risk. Kids might realize it's important, they had to go, but they may not think about why.

Q: The UA is poised to dedicate the USS Arizona Mall Memorial on Dec. 4. What factors contribute to or shape our collective memory of an event such as the attack on Pearl Harbor?

A: I teach a class called "Histories of Memories," and one of the first things we do in that class is talk about how there is no such thing as a single, collective memory, so I have to unpack that. Generations, families and nationalities shape collective memories, and so somebody who wasn't even born when Pearl Harbor happened is going to have a very different relationship to it than somebody who had a son who was in the U.S. military at the time. You end up having multiple collectives. The other thing that happens is you end up with a dominant collective memory, and that might be patriotic or associated with the nation. We might have a consensus, as a nation, that it's important to remember something. I wouldn't say that we have a consensus right now, as a nation, that Pearl Harbor is still an important date to remember. We don't have a holiday associated with it, we don't have a moment of silence and we don't lower flags. There are articles in the newspapers about it, but really, what do we do? At the same time, Pearl Harbor figured so big in people's memories that when 9/11 happened, it was the first thing many people thought of. Especially for younger generations, you heard people saying, 'This is our Pearl Harbor." To me, that's a sign that it's there in collective memories, in different ways, not because there's a national holiday or one collective understanding of the event that makes it so important to everybody.

Extra info


"Remembering and Forgetting With Memorials"


UA Special Collections, 1510 E. University Blvd.


Thursday, Nov. 3, 6-8 p.m.

UA historian Susan Crane will discuss how memorials play a part in both remembering and forgetting major events or historical figures. She will discuss how memorials' meanings can change over time. Also, Steve Hussman, the Katheryne B. Willock Director of Special Collections, will explore primary resource materials, including diaries, photographs and other materials that convey the sailor's life on a battleship. Hussman also will discuss why such items are important in research, cultural preservation and community legacy.

Four Questions is an occasional feature in which UANews asks experts from the UA for their perspective on current or historical events or pop culture.


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