Statues and the Shapeshifting of History

July 17, 2020

As a young girl visiting Vicksburg, Mississippi, Julia Nguyen encountered a Civil War statue. It altered not only the way she understands history, but the way she thinks about that very concept.

Transcript

I’m Julia Nguyen and my Humanities Moment, or at least this one because my life has been full of Humanities Moments, as a child—so a relatively early one—going to the National Military Park in Vicksburg, in Mississippi. I was raised in a family that has always been very interested in history, but going to that park really changed the way I thought about both history and the way that we think about history.

I remember being about twelve and the guide is explaining that the park is full of monuments that have been erected by individual states, veteran’s groups, other kinds of institutions, and explaining, for example, that every one is different and that the states themselves or the veteran’s groups decided what they wanted their monument to look like and what that was going to say about, say, involvement of troops from Mississippi in the siege of Vicksburg or the involvement of troops from Massachusetts.

That was the first time I had ever really thought about historical memory as a concept, and the idea that a monument is not just about the history, it’s about how society or a group or an individual wants us to remember the history. For a twelve-year old, that kind of blew my mind. This idea that monuments and historic sites are not themselves history; they are a representation of history. That has always really stuck with me.

I can still remember that moment so clearly, and as I then as an adult studied history in college, went on to graduate school—my own work as a historian is not in historical memory, but that concept continues to shape the way I think about the practice of history and the way that I do history myself: the idea that doing research and writing history is also a representation of what I or any other historian wants society to know or think about the past.

When I write history, I’m not writing the pure past. It doesn’t exist. I’m writing an interpretation, and I think sometimes we as historians, and it’s I think a natural human tendency—“Oh yes, of course, historians of the past were influenced by their own biases or perspectives, or the limitation of the sources that they had access to, but we do things better now!” Certainly, in some cases that’s true. We have access to more sources in some cases. You know, certainly the history of the Cold War can be written differently after the fall of the Soviet Union. But it’s still being shaped by our own perspectives, our own biases, the society in which we live and operate.

I try to keep that in mind as I do my own historical research and writing. Also of course, I think that now that we’re in a moment that monuments have become flashpoints again, it’s important to remember that sort of “ah-ha” moment, that sort of moment where my perspective was completely shifted, and remember that the monuments themselves are not the history. They are a representation of the history, and it’s important to know the full context in which they were erected and also to know the message that the creators wanted to convey, and what that says about them as individuals and organizations, and what it says about us as a society and the way that we choose to remember—or not remember—certain aspects of our history.