Architectural Notes: Monuments with no fixed meaning

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THE PUBLIC'S relationship with monumental art is frequently a difficult one. Monuments are often sources of friction and argument. Before they are completed they arouse controversy about how to say whatever they are intended to say and, afterwards, about what they really mean. A deep and widely shared desire to commemorate someone or something, such as the victim of disasters or wars, does not make things easier. For, if a whole community is genuinely interested in making a memorial, it brings all its divisions and mixtures of motives to the work.

Probably the most popular European memorials, at least when they were built, were those to the dead of the Great War, but there has been little lasting agreement about their purpose, quality or effectiveness. From the beginning, there were differences about what they ought to mean. In 1920, the Lord Mayor of Leeds was in favour of "a reminder of bereavement" rather than a celebration of victory. A Glaswegian, writing to the local press, wanted memorials to remind coming generations of the heroism of their forefathers and `the greatness of the stock they have sprung from". The war correspondent Philip Gibbs wanted them to be "the safeguard of the living by teaching those who follow to learn wisdom by our stupidity, and to cherish the gift of peace".

The significance of remembering the dead was loudly debated year after year on Armistice Day, in speeches, sermons and newspaper editorials, inescapably connecting mourning for the dead with questions about domestic and world politics which the circumstances of their deaths had raised. Consequently, memorials became pegs on which to hang a great variety of conflicting views.

Even though they were intended to assuage bitterness and loss, memorials and the memories associated with them offered no answers to questions about the meaning of war and death. On the contrary, they forced people to keep asking whether the consequences of the war had been worth the suffering, and what could be done to give some retrospective meaning to it all.

Looking at these memorials today, there is hardly a hint that they were once the centre of so much controversy. Most of them appear thoroughly conventional, and remarkably reticent in the face of the disasters which the Great War brought forth. But their reticence was their great strength. Because they rarely attempted to force a point of view on their audiences about the ultimate value of death in war, beyond saying that the dead had been honourable, people who would never agree on the subject were prepared to join together in building them and treating them with reverence. Within generous limits, memorials were open to interpretation; and those who joined in erecting them, and later joined the ceremonies held at them, took full advantage of the freedom they were offered to justify their involvement in terms which satisfied their own desires and interests. They spelt out the meanings they preferred to see in memorials through ritual acts, dedicatory addresses and critical interpretations. While some people interpreted them as monuments to national triumph over rival peoples, and to the glory of British arms, others saw them as reminders of the horror, waste and ultimate futility of war, and as important devices in the campaign to prevent war occurring again.

The meaning of monuments like these is not fixed. It depends not so much on what the memorials look like as on how the public become involved with them - in commissioning and building them, honouring and talking about them. Because war memorials played a crucial part in questioning and campaigning on urgent contemporary issues, public involvement with them remained vigorous and argumentative for two decades between the World Wars. In this respect they were a remarkable success.

Alex King is author of `Memorials of the Great War in Britain: the symbolism and politics of remembrance' (Berg Publishers, pounds 14.95)