What is a memorial?

18 Jan 2023 | Written by Bob Tate

Bob Tate shares an extended essay on the definition of memorials, exploring their function in society today…

In the early 1960s, on one rainy morning, I paid a solitary visit to a seaside waxwork show. Amongst the other tableaux, now long since forgotten, stood one which has remained as a vivid childhood memory for over 50 years…

The scene was set in a middle-class couple’s breakfast room, in a Kenyan coffee plantation. The table was set with teacups, half-eaten toast and marmalade. An elderly waxwork couple sat in dining chairs. A huge African warrior dressed only in a loincloth and wielding a fearsome machete, advanced towards the moustachioed gentleman, who in turn was firing a heavy revolver at him; whilst the elegant elderly lady was being stabbed in the back with a huge assegai. The table was coated with toast crumbs, spilt tea, and pools of fake blood. 

The tableau was entitled; “Mau Mau Rebellion”, and referenced  a notorious incident in 1953, during the height of the uprising. 

This was my earliest awareness of a memorial; it proved to be a significant experience.

In my own artistic practice, I seek to engage audiences with a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of memorialisation of victims; to disconnect propaganda from art, and to create counter-memorials which powerfully contest societal violence. Potential areas of enquiry in respect of memorials and art are practically limitless, so this article will focus on memorials created in or for 20th century Western European audiences. 

The semantics of memory

We may remember, recollect or reminisce personal experiences. 

We may be reminded of both personal experiences, and of histories learned – not lived through. 

Reminiscence holds connotations of pleasure (sublime memories may reflect Goethe’s paradigm of the terrible beauty of destructive forces). 

How do memorials actually work?

Firstly, a memorial can function as a physical souvenir, literally a reminder of the nature and existence of persons or events, already known through personal experience, to the target audience (such as a seaside postcard or a wedding invitation).

Secondly, a memorial can serve as a catalyst to the recollection of thoughts, feelings or sensations which, whilst personally experienced, largely lie beyond mechanistic semantics; such as love, grief or ecstasy (such as a tombstone).

Thirdly, a memorial can mythologise – that is to say, create meta-narratives and ritual behaviours. Myths may be assembled from incompletely processed thoughts and feelings in those who can actually recollect; these act as a pattern for those who are learning to remember. Ceremonies such as the Remembrance Day Service fall into this category.

Beyond semantics: Object relations and the memorial

How do individuals, who had no personal contact or knowledge of an individual or event, still feel profoundly emotionally moved by memorial objects? 

Object relations theory suggests that humans are primarily motivated by the need for contact with others — the need to form relationships

Memorials, are, therefore powerful repositories and conductors of both the narrative and emotion of relationships. 

Memorials and art

Memorialisation through art penetrates every society. The form which memorials take is deeply culturally determined – spanning the entire spectrum of art. Some cultures proscribe figurative images but embrace the calligraphy of sacred texts and others remember through vivid allegorical sculpture. Some Indigenous cultures often combine complex ritual and taboo with the creation of memorials, such as First Nation Australians.

The Memorialisation of War 1865-1900

Figure 4 Robert E Lee and his horse Traveller bronze Shrady 1921

False prophets of a lost cause

The American Civil War (which ended with the surrender of the Southern (Confederate Forces) at Appomattox on the 9th April 1865 created the type of vacuum in cultural and social history which rapidly became filled with myth. 

Henry Grady (a disconcertingly familiar figure of an unscrupulous journalist-politician) re-invented Confederate history as a crusade for the Lost CauseState Rights against Big Government and fuelled the propaganda behind the myth of the Gallant Rebel and the Honourable South

He had little difficulty in propagating racist attitudes and the rapid adoption of Jim Crow segregationist laws and the memorialisation of Southern military heroes. No person of colour could be in doubt as to who still literally held the whip, in a society which placed equestrian statutes of slave-owning Confederate generals, outside their local courthouse. 

The spike of statue erection in the 1880s subsided, to returned again in the 1920-30s. Indeed, more statues were erected to Confederate “heroes” during the Depression, than after the Civil War. This coincided with the first faltering steps of the NAACP-sponsored Civil Rights movement.

President Obama encouraged the removal of Confederate symbols from public spaces; and endorsed their relocation in museums. President Obama (himself a professional historian), hoped that physical repositioning would be followed by temporal relocation; cementing them into the past as memory so as not to remain as active provocations in the present.

Memorial to Helen Heyer photographed by Tasos Katopolis (date unknown EPA)


Nonetheless, Ms. Heather Heyer (who had been attending a rally in Charlottesville in 2017, to have the statue of Robert E Lee decommissioned) was murdered by a white supremacist. Extreme right-wing groups, sporting Confederate and Nazi flags attacked a peaceful protest demonstration. Despite such atrocities, several Southern states have passed laws prohibiting the decommissioning of such public monuments. 


The memorialisation of war in the 20th Century can be viewed through several sets of cultural lenses

The first set of lenses are loosely convergent; tightening the focus upon loss, grief and mourning, and an expression of 19th century conservative, white, male Christian (mostly Protestant) religious values.  

After the Boer War (1899-1902), memorials were set up in towns in South Wales, Teeside, Kent and Lincolnshire, congruent with the recruiting districts for the regiments serving in that campaign. These 40 or so freestanding stone memorials can be seen as a precursor to the later First World War memorials, many decorated with Blomfield’s Cross of Sacrifice design in 1921, (an inverted broadsword is mounted on a stone cross), and upon which are recorded the names of the dead.

The second set of lenses are divergent; and direct the gaze towards the victor in one direction and the vanquished in the other, the glorious sacrifice of the one, and the ethical and necessary defeat of the other. 

The third set of lenses are hagioscopic and compel vision to be directed and distorted towards an obscene vision of triumphalism and totalitarianism. 

Even so, interpretations made in stone are not fixed in stone. Young reminds us that“The relationship between a state and its memorials is not one sided… official agencies are in position to shape memory explicitly, as they see fit, memory that best serves a national interest. On the other hand, once created, memorials take on lives of their own, often stubbornly resistant to the state’s original intentions.” He then goes on to advise that“New generations visit memorials under new circumstances, and invest them with new meaning. The result is an evolution in the memorial’s significance, generated in the new times and company in which it finds itself.”

Post 1945 – Old Stones, New Doubts

“Lieber ein Ende mit Schrecken als ein Schrecken ohne Ende”.

(Better an end with horror, than horror without end)

German Proverb

Broszat suggests (in reference to monuments of the fascist era), that these structures may not so much remember events so much as bury them altogether, underneath layers of national myths and explanations (New German Critique 44 [Spring-Summer 1988] 90-91). Do memorials, over time, displace the authentic object relations of memory, in favour of a mere pantomime of emotion? 

Nora commented in ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire, trans. Marc Roudebush, Representations 26 (1989) La République [Paris] 1984 xxvi’ , ‘The less memory is experienced from the inside, the more it exists through its exterior scaffolding and outward signs.’ 

That last phrase indicates that Nora was aware of the semiotic implications of physical memorials; that they inevitably act as a signifier in the Sassurian sense; and therefore, cannot retain any absolute meaning over time.

Sometimes, it is possible to subvert the memorial into counter-memorial, simply by returning it to its previous state, but in an utterly different context. Take, for example, the work of Hans Haake. 

In 1988 Haake, shrouding memorials in the Austrian city of Graz (including the statue of St Giles) with Nazi banners, replicating their appearance of exactly 50 years earlier, when Graz was a fascist stronghold. 

The work, Bezungspunkte 38/88 (Reference 38/88) was rapidly subject to an arson attack, prompting the artist to re-reference his reference; adding the words 

“On the night of 9th November 1938, all the synagogues in Austria were looted, destroyed and set on fire. And during the night of 2nd November 1988, this memorial was destroyed by a firebomb”.

The term Denkmal warrants particular explanation. In German, there is a cultural distinction between the terms Mahnmal which refers to a cultural monument with celebrates achievement (such as the Eiffel Tower) and one which commemorates suffering (Denkmal), (such as the Weiß Rose memorial).

These terms create a very useful probe into the status and context of any contemporary monument/memorial. It can therefore be argued that some memorials can start life in one form, (as Mahnmal) and be transmogrified by changing context into Denkmal.  

I have coined a new term to describe the final metamorphosis into an object of fear, loathing and shame; Drekmal or literally “shit monument”.

Iconoclasm and Drekmal

Western culture frowns upon burning books, smashing statues or destroying degenerate art. It rarely ends well.

Consider the Turkish memorialisation of the Gallipoli campaign.

British and ANZAC forces attacked Turkey during the Dardanelles campaign, over the winter of 1915-16. The ANZAC forces were all volunteers; massive casualties sustained. ANZACs harboured considerable contempt for the lethal levels of British military incompetence during the operation. 

However, the memorialisation of this conflict is remarkable, in two senses. Firstly, this notable Turkish war memorial depicts a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded Australian in his arm, to safety. 

In 1934, that memorial was complemented by a second plaque, inscribed the words of Kemal Attaturk, the President of Turkey, commemorating the ANZAC dead.

In 2017, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected President of Turkey. One of his first actions was to jail a female Kurdish artist, Zerah Dogan for nearly three years, for this painting, (taken from an authentic news report) critical of Turkish military action, in Kurdistan. President Erdogan then ordered the Ataturk memorial to be “closed for renovation”.

One of the first tasks of any self-respecting revolutionary, is to pull down the statutes erected in honour of the preceding tyrant. It’s a tradition crossing thousands of years and all cultures. 

I have coined the term Drekmal to encompass monuments which have passed beyond mere kitsch and become essentially so egregious, that their elimination or desecration is necessary, ethical and appropriate. 

To dispute the very existence of a memorial, in its form, space or context is, of course, contentious. The removal of a Confederate flag, from atop a Southern courthouse, and its subsequent installation in a local museum, is a celebration of the metamorphosis of Drekmal to Gegen-Denkmal; from obscenity to text.

Thus, whilst few might shed tears for the passing of huge concrete effigies of Saddam, the case for their selective preservation in an appropriate context, as social and historical evidence of tyranny, is compelling.

The deliberate destruction of iconic memorial structures, as a deliberate cultural or socio-political act is more challenging. Isis insurgents blew up ancient sculptures of the Buddha, as such icons appeared blasphemous to their eyes; ETA terrorists destroyed iconic structures in Spain; suffragettes attacked paintings in the National Gallery; Just Stop Oil glue themselves to soup-spattered picture-frames. 

Yet the deliberate desecration of symbols and/or art, forms part of the armamentarium of many factions, from the illegal through the spectrum to entirely non-violent protest groups. 

The latter group includes draft resisters burning American flags and anti-capital protestors placing a turf Mohican on Winston Churchill’s statue’s bald pate in Parliament Square. 


Memorials are all around us, they are so much part of our personal space, that we hardly notice them. So, here’s something to try at home.

Look about you, in your neighbourhood. How many memorials can you identify? What do they commemorate and what precisely does that mean to you?

Share your thoughts and insights on memorials with your fellow members – and Bob Tate – below…

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