A Monumental Reckoning
Real legacies are made of more than stone; they're sealed in our hearts
“Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.” — Christopher Wren, 1723
There’s a very human tendency to cling to what’s familiar — to keep up a process or tradition because “we’ve always done it that way.”
The notion is so powerful that in many boardrooms and whiteboard sessions, it’s used as a reflexive force field, to shield the team and the corporation from looming change.
A new approach is greeted with “Nope, sorry. That won’t work. We’ve always done it this way.”
Consider our attachment to monuments and the current debates happening about them, as we reassess what they stand for. One camp is interested in removing any object or representation that doesn’t square with our modern sensibilities and the other is steadfastly clinging to the past, right or wrong.
Does a physical object determine our beliefs? Can it teach us history?
A statue or monument certainly isn’t an advanced history lesson, but it does tell us something about our history as a society, if not about the events or people it represents.
It’s a snapshot in time rather than a fully fleshed-out story—the difference between what happened and what we tell each other happened.
Lewis H. Lapham eloquently wrote about the recorded past versus the remembered past:
“The recorded past is a spiked cannon. The remembered past is live ammunition — not what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago, a story about what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago. The stories change with circumstance and the sight lines available to tellers of the tale. Every generation rearranges the furniture of the past to suit the comfort and convenience of its anxious present.”
Ultimately, it’s about keeping a set of stories alive. Consider how The Iliad and The Odyssey made their way to us today, first as part of the oral tradition and then codified in writing.
When it comes to physical monuments, they tell us a great deal about ourselves and our priorities at the time they were built, rather than about the events or people they symbolize.
Timeless & Timely is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
“If there is one lesson to be learned from studying how monuments get chosen and built, it is that they most certainly do not represent history in any straightforward or responsible way.” — Kirk Savage, 2018 (“Making Monuments What They Ought to Be”)
Prof. Savage says that monuments tell us more about who made the decisions to build them and the times in which they lived.
For example, the Emancipation Memorial, a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and a freed slave on his knees, was dedicated in 1876 after funds were exclusively raised by emancipated citizens, yet “a committee of white philanthropists in St. Louis controlled the money and decided on the artist and design without ever consulting their funders.”
The current debate began with monuments to leaders of the Confederacy. When you stop to think about it, it’s just plain crazy that we had statues honoring men who were traitors and who tried to bring down the country.
And look at the timing of when most of them were erected:
We hear the plaintive cries of “history” and of “heritage” that inevitably follow. But the facts remain. Most of these weren’t built in the years following the war to honor its history, but decades after the Civil War ended, at a time when the country looked like it was making racial progress. And honoring traitors isn’t part of the heritage of any other country.
What about other monuments to leaders who exercised questionable judgment? Leaders like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, who both owned slaves, and others who may not live up to our standards today, are now being called into question.
“No one monument could be made to tell the whole truth of any subject which it might be designed to illustrate.” — Frederick Douglass, 1876
Taken Out of Context
This is where things can get problematic. If you dig deeper into things like women’s rights, gay rights or civil rights, or other issues that are important by today’s standards, you’re going to find faults with every single leader of the past.
As presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says, “we need to cut the past some slack,” understand these figures, and get perspective on them.
I often think that if I weren’t a communicator and a marketer, I’d be a historian. For what is a historian, but a storyteller?
It’s the historian’s job to understand the past and put some context around it.
That’s your job as a leader — to put context around strategies, decisions, and initiatives.
You’re the chief storyteller who weaves a narrative for your employees and gets them excited or informed about the why behind the what.
Vainglorious leaders spend too much time worrying about their legacy. They hope to be remembered for the mark they leave on the world — for some, these things occupy their every waking moment.
We’d like to think our legacy assumes some permanence, as expressed in concrete, marble, or steel, but in “Ozymandias” Shelley reminds us such things are temporary:
“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
True legacy — the legacy that matters — isn’t one that’s set in stone or on balance sheets. Your legacy will be in the stories they tell about you. It will be carried on by employees long after you’ve left the company, who remember you fondly for the way you made them feel.
Christopher Wren’s quote at the top of the essay (“Si monumentum requiris, circumspice”) is Latin for “If you seek his monument, look around you,” and is set in a great circle in the floor directly under the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, his masterpiece.
The beauty of the placement is that when you do look around, you don’t see the Wren crypt but the whole glorious structure that he created. An architectural masterpiece that does more than simply honor his memory: it brings us joy, instills wonder, and inspires awe in all who visit there. It’s a monument, but not to Wren; it’s a monument to our relationship with God.
At home, your family won’t remember you for your work achievements, nor for the headstone or mausoleum built to mark your final resting place. They’ll remember you for the love you show and the moments you share together. In short, for the joy, wonder, and awe you bring them.
Your monument will be built on the relationships you nurture.
As the cast sang in Hamilton, who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
“Who controls the past…controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” —George Orwell, 1959
Despite our long history of interrogating the memorial landscape, no movement has been able to dislodge it. Perhaps until now. (Lapham’s Quarterly)
Explore a 5,000 year old Welsh tomb recreated in Minecraft. (Smithsonian)
The Confederate memorial carving at Georgia’s Stone Mountain is etched with more than a century of racist history. But tearing it down won’t be so easy. Find out why: Hatred Set in Stone. (Slate)
“After I’m dead I’d rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one.” — Cato the Elder, c. 150 BC
Do you know the history of the Six Grandfathers? You probably know it more colloquially as Mount Rushmore. But the sacred landscape is older than the Alps or the Himalayas. Plus, in the spirit of Ozymandias, you can see what geologists think Six Grandfathers will look like in the year 502,002. (Cabinet Magazine)
Some of the statues that are being removed from federal property include eleven Confederate leaders who had a place in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. What is the role of the National Statuary Hall? (Boston Review)
Monuments don’t get built without hard labor. New estimates, based on simple physics, estimate how many people it took to build the Great Pyramid. Spoiler: not nearly as many as old estimates would have you believe. (IEEE Spectrum)
“The event is past; the memorial remains.” — Ovid, 8
🎧 On Revisionist History, author Malcolm Gladwell looks back to debunk closely held beliefs about history. Superb, smart storytelling.
📘 Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteeth-Century America explores how the history of slavery and its violent end was told in public spaces―specifically in the sculptural monuments that came to dominate streets, parks, and town squares in nineteenth-century America. Looking at monuments built and unbuilt, Kirk Savage shows how the greatest era of monument building in American history took place amid struggles over race, gender, and collective memory.
Every week, I build these mini monuments of a newsletter for you. Can you tell my story? That is, can you share this for me?
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.