The meanings of monuments and memorials: toward a semiotic approach

Federico Bellentani and Mario Panico

Punctum, 2(1): 28-46, 2016
DOI: 10.18680/hss.2015.0018

This paper aims at delineating the basic principles for a semiotic approach to monuments and memorials. Monuments are built forms erected to confer dominant meanings on space. They present an aesthetic value as well as a political function. Often, political elites erect monuments to promote selective historical narratives that focus on convenient events and individuals while obliterating what is discomforting. While representing selective historical narratives, monuments can inculcate specific conceptions of the present and encourage future possibilities. As such, monuments become essential for the articulation of the national politics of memory and identity through which political elites set political agendas and legitimate political power. However, once erected, monuments become social properties and users can reinterpret them in ways that are different or contrary to the intentions of the designers. Previous research has explored monuments as either aesthetic objects presenting historical and artistic values or as political tools in the hand of those in power. Hence, this research has wittingly or unwittingly created a gap between the material-symbolic and the political dimensions of monuments. Moreover, it has variously given more emphasis either to the intentions of the designers or to the interpretations of the users. The semiotic approach to monuments can address these issues providing a holistic approach that overcomes the rigid distinctions predominant in previous research on monuments. Although useful analytical categories, the distinction between material-symbolic and political dimensions cannot be extended to the ontological state of monuments. Semiotics can be useful in investigating the meanings of monuments as actively created by the interplay of the material, the symbolic and the political dimensions. It provides a methodological basis to consider designers and users as equally contributing to the meaning-making of monuments.

KEYWORDS: monuments and memorials, semiotics of culture, national identity, memory, meanings
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