This review originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of History News.
The Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art,
Loss, and the Space Between
By James E. Young
(Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016)
Reviewed by Samira Rahbe Chambers
In the midst of our country’s discord over Civil War monuments, James E. Young’s study of memorials is a relevant read. While Young solely focuses on the memorials remembering the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers, the Holocaust, and the 2011 Utøya, Norway massacre, his discussion of what he calls the “stages of memory” provides insight into how individuals and collective communities remember and process history. By expounding on the creative processes, selection procedures, and community dialogue surrounding memorials, Young reveals the multiple narratives and experiences that a memorial must honor.
While reading the book in its entirety provides a fuller understanding of the significance of memorial art, the chapters can be read out of order and still be impactful. Each asks readers how to articulate loss and which memories of an event a community should recognize. Furthermore, chapters serve as case studies that consider the issue museums, artists, and educators are battling: whose story are our institutions stealing and retelling? As Young illustrates, this authoritarian mindset has been the precedent for monuments around the world that aim to dictate and perpetuate a single narrative of an event, despite dissonant memories associated with the tragedy.
Those interested in history, current political issues, architecture, or even tourists will find this book thought-provoking. Young’s study is also beneficial for those wishing to learn more about the Holocaust and its aftermath, as he dedicates five out of seven chapters to the memorial art informed by and created to remember and articulate the massive loss of lives caused by the genocide. Topics in his book are painful as they require readers to remember, relive, or learn about tragedies across the globe, yet Young treats the material in a caring and informed manner.
Young’s voice is that of a thoughtful post-modernist who genuinely sees memorials as actively healing but unable to be completely redemptive. His argument further communicates that some voids cannot be repaired by our own efforts. Astute to the variety of purposes monuments must serve, Young admits there is no one-size-fits-all method to memorializing. Following Maya Lin’s example with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he argues we must learn how to better articulate loss, allow for absence and silence to breathe, and accept that a memorial is neither designed, nor able, to fix or heal all wounds. All a memorial can hope to accomplish, he posits, is to provide a necessary and inclusive space for individuals to remember, process, and heal in the way appropriate for each person.
Samira Rahbe Chambers graduated from the University of Chattanooga in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in English education. Currently, she is pursuing her master’s in art history and a certificate in museum studies at the University of Memphis with a focus on street art, institutional critique, and site-specificity. She can be reached at [email protected].
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