Grappling with the history of contested monuments

By on November 2, 2021

Grappling with the history of contested monuments

By on November 2, 2021

Grappling with the history of contested monuments

In the aftermath of the 2020 George Floyd protests and the 2017 Unite the Right rally, the question of monuments and their meaning has come to the forefront. Students in Oliver Wunsch’s Contested Monuments class worked on improving a number of Wikipedia articles about monuments, ranging from the Statue of Jefferson Davis at the U.S. Capitol, to the Gay Liberation Monument in New York, to the Stadio dei Marmi in Rome.

George Segal’s sculpture, Gay Liberation, was commissioned as a tribute to the 1969 Stonewall riots. Two castings of the sculpture were made, with one originally intended for Christopher Park in Greenwich Village, New York and the other for Los Angeles. Opposition in New York, and a failure to have the monument approved in Los Angeles resulted in one casting installed at Stanford University and the other in Madison, Wisconsin, before eventually being relocated to its originally intended location in New York.

The monument has been controversial and subject to vandalism, both because it depicts same-sex couples, and because the depiction has been described as whitewashing Stonewall. Student editors in the class were able to expand the article in a way that brings the history and context of the sculpture into focus more clearly, and helps readers understand the relationship between the monument, what it was meant to depict, and what this depiction means now.

Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederate States of America, and the presence of a statue honoring him in the US Capitol has been controversial since its installation there in 1931 and bills for its removal have been introduced to Congress in 2017, 2020, and 2021. But before a student in this class started working on the article it was just a three-sentence stub with only the most basic information. This student editor was able to turn this article into a substantial, well-referenced one that is currently undergoing a review process with the aim of classifying it as a Good Article, one of Wikipedia’s best works.

The Stadio dei Marmi is a stadium in Rome which was originally built as part of the Foro Mussolini (now the Foro Italico) by Italy’s Fascist government in the 1920s. A student in this class was able to convert a short, stubby article into its current form by adding information about its design and the significance of the monumental architecture and decor employed and its relationship with Italian fascism. They also added information about subsequent use in the 1960 Olympics and continued use, and how that has been seen as a symbol of Italy’s failure to “come to terms with its role in World War II”.

The Schwerbelastungskörper is a large concrete cylinder in Berlin that was built as a test structure by Albert Speer in preparation for the construction of a triumphal arch honoring the victories of Nazi Germany. It is one of the few remnants of Hitler’s plan to remake the city and is a protected monument as the “only tangible relic of National Socialist urban planning”. By contextualizing the structure in terms of Nazi plans to remake Berlin, and describing its construction and public perception, the student editor who worked on this article added a lot to readers ability to understand the structure and its significance.

Other students in the class improved on a range of monuments in the US, Italy, and Germany including the recently removed Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, Virginia, the Pioneer Monument in San Francisco, and the Lenin Monument in Berlin.

As the United States and much of the world struggles to reassess relationships with monuments like these, the contributions of this class help readers contextualize what’s currently happening. They are not only filling content gaps, they’re also filling gaps in terms of the information that people need.

To learn more about how to assign students to contribute to Wikipedia as a class assignment, visit teach.wikiedu.org.

Image credit: Sol Octobris, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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