When is it appropriate for us to engage in a public commemoration? Most would consider doing so when the honoree is a person, an event, or an idea that makes a permanent impact on society.
For instance, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC memorializes a suitable person. Local towns’ fireworks displays on Independence Day are worthy events. And the Statue of Liberty, in New York Harbor, is an exemplar of an appropriate idea.
But there are times when the progression of history modifies our perceptions about people, places, and ideas. When that occurs, permanent commemorations may become socially awkward, and may even be removed from view.
Consider, for example, last month’s decision by the City of New York to remove a statue of Dr. James Marion Sims from Central Park. The physician had been memorialized as the father of modern gynecology.
But there was a dark side to his fame. Prior to the American Civil War, Dr. Sims perfected his surgical skills by experimenting on human slaves without using anesthesia. In response to public protests, government officials in New York City decided to move the statue to his gravesite, and to present it in historical context there.
When the statue was first erected in the 1890s, Dr. Sims’ honorees could not anticipate the day when public opinion turned against his legacy. In other situations, though, the obsolescence of a commemoration is relatively foreseeable.
For instance, consider the commemorative coin that the White House of the United States recently issued in advance of a scheduled meeting between the American President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It portrays the two men in a head-to-head pose, and even refers to the latter as Supreme Leader.
Some commemorations, like the Sims statue, survive for more than a century. But the memorial coin immediately became a relic as soon as President Trump cancelled the meeting.
From large statues to small coins, our memorials are designed to remain in place forever. Nevertheless, their continuing presence is subject to changes in public opinion and the tides of history.