Memory and monument building: Using "Reacting to the Past" to teach about historical memory

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It is May 1, 1981.  A jury of eight internationally renowned architects and sculptors has announced its pick for the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, set to be constructed at the western end of the Constitution Gardens on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  The unanimous pick is Maya Lin,  a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale University.

So begins the new Reacting to the Past (RTTP) module, Memory and Monument Building: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1981-1982, currently in development.

Developed at Barnard College in the late 1990s by historian Mark Carnes, RTTP calls on students to play the parts of historical actors in key moments of great change.  Students act out and react to historical episodes as though they are genuinely inhabiting that space.  As they imaginatively enter the worlds of 1791 France in the midst of revolution, of 1861 Kentucky on the brink of secession, or of 1963 Birmingham in the throes of civil rights struggle, students are called upon to make historical arguments and then support those arguments with primary sources and contemporary secondary scholarship.


Maya Lin’s original design submission for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial sparked both admiration and controversy

RTTP provides a unique lens through which to bring issues of historical memory into the classroom.  Physical spaces–here, monuments and memorials–offer particularly compelling ways of measuring collective memory.  The way we interpret the past through these concrete structures provides insights into how the creators of those spaces constructed the past, how they intended for audiences to do the same, and how those meanings can be challenged.  For example, when the Vietnam War drew to a close, the push to memorialize the conflict resulted in a tug-of-war over the national narrative.  The conflicting voices that emerged in the creation of the Veterans Memorial were rooted in contradictory perceptions of the war and the role of the foot soldier.  While some did not want Vietnam to be remembered as a national failure, others would not allow for it to be commemorated as a national triumph.

Selecting the materials for students to use in Memory and Monument Building presents some curatorial challenges. Even as we work to write historically grounded characters and to recreate the historical dynamics that emerged in the controversies over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, we are aware that we are constructing a specific context in which the classroom debates will take place. We need to create the space for students to understand how the interactions between individuals, civil society, and government officials shaped the debate over a national memory of the Vietnam War. And in doing so, we ourselves help to create the boundaries of history and memory, within which that imagined national narrative can exist.

As educators, we are routinely engaging in the process of memory-making. In highlighting certain actors and interrogating specific sources, we construct a particular narrative, one that then gets filtered through our students as they develop their own understandings–their own historical consciousness–of what has come before.  In our classrooms, then, we become the curators of the past; we help to shape the collective memory with which our students navigate their contemporary worlds.

We hope that participants in this game will see that the past is neither fixed nor concrete and that empirical evidence is always viewed through the lens of the time in which it is interpreted. In developing Memory and Monument Building, we ask students not only to understand the contested creation of a national memory of the Vietnam War.  We also push them to explore the meta-narrative of memory-making, to deconstruct the layers in hopes of developing a more nuanced consciousness about the ever-evolving production of the past.  Our aim is to help them see how our past and present impact each other and to realize that they themselves might have a stake in historical memory-making in more current contexts.

~ Abigail Perkiss is an assistant professor of history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.  She is the co-author of Memory and Monument Building, with Rebecca Livingstone and Kelly McFall.  In spring 2014, Perkiss will be teaching an RTTP-based seminar on history and memory, pairing the Vietnam module with Argentina 1985: Contested Memories, also in development, by Mary Jane Treacy.

Memory and Monument Building should be available for classroom use in the fall 2014 semester.  The module runs for 4-5 weeks of class time, including preparation, game play, and debriefing.  It may be suitable for undergraduate and graduate seminars in public history, historical memory, historic preservation, cultural history, recent U.S. history, and the Vietnam War.  For more information on the module and its uses in the classroom, email Perkiss at [email protected].

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