Scholarly and Cultural Context

Every college or university campus has what critical cultural geographers and scholars in memory studies call a “commemorative landscape.”

A commemorative landscape is a patterned and mostly naturalized system of remembering and forgetting certain people, places, and events associated in some way with the institution in the buildings and grounds of the campus.

Official commemorations on college and university campuses usually take the form of donor recognitions (where something is named after the funder or funders), historical markers (where events are remembered and marked at a location associated with a person, group, or event), honorifics (where something is named in honor of someone), or some combination of the three.

Often memory places are literally “set in stone.” Once they stay in place for a long time, they become naturalized into the landscape. It’s as if they have always been there, and always will. That’s what makes it hard to recognize that they were built by someone for a specific purpose at a specific time.

The commemorative landscape of any college campus is a reflection of what the institution values--or at least what the institution valued when the commemorations were built, and further, at least what the most dominant and normalized people and groups within the institution value or valued.

Even the simple existence and maintenance of memory places on campus reveals dominant cultural values about the kinds of people, places, and events the institution considers worth remembering. And the way those memorial acts are structured linguistically, visually, materially, and spatially is even more revealing.

But while the commemorative landscape is often a reflection of cultural power and often feels like it has always been there and always will be, these sites are also actively contested.

Sometimes people develop resistive practices, using the sites for purposes unintended by those who built and maintain them. Sometimes the sites are contested through direct acts of protest focused on removing or renaming memory places. And social justice activism focused on contesting and rebuilding the commemorative landscapes of college campuses is widespread today.

The current project builds on this work.

To learn more about the background, context, and purpose of the Placing Memory project, follow the links below:

Behind the Scenes of the Research

The Legacy of Southwestern's History as an Institution

Southwestern's Dominant Institutional Saga

About the Placing Memory Project