Monuments are designed to make us remember. But what memories do visitors to the Gettysburg National Military Park have stirred by the stone sentinels and bronze plaques? How do they see them? What stories do the monuments tell? For me, these are some of the most important questions to ask about the monuments that we all see, pass, ignore, and forget every day. None of us have a direct remembrance of the Civil War — when we remember the war, we mean more accurately that we are responding to transmitted memory — ideas embodied in books, photographs, monuments and the like. Any memory, or story, or recalling that the monuments spark is an imaginative artifact of our collective or individual making.

Such imaginations of “the past” are much like the battlefield itself — a projection of recollections, politics, racial ideals, and nationalism (among many others). Designers and park managers have, in different periods and with different ambitions, tried to prescribe how people should engage with the field, the plaques, and the monuments. Yet it doesn’t take long to notice that most visitors stray from the planned pathways quickly. Rather than following a linear and planned program, most visitors’ experiences are disconnected, episodic, and random; selective yet scattered.

Dr. Daryl Black is president and executive director at Seminary Ridge Museum, Gettysburg.

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