Monuments, Memorials and Public Spaces

Monument and memorial lesson plans can get students thinking about important topics and time periods in history.

By Daniella Garran

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memorial lesson plans

Monuments, memorials and public spaces are critical elements of collective memory in every society. Most nations honor their war dead and their social and political leaders in addition to commemorating important events in their history. Often, these structures serve to provide a place for the living to grieve or simply to remember. Doing so in a public forum allows people to feel connected to history even if they didn’t experience it firsthand.

Students should understand the difference between monuments (something built to keep alive the memory of a person or event), and memorials (intended to maintain some aspect of history and public memory) prior to examining specific examples. Students should consider what events and which people are worthy of commemoration. Many students will already be familiar with monuments and memorials in the United States including the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, Mount Rushmore, Iwo Jima, and the Civil Rights Memorial. Students should be led in a discussion about the role that these examples play in America’s collective memory and whether these monuments and memorials effectively serve to memorialize the people and events they intend to. Students should also be asked to think about how international events and leaders are commemorated and who, if anyone, “owns” their memory.

Students should be asked to consider the location of the monuments and memorials they study as well as the materials used to make them and the artists’ intent. Another interesting consideration is the artists’ connection, if any, to the event. One excellent tool to use when considering these factors is the documentary "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision." This film chronicles the trials and tribulations of the artist of the controversial Vietnam Memorial. Lin’s story is not only fascinating, but also provides an interesting look into the process of creating such important pieces of art and history.

The study of monuments, memorials and public spaces can be applied to virtually any history curriculum. In addition, these lessons provide a nice opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration across the curriculum. Students can be asked to create monuments or memorials to honor literary characters in the literature they’ve read or to commemorate the historical events they have studied.

There are many engaging ways to teach students about monuments and memorials. For students studying monumental architecture, it is appropriate for them to work on designing a monument or memorial to commemorate something of their choosing. Students should be asked to consider a permanent location, materials, potential audience and intended purpose of their structure. An interesting variation on this theme is to give students a meaningful quotation (for example, an excerpt from Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech) to provide the inspiration for their design.

For teachers looking to have students master the identity of a number of different monuments, memorials and public spaces, they can easily create a matching game similar to memory. By making two copies of images of each structure, students can test their memory while solidifying a mental image of each structure being studied.

Another way to have students cement their knowledge of the different monuments and memorials is to have students create bingo boards with images of the structures being studied. Rather than calling out simply the name of each structure, the teacher can read aloud a fact about the different structures which students will have to match to the appropriate image in order to get bingo.

Monuments, memorials and public spaces provide important insight into the values and history of a culture and no history course is complete without a lesson on how different cultures have chosen to commemorate important events and people. What follows are more lessons about monuments, memorials and public spaces.

Monument, Memorial, and Public Space Lesson Plans:

Monuments and Memorials

This lesson allows teachers the freedom to gear a study of monuments and memorials towards whatever history or literature unit the class working on. Not only will students delve into the importance of public art, but they will also be able to show content mastery for their history or English classes, possibly offering a nice opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration.

Memory and Legacy: Building Monuments and Memorials

Facing History and Ourselves is a non-profit organization that offers resources for educators teaching about the Holocaust and other genocides. This lesson focuses on educating students about the potential power of monuments and memorials as they reflect the values of a society. Students will have the opportunity to create a monument or a memorial out of clay and to write an artist’s statement. This lesson is best taught in conjunction with the Facing History curriculum but it is certainly adaptable to fit other courses of study.

Memorializing September 11, 2001

The events of 9-11 were unlike any experienced in America’s history. Whereas many events and people memorialized in public art (e.g.: the Civil War, the Holocaust) are less accessible to students, history is palpable for students who lived through this event. In this lesson, students are given the opportunity to remember the victims who lost their lives on that fateful day by creating a memorial while also gaining practice presenting orally.

Presidential Monuments

For students studying American history, the images of Mount Rushmore, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial are familiar. This lesson allows students to choose a President and design a monument to honor him and his achievements. This is a good way for students to review the achievements and accomplishments of the American Presidents who students have studied in depth.

The Role of Monuments and Memorials across Artistic and Cultural Mediums

The Cleveland Museum of Art offers this lesson to explore Asian monuments and memorials. In addition to honoring leaders and war heroes, students are encouraged to consider other people and events who might be worthy of commemoration in public art. Students also examine the symbolic nature of some Asian monuments and memorials.