Commemoration: The Promise of Remembrance and New Beginnings

Adapted from Chapter 17 of An AASLH Guide to Making Public History

I have long maintained that commemoration is one of the most important tools in the toolkit of a public historian. Honoring anniversaries is part of our institutional job description: the community looks to us to help mark the passage of time. But commemorating the past is also good business. Compared to many of the things we do, anniversaries are a relatively easy sell. It’s much easier to cut through the noise of daily life with something that has brand recognition of some sort already. For example, most people know there was a War of 1812 or World War I. They may not know when it happened or who fought in it — but there’s a very good chance it won’t be a completely new concept. History organizations are wise to pay attention to these opportunities and maximize them.

Members of the Tennessee War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission commemorate the Battle of New Orleans 200th anniversary

In his book Commemoration: The American Association for State and Local History Guide, historian Seth C. Bruggeman calls commemoration “the lingua franca of public memory. It encompasses the various ways we have imagined — in monuments, ceremonies, festivals, pageants, fairs, museums, reenactment, and more — to conjure deep regard for the past. Unlike history, which is concerned primarily with circumstance, commemoration dwells almost entirely in feeling. It is for this reason that we all recognize commemoration, and understand it for the most part, even when it doesn’t speak directly to us.”

The emotive aspect of commemoration, Bruggeman argues, is what separates commemoration from other programmatic activities. “The incredible diversity of rituals, objects, and customs that we associate with commemoration are all intended to give public feeling to otherwise private memories.”

It’s important to keep in mind that commemoration and anniversary celebrations are related, yet distinct, ways history organizations present the past. Julia Rose, author of Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites sees a sharp distinction between the two activities. Rose ties commemoration to learning: “[the] informational and educational aspect of commemoration fuels how learners, participants, and observers value their engagement with the commemoration experience.”

While anniversaries are more often celebrations than deep learning opportunities, it is unwise to overlook their importance. They are often an even easier “sell” than commemorative events. (See Kimberly A. Kenney’s Interpreting Anniversaries and Milestones at Museums and Historic Sites for more on the subject.)

Washington, DC’s Woodrow Wilson House

Bob Enholm, former director of the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C. shared noted four categories of commemorations in the most succinct articulation of commemorative possibilities I have encountered. They are commemorations of: anniversaries with broad social influence, narrow historical events, more whimsical anniversaries, and solemn remembrances. For centennial events of the Wilson presidency, these ideas played out as follows:

  1. Broad social commemorations such as the Nineteenth Amendment. Enholm warned these are sometimes so big that history organizations sites can get lost in the shuffle of broader activities.
  2. Narrower historical events. For example, the centennial of Woodrow Wilson’s signing the National Park Service Act in 1916. It’s a significant happening, but the challenge was in discerning how wide the interest in that particular event would be.
  3. Historical highlights. Enholm sees these as hooks for community building with people who know of and care about sites and history in general signify. The Wilson House hosted a Speakeasy Bash to honor Wilson’s attempt to veto Volstead Act and promoted the centennial of Mother’s Day.
  4. Solemn commemorations. These are what many of us think of when we ponder commemoration. In Enholm’s case, these were the centennial of World War I and Armistice Day, or the day Edith Wilson died.

More importantly, though, commemoration offers the opportunity to reflect, to look deeply at change over time. Whereas anniversary celebrations highlight the event itself, commemoration looks at what has changed in the intervening years. This may be one of the most significant components of the endeavor, understanding where things have been, where they are today, and why.

This is how commemoration highlights two of the Values of History.

1) It brings to the fore how the study of the past is valuable to communities. History lays the groundwork for strong, resilient communities. No place really becomes a community until it is wrapped in human memory: family stories, tribal traditions, civic commemorations. No place is a community until it has awareness of its history. Our connections and commitment to one another are strengthened when we share stories and experiences.
2) Through commemoration, history helps create and nurture engaged citizens. History helps people craft better solutions: By bringing history into discussions about contemporary issues, we can better understand the origins of and multiple perspectives on the challenges facing our communities and nation. This can clarify misperceptions, reveal complexities, temper volatile viewpoints, open people to new possibilities, and lead to more effective solutions for today’s challenges.

Commemoration poses challenges as well, as I learned in my first experience with commemoration on a wide scale. As education director at the Orange County (FL) Regional History Center, I worked with colleagues from the University of Central Florida (UCF) to plan for the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. That Brown had little immediate impact on Central Florida was immaterial (Orange County schools did not fully integrate until sixteen years after the decision). The Brown case was one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions in history and a watershed event in American history. (I wrote about one aspect of this event here.)

The anniversary provided the community the opportunity to reflect on and acknowledge change over time. As my friend Spencer Downing, then of the UCF History Department , recalled, “We expected the anniversary would provide numerous occasions to consider how far we had come in five decades…. We had faith that the story of overcoming Jim Crow segregation would be compelling enough to unite even the most disparate and distrustful groups.”

The project was a success by all measures; it proved a great way to rally the community around a single focus. But the most important thing I carry with me is a lesson I learned early in the process: the difference between “celebration” and “commemoration.” It’s an important distinction.

Early in the process, we hosted a meeting at the local black history museum to discuss our nascent plans for a “celebration” of the anniversary. Attendees immediately pushed back. “As people lived it,” Downing recounts in Zen and the Art of Local History, “not all of it was worth celebrating. Change had been slow and often painful. There had been losses as well as gains.” Integration brought with it unintended consequences in the loss of important community institutions, particularly the closure of black neighborhood schools and the decimation of the community’s black business district. Most importantly, “celebrating” connoted that the work of Brown and the Civil Rights Movement was finished. They urged us to use the term “commemoration” instead. As Downing succinctly puts it, “We changed not because we were appeasing self-involved complainers. Instead, we realized that doing relevant public history means responding to the community’s real needs.” Ultimately, our audience taught us what it sought from us and we fit our activities (in this case our language) accordingly.

History inspires leadership by demonstrating how people met the complex challenges of the past. History inspires leaders who in the present must now meet challenges once seen in the past. Through the study of history, we leave a foundation upon which future Americans can build. We can find finds these elements in commemorative activities. As Julia Rose once wrote, “The work of commemoration [is] the responsibility to mark, research, and teach the meanings of our ancestors’ achievements and afflictions…. The process…demands reflection, discussion, and planning.” The ultimate goal of commemoration reflects the goal of the study of history: to make meaning of the past.

There is one important thing to remember, however: Commemoration often says much more about the present day than it does about the past. As Ann Toplovich, director of the Tennessee Historical Society wrote in 2009, “Commemorative events in the United States have always tended to be more about the issues in the country at the time [of the commemoration]…than celebrating the past.”

This can be problematic to those laboring in public history as we seek to help our communities develop a shared understanding of the past. Toplovich warns against this. “Keep in mind,” she notes, “that we can make a valiant effort to shape the public’s collective memory of the past but we cannot dictate that memory to individuals. When it comes to commemorative events, we may have messages we want to share but we should not fault ourselves if we cannot convince every single member of the public to accept our historical view.”

Commemoration is one of the best weapons in our arsenal as public historians; it is something our public expects from us. “Each generation looks to historical organizations for guidance in commemorations,” Toplovich wrote in 2009, “and each generation marks those events in different ways and for different purposes. With planning and a willingness to trust the public…organizations will find that honoring anniversaries is some of the most significant work we can do.” Or as historian Edward Ayers said in an address in 2011 about the Civil War Sesquicentennial, “We will do our best to take full advantage of this responsibility and…we will connect our local stories and our state stories to these big stories, so that the full significance of their meaning is recognized and preserved for all of us.”

This is our charge as we engage in commemoration.

A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction.

Like what you read? Give Bob Beatty a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.