Sculpture and Public Memory

Sculpture and Public Memory

Memory has seen a tremendous explosion of academic writing over recent years and it can often be challenging to pinpoint its common threads. This essay attempts to provide an impressionistic overview by providing key questions, debates and findings related to memory research.

Join Tang Curator-at-Large Isolde Brielmaier, and artists Titus Kaphar and Karyn Olivier for a discussion about public monuments, art, and memory.


Sculptures are an integral part of urban environments, adding visual art and serving as destinations for visitors to spend time. From historical figures’ statues and memorials to specific events to monuments depicting particular values or priorities within society – public sculpture captures moments in time while communicating our collective values and priorities to passersby. Yet its installation often causes considerable contention; debates on whether it should remain standing have provoked intense conversations regarding history, memory and power dynamics.

Monuments and memorials have historically served as places of commemorative ritual, commemorating both past glory and imagined visions of future national greatness. With the rise of American Civil Rights movement, however, monuments began serving as emblems of racial injustice as well as calls for change within society – today contested monuments serve both social justice initiatives as well as community engagement projects.

Contested monuments have also become the focus of much scholarly analysis of public memory and commemoration. A new field called “Public Memory Studies” has arisen through an interdisciplinary collaboration encompassing traditional intellectual history, political and institutional histories, sociology/anthropology studies and other fields.

Scholars have conducted extensive studies of how public memory is created and represented, especially through monuments and memorials. This Understanding Public Memory resource kit draws on those works to offer a framework for considering their place within our communities.

It explores how public memorials are culturally constructed, and their dynamics of formation can create tension, controversy and community empowerment. This toolkit draws from sources as diverse as AASLH conference sessions and webinars; History News articles; museum exhibitions; guides to monuments and memorials across the nation; museum guides. Ultimately its goal is to enable archivists and other historical professionals to more efficiently address controversies surrounding controversial monuments in their communities and beyond.


Sculpture is an art form involving the transformation of solid materials into three-dimensional art objects, often depicting realistic or abstract figures such as birds or animals, often with symbolic significance.

Throughout history, sculpture has been used to commemorate people, events, and ideas; to frighten, instruct or incite action; or just represent different emotions and ideas more powerfully than any other medium. Sculpture remains unparalleled as an expressive medium.

Early examples of sculpture were utilitarian objects decorated with carved forms made of ivory, bone and stone; later people created statues representing human and animal forms for spiritual or religious reasons. Today sculptors work in a wide range of media and styles; some sculptures may be freestanding while others form reliefs or part of larger contexts; they may be made of any material which can be shaped, including clay, wax, plaster stone metal wood plastic plastic random found items as well as random found items to name just a few. Carved models cast weld carved or any combination thereof techniques can all make sculpture an artful crafty artform.

Sculpture goes beyond shaping solid materials into expressive forms – it also explores space. Spatial qualities play an essential part in sculpture’s experience – thinking in terms of volume and surface area is important, while light and shadow must also be addressed when conceptualizing space as part of any finished piece.

There are two basic forms of sculpture: in the round and relief. Independent in their existence in space, round sculptures occupying their own space like chairs or human bodies do; relief, however, involves being attached or integrated with something that serves as the backdrop or matrix from which a sculpture emerges; sunken reliefs being an example in which its figure has been “lowered” relative to its original height.

Sculpture is an ever-evolving art form that continues to develop over time, which means the definition of sculpture keeps shifting with time. Contemporary pieces no longer focus on traditional carving and modeling techniques or natural materials like wood, stone or metal – rather sculptors use almost any material that suits their purposes including light projections, music technology etc. in their works.


Sculpture is an engaging medium that stands the test of time, leaving its message for future generations. Three-dimensional sculptures offer immediate engagement through touch and offer more direct communication than paintings or drawings do, as their materiality allows for more than one interpretation.

Through history, people have used sculpture to memorialize leaders and other important societal figures. Some types of sculpture remained limited to elites only while other types reached wider audiences – for instance in Egypt and Mesopotamia people used carving statues of rulers or gods while in Classical Greece the human figure became one of the primary subjects for sculpture, often portraying beauty, power, or morality in ways only sculpture could.

The nineteenth-century democratization of political power resulted in an explosion of monuments and associated rituals. One example is Montreal’s statue to Sir George Etienne Cartier (1814-73) which served to demonstrate how Canadians combined loyalty for empire, nation, race, and citizenship – even more poignantly by placing it in a park where French- and English-speaking populations intersected – thus reinforcing its symbolic message.

Monuments may help bolster official historical narratives, yet they can also serve as sources of social division and conflict. Daniel Browning has written extensively on how Australian public art based in Roman and Greek classical styles has contributed to an inflated national ego.

Sculptural arts have long been an integral component of popular culture and urban life. Understanding their cultural and historic context is critical for understanding their meaning and significance; thus it is imperative that scholars of memorial art consider how memorial art may be challenged over time. This volume seeks to address this challenge by publishing essays encompassing monuments, memory, democracy and power in urban environments.


Memory in sculpture has long been seen as one of its primary functions. Public sculpture serves as a tangible reminder of important events from a community’s past; its purpose can range from celebrating achievements or remembering tragedies, all the way through to teaching about its history and providing knowledge about it for future generations.

Representations is key when it comes to remembering art pieces and shaping their future significance, especially those dealing with controversial subjects like Holocaust or civil rights issues. Many works designed to raise these topics will often spark conversations around them – helping people gain different insights into history as they perceive the world differently than before.

Public art pieces often grab the public’s attention through their design, often drawing their audience’s focus with large, imposing or controversial works that capture people’s attention and lead them down certain pathways – for instance the iconic statue of Gandhi in Mumbai has been at the centre of ongoing debates on India’s independence movement, helping shape public opinion about his role and legacy.

Representing history through public sculptures can be an effective way to build community and spark dialogue about it, yet it’s essential to remember that these pieces of artwork only tell part of the tale; history itself consists of people, ideas and events which shape its narrative.

Public sculptures should not be seen as the sole means of remembering and commemorating our history; museums, monuments and oral histories also serve this function. Public commemoration acts may reinforce power structures by reinforcing their legitimacy while at the same time providing space for more inclusive forms of public remembrance to occur. Activism advocates for more democratic practices of commemoration.

Join us for this conversation to hear from artists and organizers using creative strategies to reframe and envision more inclusive futures. This event is part of a series organized by MAPC and NEFA to examine the dynamic relationship between public art, memory, and public life.