In Living Memory: A Study of the Memorial to the Enslaved at William & Mary

By Tara Vasanth

©Prakash Patel. All rights reserved.

I am studying student activity near and at the university’s newly-erected Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved. Monuments are powerful symbols that, at first glance, seem frozen in time. Still, they can elicit varying emotions from people and their meanings can evolve as their surroundings change—proving that they hold an active role in gauging the community’s social and political climate. 

Scholarly research deeply informed my investigation and research question. Karen Kipphoff’s article “Self and the City: The Politics of Monuments” talks about the “private-public” body” of the visitor, and how an individual acts alone in front of a monument can differ from how he acts in the company of others. Samantha Piers discusses in her paper, “Architects Are Rethinking The Way We Remember History with Monuments,” how some designers deliberately invite ambiguity, following a “nonprescriptive” model so visitors can decide how they would like to experience the site for themselves. In an interview with Jennifer Allen, a professor at Yale University, it is also possible to become desensitized or even apathetic toward a landmark simply because it becomes familiar. 

These are just a few forces that are at work when we interact with a monument and I did my best to identify them in my evaluation.

Research Question: The Hearth Memorial’s design and placement raise many questions about the architect’s intended effect on his audience: Is Hearth meant to be looked at and not touched? Can people walk through it or just around it? What is the proper etiquette? 

Observation

When: Wednesday, November 16th from 12:30 to 2:30 pm

I wanted to study behavior during regular school hours; I thought that during this busy time of day and week, the memorial would receive the most foot traffic. It was a sunny afternoon and a little chilly.

Where: Bench outside Ewell Hall, a few yards away from the Hearth Memorial 

I selected a discreet location that also offered the clearest, frontal view of the memorial across the footpath. Here, I could easily sit and watch for hours without drawing attention to myself. There was a small tree slightly blocking the far left side of the memorial, but it was not too distracting.

What: Students walking to and from classes, passing by the memorial without so much as a glance

Overall, there was indifference on the part of students toward the memorial. Many students walked with their heads down right past the site, either looking down at their phones or seemingly preoccupied with reaching their next destination. I recall thinking that it was “business as usual,” a typical scene on a college campus during a stressful midterm season. Because the memorial’s brick patio intersects a footpath leading straight to Jamestown Road, a street lined with houses and academic buildings, many students walked directly in front of Hearth to cut across the lawn (it was the faster, more convenient route out of campus). I quickly jotted down a few notes and doodled two illustrations of the site, and in each image, I took note of the tall tree standing right beside the memorial. It was obvious that the tree was conspicuous and imposing, and it was difficult to observe Hearth without paying attention to the tree, too. Apart from the visual interruption, there was an audible one, too. The groundskeeping team was cutting the grass next to me, so their machinery was a little loud (and deafened many of the noises that the passersby made). 

Who: Mostly students (across different ethnicities and genders), a few visitors, and professors

The so-called subjects, many of whom I assumed to be students, were mostly quiet. Now and then you would see a pair or trio of students walking together, chatting and laughing. Those who were trekking to class alone appeared silent. One student slowed down his pace to read the names that were on the memorial before picking up his speed again and proceeding down the sidewalk. Another student sat down on one of the brick benches facing the memorial to take a long phone call. The only people I saw who stopped to roam around the site seemed to be visitors or tourists of some kind. An older gentleman, with his two younger companions, stepped through the memorial’s opening before circling back to the front and reading the commemorative plaque on the right-hand side of Hearth. It was unclear if they spoke when they were looking around. I distinguished students from professors and visitors based on the type of bag they carried (and if they even carried one). Students seemed to wear backpacks, professors looked older and had briefcases or satchels, and visitors did not have anything more than a wallet or purse on them. 

Why: To recall my research question, I would like to learn more about the Hearth’s effect (or lack thereof) on visitor behavior as a result of its unique arrangement and architecture

Many personal assumptions were made in my research, from the identification of subjects to their supposed unconcern. Time and place are highly influential factors, and they extend beyond the representative power of Hearth to the conditions of the study itself. I will elaborate on this in the next section.

Interpretation

To echo Dr. Allen’s words, “Monuments don’t mean things on their own. They mean things because we make them mean things.” And in this small experiment, it looks like the impact of the Hearth was somewhat muted by the public’s general disregard for it. While the site’s commemorative weight is steadfast and essential, I could see how students, at least on that Wednesday afternoon, were able to soften its presence on campus.

Luckily, no blatant act of disrespect was witnessed, like modeling in front of the memorial or skateboarding across the curved opening. But that does not mean that conduct like that has not happened in the past (or will never happen). The specific time frame I chose, while one of the more popular times of day, is quite narrow; more unconventional and unwelcome behavior usually occurs late in the night. Moreover, because it was a school day, many students may not have had the opportunity to stop and appreciate the memorial in between classes, meetings, and exams. It is unfair to make sweeping generalizations without more trials and evidence—therefore, inductive reasoning does not apply to this situation. 

Since I am a student myself, I feel I can infer that desensitization to the historical import of William & Mary, including the Hearth Memorial, is a reason for this presumed inattention. It is an unavoidable side effect of living on a campus as old and strange as ours: we take so much for granted. It is all too easy to forget the importance of buildings because we see them every day, on the way to class or work—it becomes routine and expected. Again, as a consequence of the Hearth’s design, matching the red brick of Old Campus and pushed toward the lawn’s edge, is that it blends in well with the W&M’s landscape; a seamless integration makes it likely to be overlooked. This statement confirms my earlier theory: there is a tension between the “natural” and “noticeable” approach to memorial architecture, and the great ease with which a monument sits on the land can encourage visitors to treat it as such.

A Deeper Look

Observations aside, this monument marks an important milestone for William & Mary, confronting its one hundred-seventy-two-year history of enslavement and honoring the memory of over one hundred people owned by the university (although the actual number must be higher). This major project is part of a series of recent efforts launched by the university to acknowledge and learn from its dark past. Thus, this monument can be seen as more than a gesture; it is both research and reparation, continually working to amend the legacies of colonialism. 

Richmond-based firm Baskervil designed the memorial in the image of a fireplace, a dual symbol for community gathering and domestic enslavement. Much of the structure is left deliberately unfilled or unfinished: the opening in the middle embodies the emptiness of slavery and over four hundred unengraved stones are dedicated to unknown victims (some of which might by recovered by future study). The pattern created by mixing granite and brick is taken from textile traditions in western Africa, an homage to the generational identity of those memorialized). 

Hearth’s symbolism, some of which is subtle, tries its best to encompass the full complexity of memory and slavery. The look and location of Hearth is an open invitation to passers-by to stop at the site if they so wish, but does not impose it on them; a sensitive and delicate answer to monument building, which can often be bold and overwhelming. Understanding the architect’s intent, I can better appreciate the reasoning behind Hearth’s distinct appearance.

This investigation was insightful and, to some extent, predictable. However, it is far from over and the quick conclusions that I drew from my two-hour observation are by no means definitive. Rather, this research should be an ongoing interrogation of human interaction with a nonhuman object (that is ironically endowed with human significance). A peculiar constellation of circumstances makes this question a particularly hard one to answer: the university’s ever-changing culture, its touristy location, and its abstract response to its dark history of enslaved labor. Our reality today is not the same as it was four hundred years ago, and it is one that strives to celebrate the freedom of choice and speech for all people. Perhaps the Hearth’s architect realized that this embrace of liberty came with inevitable tradeoffs, some of which include visitors ignoring the memorial altogether. But the effort, the ambition itself to create (and be able to create) such an inclusive and diverse monument on William & Mary soil is something that no one can ever take away.

Bibliography

Kipphoff, Karen. “Self and the City: The Politics of Monuments.” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, vol. 51, no. 1, 2007, pp. 86–95. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23182144.

Pires, Samantha. “Architects Are Rethinking The Way We Remember History with Monuments.” My Modern Met, 4 Dec. 2020, https://mymodernmet.com/confederate-statues-modern-monuments/.

“What Our Monuments (Don’t) Teach Us About Remembering The Past.” NPR, 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/08/23/545548965/what-our-monuments-don-t-teach-us-about-remembering-the-past.

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