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How does Contemporary Media use Monuments to Reciprocate Political and Cultural Discourse?

General Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, Capital Hill, Washington DC. Credit: Wally Gobetz

The meaning and interpretation of monuments and statues can change over time; its fixed yet fluid nature makes it an interesting topic for the media to discuss.

In 1927, Robert Musil, an Austrian philosopher, stated: “The remarkable thing about monuments is that one does not notice them. There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument.” He believed that over time, monuments and statues receded into the background, becoming a mundane part of the urban fabric, as the public became more accustomed to them. This consequently weakened the potency of the message statues or monuments were trying to convey, making them a forgotten part of history. Robert Musil was writing in the early stages of mass media. This concerned him as he thought the monotone aesthetics and imagery of monuments could not compete with new forms of media that were slowly dominating public space.

Almost 100 years after his publication, his statement couldn’t be further from the truth: monuments are everywhere and, combined with the contemporary media landscape, help convey important messages. Many iconic examples and media moments have etched their significance into the history books and have become immortalised – Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Washington Monument in 1963; the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Cape Town, South Africa; and more recently the destruction of Nimrud in Iraq, 2015, by ISIS militants who used sledgehammers to destroy statues and frescos in the ancient Assyrian city, as an attempt to denounce pre-Islamic art and architecture as idolatrous.


The media use monuments and statues to discuss, debate and draw attention to various cultural and political issues helping convey important information about certain ideas, concepts, values, history, memories or identities. There is tension between the fixed and fluid nature of monuments, they appear as a fixed point in the natural landscape however, the meaning and interpretation of these monuments change in response to political and cultural shifts. The media uses the fluidity of the interpretation of monuments to build narratives that resonate strongly with political or cultural issues. A good example of this is the toppling of the Saddam Hussain statue in 2003, which showed how the media interpreted photographic evidence of the event for their political discourse, through the use of photojournalism.

Picture showing the toppling of the Saddam Hussein Statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad, Iraq in 2003. Credit: Goran Tomasevic
Picture showing the toppling of the Saddam Hussein Statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad, Iraq in 2003. Credit: Goran Tomasevic

The media has compared the fall of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, Iraq, to the removal of statues representing other prominent figures, like the removal of Lenin and Stalin statues in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War, symbolising the end of a regime. Comparing the fall of the Saddam Hussein statue to other monumental moments of iconoclasm made the event more intelligible to a global audience, as they had something to compare it to, making it easier to understand the political significance of the event.

The media photographed Iraqi men bringing down the statue with rope given to them by the U.S. forces. However, reports in Iraq suggested that the perimeter around the park was cordoned off by the U.S. military, concluding that the U.S. government must have staged the event and brought in a crowd. The toppling of the statue wasn’t a result of a spontaneous democratic protest by Iraqis but rather an orchestrated military action., Robert Fisk, a prominent English writer and journalist, described the event as “the most staged photo opportunity since Iwo Jima.” The media used the statue as a reference point to make sense of the conflict with the toppling of the statue symbolising the end of the war in Iraq, the end of an oppressive regime and the idea of freedom, which wasn’t the case.

The media used the statue to draw symbolism from the monument to elevate their story to fit their narrative. This was an example of how visual evidence had been manipulated to portray a political narrative. The media, using their creative licence to produce the best picture, opened up a forum of discussion, debate, and scepticism around the event, the issue with who toppled the statue - the photo was a zoomed-in image of the statue where it showed a handful of Iraqi men trying to pull it down with a rope. Photographs of the statue had been used to propagandise and politicise the event with a U.S. soldier putting an American flag over Saddam Hussain’s face on the statue.

Monuments and statues can also be a significant part of the cultural landscape and national identity, with the media using them as a subject for their story. An example of this was during the media coverage of the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, where the media coverage focused on the National World War Memorial as a site to host commemorative activities. The media was void of political context or statement but focused on public memory and a shared collective national identity that transcended politics memorialising soldiers who fought for their country.

Alternatively, these special occasions may be used to highlight the absence of a monument. A good example of this is during the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1 the media drew attention to the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have a memorial to commemorate the people who died fighting for their country during the war. Most of the time monuments aren’t just used as subjects by the media but as proxies to convey a deeper meaning.

Monuments that are used as proxies in media coverage become a way to discuss particular moments or people who have been monumentalised in greater detail whether in a cultural or political context, positively or negatively. We think of monuments being resurrected for important people who have contributed to society through their intellect, leadership, greatness, or the impact they’ve had on their country or local community. However, the changing political and cultural climate can lead to a radical rethinking of specific monuments and what they represent.

A great example of the media using monuments as proxies is during the 2016 protests against Confederate monuments throughout the U.S., which dominated news headlines worldwide. Confederate statues were argued to be a potential rallying point for hate groups and subsequently promote racist mentalities and ideology. The media focused on Confederate monuments as a proxy for political and cultural discourse surrounding issues such as the connection between Civil War remembrance and the white nationalist movement and the influence of racialized politics on decision-making.

Robert Musil’s statement does not hold up in today’s world, due to the media's engagement with monuments to promote political and cultural discourses around a variety of issues and topics. Statues and monuments are used by the media to evoke a strong sense of collective memory, memorialise the dead, and create cultural identity. They also use monuments to create political narratives and discourses as evident in the 2003 fall of the Saddam Hussein statue. 


The media finds it interesting to discuss the ever-changing meaning and interpretation of monuments and statues, which are subjects of constant change. However, for monuments to remain visible, they need to be a source of contestation, either political or cultural, or evoke a strong sense of national identity. If these memorials don’t have these criteria surrounding them, the media forgets, the people forget and therefore the statue or monument becomes an invisible landmark in a visible landscape.

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