Historical Monuments, Monumental Histories

The idea of the historical monument began during the Renaissance, with the search for Europe’s origins in the Classical.  Examples of large-scale architecture from the past were sought out not only for aesthetic concerns, but also as monumenta, “reminders” of a certain past and origin. In other words, while large historical buildings had always existed, investing them with value more than the weight of their stone was connected to the forging of a common foundational myth. By the 18th century, the view of monuments as necessary ingredients in the historical and civilizational makeup of any society was so pervasive that buildings became objects of visitation and study.  This gave the impulse for the “Grand Tour,” a prolonged journey to European – especially Italian – cities deemed necessary for the education and cultural polish of young aristocratic British men (and some women). A century later, as the Grand Tour gave way to middle-class tourism and as the discipline of art history rose, a veritable “modern cult of monumMonuments exhibit posterents” emerged.

Canonized in modernity as testaments of civilizational advancement, storehouses of memory, and symbols of identity, historical monuments are consumed with ideological underpinnings. The processes of adaptation, appropriation, revaluation, importation, repatriation and destruction of monumental structures have been instrumental in the forging of collective identities whether imperial, national, or regional. This exhibition focuses on the reception and treatment of historical monuments found in a few works preserved at the John J. Burns Library dating from the 19th century. Through examining some travel guidebooks, architectural history surveys and an unpublished diary, we travel across the globe – to the Jordan and Egypt, to France and Germany, to England and Ireland – in search of histories of monumental proportions.

The images and content in this blog post are from the exhibit Historical Monuments, Monumental Histories, which is now on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South.    This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Dana Sajdi’s Fall 2015 Making History Public class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.

Works Consulted: 

Alois Riegl, “The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and its Origins,” Oppositions 25 (1982): 20-51. Originally written in 1903 in German.


About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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