When I was young, my mother made a wreath that was composed of natural materials—pinecones, needles, thistles—gathered from places where we had taken family vacations. Setting aside distinctions between art and craft, it has always been evident to me that the wreath possessed certain artistic qualities: an expression of her creative abilities, an intentional work with aesthetic appeal. What became equally evident to me over time was that the wreath functioned in another way.

Hanging on the wall in my parents’ living room as it has for decades now, it acts as a witness to and a reminder of our shared time as a family. Whenever I see it, I feel my feet walking on trails in the early morning, I hear the sound of metal tent stakes being hammered into the ground, I taste roasted marshmallows, and I see the faces of family members, some now gone.

Like other works of memorial art, the “memory wreath,” as my mother termed it, serves a purpose beyond mere decoration. It shapes our family’s collective memory as well as my individual memory. At a much broader level, the same could be said for the shaping of social memory through the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the National September 11 Memorial, the public murals in Belfast, Northern Ireland, or the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

More controversially, this calls to mind the heated—at times even violent—ongoing debate in America over whether Confederate monuments should be taken down. One fascinating byproduct of this national discourse is the recognition that regardless of whether one believes that these statues represent a cultural identity that should be preserved or a history of racism and oppression ...

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