Using Public Monuments in AP U.S. History

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Authored by

  • James A. Percoco
    West Springfield High School
    Springfield, Virginia

Field Trips and Public Art

I have used American public sculpture for many years to augment my class lectures and lesson plans in various ways. I teach near Washington, D.C., but there are significant sculptures and statues of interest across the country.

Several times a year, I send my students out on individualized field trips. The first is tied to the founding of our nation and is related to a film based on Joseph Ellis's book Founding Brothers. On this trip, students visit a national memorial in Washington, D.C., that was unveiled in 2001 and is dedicated to the memory of a founder who is often overlooked, Virginia statesman George Mason, and sculpted by Wendy M. Ross.

During our study of the Civil War, I send students to the National Gallery of Art to examine the 1901 plaster version of Augustus Saint-Gaudens's heroic tribute to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Students then hop on the Metro and head to a site near Howard University, where they study sculptor Ed Hamilton's The Spirit of Freedom, a national memorial completed in 1997 and dedicated in 1998 to African American soldiers and sailors. Students then compare the two memorials.

As we approach the end of the course, I send students to Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where they complete a name rubbing. Prior to their visit, each student picks the name of a serviceman killed in Vietnam. The names—taken from the June 27, 1969, issue of Life magazine, which featured 242 men killed in action during the week of May 28 to June 3, 1969—are picked from a Vietnam-era army helmet while I play “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”.

During each field trip, students photograph themselves at the monuments and then complete a variety of journal entries. The photographs are affixed alongside their journal entries.

I want students to understand that history is not only recorded in books, but also that cultures often choose to illustrate their history on their landscape.

Memorials Beyond Washington, D.C.

Public and commemorative sculpture can be found in virtually all communities around the United States. Generally, local historical societies or public libraries contain archival material pertinent to the sculpture's creation and its subsequent dedication. Having students actively research and study old newspaper accounts can bring the past very much forward into the present, as students can compare old dedication ceremonies and current ones. What's more, in recent years many communities have bridged time periods by adding the names of servicemen who died in Vietnam to memorials that were dedicated to the memory of World War I doughboys and World War II GIs.

I have traveled all over the United States photographing statues commemorating Union and Confederate veterans, cowboys and pioneers, American Indians, explorers, social activists, literary figures, statesmen, assorted military heroes, educators, and inventors and scientists. As part of my efforts, I also conduct research into the history of the monument, often by interviewing local historians. I have documented enough monuments to provide extra material to supplement nearly every unit I teach.

Useful Resources

Any American Automobile Association travel guide will list monuments in its index.

The Inventory of American Sculpture, an online database operated by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is a cornucopia of information relative to all of the outdoor sculpture inventoried by the Save Outdoor Sculpture! project. Each entry contains a cross reference to newspaper articles related to the specific work.

Sculpture in America by Wayne Craven and History of American Sculpture by Lorado Taft are excellent books.

The National Park Service maintains the home, grounds, and studio of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, in Cornish, New Hampshire. There are "Teaching With Historic Places" lesson plans for this historic site on the web. Additionally, The National Trust for Historic Preservation owns and operates Chesterwood, located in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the home and studio of Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the seated figure of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. Both sites have extensive research facilities as well as solid educational outreach material.

Sharing my love of commemorative sculpture helps students learn that civic art is meant to do what it was intended to do: instruct. In learning that, they also come to understand that these tangible testimonies and tributes to the past are meant for more than just pigeons.