Monuments and Memorials in Changing Societies: A Semiotic and Geographical Approach

By Federico Bellentani


Monuments and memorials are built forms with commemorative as well as political functions. They can articulate selective historical narratives focusing attention on convenient events and individuals, while obliterating what is discomforting for an elite. While articulating historical narratives, monuments can set cultural agendas and legitimate political power. Thus, elites design monuments to convey the kinds of ideals they want citizens to strive towards.

This is particularly evident in transitional societies associated with regime change (Grava 1993: 19-10). In transitional societies, monuments and memorials are used to set cultural and political agendas and to educate citizens toward dominant meanings (Tamm 2013). Nevertheless, individuals can differently interpret and use monuments in ways designers might have never envisioned.

This post argues that a connection between analytical frames developed in the field of cultural geography and semiotics can contribute to a better understanding of the multiple interpretations of monuments and memorials in regime change.

Three limitations of the geographical and the semiotic perspectives on monuments and memorials

There is a significant geographical and semiotic literature looking at the multiple interpretations of monuments and memorials. Cultural geography has assessed the role of monuments in perpetuating cultural norms, social order and power relations. Since David Harvey (1979) analysed the political controversy over the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Paris, several publications in human and cultural geography have appeared documenting the cultural and political significance of monuments (Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz 1991; Hershkovitz 1993; Johnson 1995; Peet 1996; Withers 1996; Atkinson and Cosgrove 1998; Osborne 1998; Dwyer 2000; Whelan 2002; Hay et al. 2004; Benton-Short 2006). Despite variety in empirical analysis, this geographical research has based on two common assumptions. First, monuments play an important role in the definition of a uniform national memory and identity. Second, monuments are tools to legitimise and reinforce political power. These two assumptions can be seen as interdependent: in practice, the national politics of memory and identity embodied in monuments can legitimise and reinforce political power.

While assessing the role of monuments in perpetuating power relations, geographers have rarely discussed how the materiality of monuments can effectively convey political messages and thus legitimate political power. Furthermore, geographical research has tended to focus on the elite intentions, while underestimating how monuments are interpreted at non-elite levels.

By inviting questions on ‘readership’, semiotics has sought to overcome the restricted focus on the designers’ intentions that has characterised the geographical approach. Inspired by the debate around the conflation between memory, history and place (e.g. Nora 1989), semiotics has begun to analyse monuments as communicative devices to promote selective “discourses on the past” (Violi 2014: 11, my trans.). Discourses on the past always present a “partial vision” focusing attention on selective histories while concealing others (Eco 1976: 289-290). As a consequence, discourses on the past can affect present and future identity as well as the ways in which individuals represent themselves and relate to each other (Violi 2014: 18). Several semiotic analyses have aimed to explain how monuments can establish specific understandings of the past addressing the effects a given material representation of memory has had at the societal level (Pezzini 2006; Sozzi 2012; Abousnnouga and Machin 2013).

Despite the efforts to focus attention on ‘readerships’, the key limitations identified in the geographical perspective persist in the semiotic analysis of monuments and memorials. Semiotic analysis has scarcely discussed how the materiality of monuments actually conveys political meanings. Moreover, it has largely considered non-elite interpretations as spontaneous reactions to more prominent elite meanings.

In brief, the geographical and the semiotic perspectives on the interpretations of monuments and memorials have grounded themselves on three key limitations:

  1. There has been no extended discussion of how the material and the symbolic levels of monuments actually convey political meanings.
  2. There has been no extended discussion of how monuments actually reinforce political power.
  3. Little attention has been paid to how monuments are interpreted at the non-elite levels.

A holistic perspective on meaning-making of monuments and memorials

A holistic perspective connecting analytical frameworks in cultural geography and semiotics can overcome the limitations identified in the section above, developing a theory that conceives the interpretations of monuments and memorials as depending on three interplays: a) between the material, symbolic and political dimensions; b) between designers and users; and c) between monuments, the cultural context and the built environment.

As for a), the material, symbolic and political dimensions are useful analytical concepts, but at the empirical level they equally contribute to a better understanding of how the meanings of monuments and memorials are constructed and negotiated. There is the need for a theory that conceives the material, symbolic and political dimensions as interacting in the interpretation of monuments.

As for the interplay between designers and users, a set of “semiotic resources” is available to designers to entice users along specific interpretations of monuments (Abousnnouga and Machin 2013: 57). Nevertheless, not all users conform to the designers’ intentions. As for textual interpretation, the interpretation of monuments lies in an intermediate position between the designers’ intended meanings and the users’ interpretations (Eco 1990). Hence, there is the need for a theory that conceives the interpretations of monuments and memorials as originating at the intersection between designers and users.

As for c), monuments and memorials cannot be analysed separately from the cultural context. Culture can mould the designers’ and the users’ interpretations and even influence actions and interactions within the space of monuments. In turn, monuments convey cultural meanings in space contributing to the shaping and reshaping of culture. Finally, monuments and memorials cannot be analysed separately from their interrelations with the surrounding built environment. Post-structural geography has used the term ‘intertextuality’ to describe the relations that built forms establish between them (Duncan 1990: 22-23). As texts reinterpret other texts (Eco 1984: 68), newly erected monuments actively affect the interpretation of the existing built environment.

The conceptual scheme below symbolically represents the three interplays here identified. The scheme presumes that a relationship is established between the material, symbolic and the political dimensions of monuments and memorials. An arrow links the two rectangles representing the terms ‘designers’ and ‘users’ to visualise their interaction. A polygon visually representing the term ‘culture’ is added at the top of the scheme. The dashed oval including monuments and memorials represents the built environment.

Establishing the logic for case study research: The Victory Column in Tallinn, Estonia

To develop the theoretical framework identified in the previous section, this post presents a case study: the multiple interpretations of the War of Independence Victory Column in Tallinn, capital of Estonia.

Estonia restored its independence from the Soviet Union on 20 August 1991. There since, a cultural reinvention of the post-Soviet built environment has evolved through two distinct but concurrent practices: the redesign of the inherited built environment created by the Soviets and the simultaneous establishment of a new built environment reflecting the needs of post-Soviet culture and society. Cultural reinvention is the process of filling the built environment with specific cultural meanings through practices of redesign, reconstruction, restoration, relocation and removal.

The Estonian EU and NATO memberships in 2004 provided an adequate “sense of security” in such a manner as to underpin the redesign of the built environment and monuments and memorials specifically (Ehala 2009: 152). Hence, Estonian national elites have taken various initiatives to marginalise, remove and relocate Soviet monuments and memorials while establishing new monuments signifying specific future expectations.

One of the most sticking cases of this process is the 2009 erection of the War of Independence Victory Column in Tallinn (hence the Victory Column, fig. 1). The Victory Column is a large column-shape memorial commemorating those who served in a war against Soviet Russia and Baltic German forces between 1918 and 1920. The war ended with the first recognition of Estonia as an independent state. For this reason, in the current Estonian historical narratives, this war is known as the ‘War of Independence’ (in Estonian Vabadussõda) and it is closely linked with ideals of freedom and sovereignty.


Fig. 1 – The War of Independence Victory Column. Picture taken 5.10.2015


Articulating specific conceptualisation of the past, present and future, the Victory Column has helped to reflect and sustain the cultural and political agendas of the Estonian Government. As such, the Victory Column has reflected the intention to establish an exclusive space filled with dominant cultural and political meanings.

However, the meanings that the Estonian Government has strived to convey through the Victory Column are not reflected at non-elite levels. Users have largely reconceptualised the designers’ intentions behind the Victory Column. Furthermore, the unexpected interpretations have spawned uses that are different from those envisioned by the designers of the memorial.

Analysis of the multiple interpretations of the Victory Column

This section aims to analyse the embodied cultural and political meanings of the Victory Column and the different ways in which these meanings are interpreted at the non-elite levels. The analysis is divided into three parts. The first part addresses the designers’ intentions behind the Victory Column (§ 5.2). The second part presents the interpretations of users and their practices within the space of the memorial (§ 5.3). The third part progresses toward the theoretical dimension aiming at a deeper understanding of the designer’ and users’ interpretations of the Victory Column (§ 5.4). Before, the following section 5.1 explains the need for an extensive fieldwork and a multi-method approach for data collection.

 Research methods

The analysis of the multiple interpretations of the Victory Column is based on data collected through a fieldwork carried out in Tallinn from February to October 2015. Planning documents and literature provided an account of the meanings designers strived to convey through the Victory Column. Documents and literature available in English on the Victory Column were collected through visits at archives and libraries. The analysis of the users’ interpretations, actions and interactions was based on primary data collected through interviews and observations.

Semi-structured interviews aimed to collect a range of interpretations on the Victory Column at non-elite levels. Interview data derived from sixteen interviews with respondents that resided in Tallinn their entire life or that left Tallinn only temporarily. Respondents varied in terms of ethnic origins, age, gender, education and profession. A suitable balance of Estonians and Russophones was guaranteed: eight respondents were Estonians and eight belonged to the Russophone community of Tallinn. ‘Russophones’ refers to Russian speakers that are in possession of Estonian citizenship, including ethnic communities that speak Russian as first language and do not define their ethnic identity as ‘Estonian’. After Estonia regained independence, the Russophone community suffered status decline; conversely, Estonians found new economic opportunities and political power. In Estonia, the relations between Estonians and Russophones have not always been peaceful and this antagonism has often resulted in conflicts over the interpretations of memorials.

Participant observations concentrated on the actions and interactions of users who daily cross and use the space of the Victory Column. Observations were arranged at different times of the day and on different days of the week, including weekends and public holidays. They were carried out during the day and occasionally at night, under wide range of environmental conditions.

The designers’ intentions behind the Victory Column

The Victory Column is a 23.5 meters-high column (≈ 86.6 feet) featuring a symmetrical shape with regular forms and straight edges. It is made of 143 glass plates supported by eight concrete blocks. The iconography of the Victory Column features the Cross of Liberty, a military decoration established to honour remarkable services during the War of Independence (fig. 2). During the Estonia’s first period of independence, the Cross of Liberty became a symbol associated with the War of Independence and, in turn, with the Estonia’s fight for freedom and sovereignty. That is why the Victory Column – as most of the memorials to this war – included the Cross of Liberty in its iconography.

Fig. 2 – The Cross of Liberty at the top of the Victory Column during the constructions. Picture from Pihlak et al. 2009: 120.


The first ideas to erect a memorial to celebrate those who served during the War of Independence dated back to 1919 (Pihlak et al. 2009: 42). There since, a number of design competitions were held, but no plan was realised due to lack of money, lack of agreement on the design, outbreak of the Second War World and obstruction of foreign ruling powers (Pihlak et al. 2009: 41-48). After Estonia regained independence, questions about erecting a memorial to the War of Independence arose again from time to time.

In spring 2005, the Estonian Parliament entrusted the Ministry of Defence to lead the development phase of the project. The Ministry of Defence sponsored a design competition in 2007. The selected winning entry was Libertas, designed by the engineering students Rainer Sternfeld, Andri Laidre and Anto Savi.

The Estonian Government set a short deadline for the Victory Column to be erected. The time pressure created by the deadline drastically reduced participative planning practices and resulted in a lack of the required supervision on the quality of the works for constructing the memorial. The financing process was not transparent: for example, public donations were used for purposes other than covering the costs for erecting this memorial (Mattson 2012).

Today, the Victory Column stands on an elevated platform on Freedom Square, a large square on the southern edge of Tallinn’s Old Town (fig. 3). Throughout history, Freedom Square has been an arena where different political regimes have tried to assert themselves via architecture, monuments and public rituals. Freedom Square lost its function as a venue for public rituals and turned into a parking lot during the last years of the Soviet regime. In 1998, the Tallinn City Council manifested the need for revitalising Freedom Square and held an architectural competition to transform Freedom Square into an attractive public space (UNESCO 2014: 291). In consequence, Freedom Square underwent a complete reconstruction in 2009.

The reconstruction aimed to provide a venue for Estonia’s public rituals and cultural events. In Freedom Square, Estonian authorities regularly organise celebrations of public holidays, commemorative practices and official meetings. Freedom Square is also the location for cultural events, popular entertainment and attractions.


Fig. 3 – The Victory Column in Freedom Square. Picture taken 14.03.2015

The interpretations, actions and interactions of the users

Interviews concerned issues related with the material, symbolic and political dimensions of the Victory Column. As for the material dimension, the material of construction and the size of the Victory Column came in for a great deal of criticism during interviews. Four respondents considered glass panels as an “inappropriate” material for two reasons. The first reason concerned practical problems related to weather conditions: glass panels do not easily resist the harsh Estonian winter. The second reason concerned the inconsistency of a glass construction in Tallinn’s Old Town: respondents considered glass as a present-day construction material that does not fit in with the adjacent medieval built environment.

Six respondents considered the great size and the verticality of the Victory Column as in conflict with existing built forms in the immediate surroundings. They expressed discontent toward the chosen location of the Victory Column: to build the elevated platform of the memorial, encroachments on the nearby park and on the medieval bastions were necessary. Respondents considered the erection of the Victory Column not worth losing this natural and historical heritage. Consistent with this view, observations showed that the elevated platform of the Victory Column remained largely unused.

As for the symbolic dimension, interviews concerned two main issues: the purpose of commemoration and the iconography of the Victory Column. All respondents acknowledged the intended purpose of the memorial to commemorate those who served in the War of Independence. They stated they understood the need for this commemoration and respected it. However, observations did not register any commemorative practice, if not during the formal commemorations arranged by the Estonian Government and its affiliates.

Eight respondents clearly manifested negative attitudes toward the inclusion of the Cross of Liberty in the iconography of the Victory Column. They argued that this iconography is highly hermetic and not many users can correctly understand it – visitors as well as Estonian citizens themselves. As proof of this, three respondents did not know what the Cross of Liberty was. Four respondents claimed that this iconography conveys meanings of might and control. Two respondents defined the cross-shaped figure of the Victory Column as a “primitive symbol”. They associated the cross with Christian symbolism and defined this association as “provocative”, considering that Christianity was brought into Estonian territories through church-sanctioned campaigns against paganism.

A Russophone respondent from the oldest age band associated the iconography of the Victory Column with totalitarian aesthetics. In her opinion, the Victory Column presented a Nazi iconography, being a military insignia used by Estonian soldiers fighting alongside the German army during the Second World War. The association of the Victory Column with Nazi iconography was repeatedly reported in Russian media, which considered inconceivable and outrageous to erect a memorial presenting symbols used by the German army during the Second World War.

As for the political dimensions, seven respondents defined the Victory Column as a memorial erected to convey dominant political power. These respondents considered the power of the Victory Column as something “controversial” for a memorial erected with the intention to commemorate ideals of freedom and sovereignty. Ironically, two Estonian respondents born in independent Estonia considered the Victory Column as resembling the typical monuments erected during totalitarian regimes:

The Victory Column looks like really Soviet for me. […] For me, it is like a combination of something that we fought against for so long time. That is why it is odd. (Interview 1, Estonian, born 1991, female, hostel receptionist)

Conclusions: The multiple interpretation of the Victory Column between designers and users

The erection of memorials and the public rituals centred on them are political tools by which specific histories and geographies become embodied in space. Political elites erect memorials to educate users toward the kinds of ideals that they want users to strive towards. To do that, elites use a set of design strategies to entice users along specific interpretations. However, users can interpret and use memorials in ways that are different from those envisioned by designers.

Estonian elites erected the Victory Column to promote an ideological understanding of the past to symbolise a range of expectations about Estonia’s future. The memorial emphasized past links with the Estonia’s first period of independence to signify the aspiration of returning to pre-war traditions and institutions, which were destroyed by foreign regimes (Tamm 2013: 654). The first Estonia independence is remembered as a pre-Soviet “golden age” creating the ground for the development of Estonian national culture (Young and Kaczmarek 2008: 54). Hence, the Victory Column was erected as a tool to reinforce sentiments of national belonging and to promote practices signalling devotion for the entire nation. Public rituals in the surroundings of the memorial have facilitated the spread of these sentiments and practices.

However, the meanings that the Estonian Government strived to attach to the Victory Column were not reflected at non-elite levels. The memorial revealed a case in which users have largely reconceptualised the designers’ intentions. A multi-method approach based on interviews and observations demonstrated that the Victory Column came in for a great deal of criticism and remained largely unused. This criticism regarded the way in which the War of Independence is remembered through the material and the symbolic design choices of the memorial.

Tallinn citizens expressed discontent toward the fact that the remembered events and identities were presented through a hermetic iconography and controversial design, in a location that does not facilitate interactions and that it does not fit in with the adjacent built environment. Specifically, criticism regarded three material aspects of the Victory Column. First, respondents believed that the design of the memorial is inappropriate and disconnected from the adjacent medieval built environment of Tallinn’s Old Town. Second, they considered the great size and the verticality of the Victory Column as in conflict with existing built forms in the surroundings. Finally, they considered the loss of natural and historical heritage caused by the earthworks to build the elevated platform to be not a worthwhile cost.

Observations showed that on rare occasions users climb the staircase of this platform to approach the Victory Column. Users crossing Freedom Square remain literally at the feet of the memorial. For this reason, the memorial does not facilitate comfortable interactions: users have to look upwards and from an appropriate distance to have a complete vision of the memorial. The elevated location and the great size are design choices typically used for monuments and memorials erected during totalitarian regimes or in places where there is a high control over population. Indeed, respondents claimed that the Victory Column conveys powerful meanings rather than freedom, as the intended purpose of the memorial would suggest.

The negative attitudes of respondents link with the fact that the Victory Column has remained largely unused. The memorial attracts practices of commemorations – i.e. practices in accordance with its intended purpose – only during public rituals periodically arranged in its surroundings. For the rest of the year, the Victory Column attracts only unexpected practices that are different from those envisioned by its designers: for example, skaters and bikers trying out their tricks during the warmer weather.

The interpretations and uses of the Victory Column may change over time following change in social relations, in concepts of nation and in views on past events. Designers can encourage this process attaching new meanings to the Victory Column. A new interpretative pattern may originate once Estonian authorities reduce the anxiety towards their original intentions and accept the plurality of interpretations, practices and relationships embodied in the memorial. Cultural entertaining events and more informal practices of commemoration may help to create new attitudes toward the Victory Column. For example, Tallinn citizens enthusiastically attended the 2016 commemorations for the 75th anniversary of the Soviet deportations of 14 June in Freedom Square. On this occasion, thousands of blue balloons were installed to symbolically represent tears being shed for the victims (fig. 4). Many people visited the installation and kids joyfully played with the balloons. The installation named Sea of Tears was conceived and developed by the Estonian Institute of Human Rights in cooperation with the Estonian Ministry of Justice and other organisations dealing with the national politics of memory and identity. This people-friendly public display encouraged lively practices of consumption of the space of Freedom Square and active learning about the commemorated event.

Fig. 4 – The installation ‘Sea of Tears’ in Freedom Square. Available at: [Accessed: 18 July 2017]


Federico Bellentani recently obtained a Ph.D. at School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University (UK). He holds a master’s degree in semiotics and a bachelor’s degree in communication sciences from University of Bologna (Italy).

Federico’s research interests range from semiotics of culture, cultural geography, planning theory and national landscape imagery.

His research focuses on monuments and memorials as tools to articulate selective historical narratives and, in turn, to inculcate particular conceptions of the present and encourage future possibilities.

Federico’s analysis concentrates on the multiple interpretations of the post-Soviet memorial landscape, with a focus on Estonia. In Estonia, Federico conducted ethnographic fieldwork, based on a multi-method approach including observation, interviewing and the examination of archival documents.

The results of Federico’s research are published in peer-review journals in the field of semiotics and architecture.



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