by Federico Bellentani

The semiotic and geographical approach to monuments and memorials in changing societies

Course aims

  • To advance the understanding of the connections between semiotics and cultural geography;
  • To develop a theoretical and methodological framework to analyse monuments and memorials;
  • To overcome some of the key limitations of previous research on monuments and memorials.

Preamble: What are monuments and memorials?

Monuments and memorials are built forms with celebratory, commemorative as well as political functions. Young (1) uses ‘memorial’ as a general term for commemorative texts, as distinguished from ‘monuments’, i.e. particular types of memorials fixed in material forms and normally associated with public art. In this course, I will use ‘monuments’ to refer to built forms publicly erected to celebrate significant events or individuals. I will use the term ‘memorial’ more specifically, when referring to built forms commemorating individuals who died due to war, mass violence or other disasters.

Introduction: Monuments in the news

If we take a look back at the main news stories of Spring 2018, we will see that many of them relates to monuments, memorials and public statuary. Some news refer to controversies on the kind of histories and identities monuments represent. For example, the erection of a statue of Karl Marx has sparked controversy in Germany: first, because the statue was given by China and taking it would appear as accepting abuse right in China; second, because some Germans consider Karl Marx as a controversial figure as his work inspired the Soviet Union’s communist government.

Few days later, on the other side of the world, Sidney was making plans to erect a monuments to commemorate the British explorer Captain James Cook, at the site where he first landed in 1770. But the Aboriginal communities found this plans offensive, as they see James Cook as the foreigner colonialist leading to the end of indigenous way of life.
Other news are about the removal of monuments following transformations in social relations and opinions on past events. For example, New york removed the statue of J. Marion Sims, a surgeon known as the father of gynecology to some, but as a torturer to others, since he experimented on enslaved black women.

Finally, an unholy row recently broke out because a statue representing Marilyn Monroe with her skirt hiked up was erected right in front of a church.

All these cases may seem only small quarrels over political issues compared to the disorders of Summer 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a result of the plan to remove the statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, that left one person dead and several injured. There since, confederate memorials have become an hot-button topic and several debates have sparked over the fate of the 1.500 monuments to Confederates still standing in the USA.

The kind of problem monuments are

All these debates demonstrate that monuments are not neutral, rather they are politically charged built forms conveying specific meanings in the public space. Monuments articulate selective historical narratives, focusing attention on convenient events and individuals, while obliterating what is discomforting for an elite. Thus, elites use monuments to promote a uniform national memory and reinforce sentiments of national belonging.

The politics of memory and identity are integral part of national politics. While articulating uniform memories and identities, monuments can set political and cultural agendas. Hence, national elites use monuments as tools to present the meanings that want people to strive towards and, consequently, to legitimate the primacy of their political power.

While national elites design monuments to convey dominant meanings, their interpretations are never enclosed once and for all. In practice, individuals differently interpret and use them in ways designers might have never envisioned. This is particularly evident in transitional societies associated with regime change, where multiple historical narratives and identities coexist at the societal level.

This course addresses the kind of problem monuments are in post-Soviet countries, with a focus on Estonia. To do this, the course proposes a holistic perspective based on the connection between semiotics and cultural geography.

The connection between semiotics and cultural geography

This course aims to advance the understanding of the connections between semiotics and cultural geography on the basis of which to analyse the multiple interpretations of monuments and memorials.

Cultural geography is a multifaceted discipline using different theoretical perspectives and methods to analyse concepts such as space, place, landscape, built environment and power. Cultural geographers have focused on the social and power relations embodied in monuments, but they have paid little attention to the processes through which monuments can effectively convey meanings and reinforce political power.

In recent years, semiotics has begun to explore memory representation in the built environment. Semiotic analysis has concentrated on the signifying dimension of monuments, while underrating the role of the plastic and the political dimensions.

This thesis argues that a holistic perspective based on the connection between cultural geography and semiotics can overcome the limitations of previous research on the interpretations of monuments. This perspective has a number of consequences that open three original perspectives:

1. The plastic, figurative and political dimensions of monuments always function together and influence each other through continuous mediations.
2. The meanings of monuments originate at the intersection between the designers’ and the users’ interpretations.
3. The interpretations of monuments are determined by culture and by the interrelations monuments have with the built environment.

The case of Estonia

Estonia restored its independence from the Soviet Union on 20 August 1991. There since, monuments have been used as tools for the cultural reinvention of the post-Soviet built environment. By cultural reinvention, I mean the process of filling the built environment with specific cultural meanings through practices of redesign, reconstruction, restoration, relocation and removal.

The cultural reinvention of the Estonian 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.

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 specifically. In this context, Estonian national elites have taken various initiatives to marginalise, remove and relocate Soviet monuments while establishing new monuments signifying specific future expectations.

The cultural reinvention through monuments has not been widely accepted in Estonia, where multiple historical narratives and identities coexist at the societal level, often sparkling broad debates and even resulting in civil disorder.

This course focuses on two monuments in Estonia: the Victory Column, a war memorial erected in Tallinn in 2009 and the Kissing Students, a fountain with a sculpture featuring two kissing young people unveiled in Tartu in 1998.

Course Outline

Theoretical framework

Lecture 1 – The limitations of the geographical and the semiotic perspectives on monuments

This session completes a review of the geographical and the semiotic literature on monuments, highlighting limitations and future recommendation.

Lecture 2 – The connection between cultural geography and semiotics: A holistic perspective on meaning-making of monuments

In this session, I aim to overcome the key limitations identified in the previous session by developing a holistic perspective to link the cultural geographical and the semiotic approach.

Methodological framework

Lecture 3 – The methodological framework for the study of monuments

This session constructs and develops the methodological framework for the empirical study of the multiple interpretations of monuments. It identifies the rationale for the strategy, methodology and methods used to integrate the theoretical and the empirical dimensions of the study.

Case studies

Lecture 4 – Case Study 1: The Victory Column in Tallinn

This session engages with the theoretical and methodological framework outlined in previous sessions, presenting an analysis of the War of Independence Victory Column, a war memorial unveiled in Tallinn in June 2009.

Lecture 5 – Case Study 2: The Kissing Students in Tartu
This session engages with the theoretical and methodological framework outlined in previous sessions, presenting an analysis of the Kissing Students, a circular fountain with a sculpture featuring two kissing young people beneath a umbrella, unveiled in Tartu in 1998.

Lecture 6 – The cultural reinvention of the Estonian built environment: A comparative analysis between the Victory Column and the Kissing Students

In this session, I undertake a comparative analysis between the two case studies, reflecting on further developments of the theoretical and methodological framework of the course.

Lecture 7 – The potential of the connection between cultural geography and semiotics for the study of the built environment

In this session, I return to address the main contribution and principal aims of the semiotic and geographical approach to monuments, discussing the key arguments made within each session and highlighting the contributions that can be claimed as original.


(1) Young, J.E. 1993. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven: Yale University Press.

(2) Ehala, M. 2009. The Bronze Soldier: Identity threat and maintenance in Estonia. Journal of Baltic Studies 1, pp. 139-158.

Federico Bellentani | Biography

Federico Bellentani’s research interests range from semiotics, cultural geography, planning theory and national landscape imagery. He obtained a Ph.D. from School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University, UK (2017). He holds a master’s degree in semiotics and a bachelor’s degree in communication sciences from University of Bologna, Italy. The results of Federico’s Ph.D. thesis were published in peer-review journals in the field of semiotics and architecture. He also published a paper with his collegue Antonio Nanni on the meaning-making of the built environment in the Italian Fascist city.