Christopher Columbus Statue Torn Down at Minnesota State Capitol
Photo Credit: Tony Webster


Making sense of the contemporary calls for tearing down statues and renaming places


Sarah Gensburger, French National Center for Scientific Research, CNRS,

Jenny Wüstenberg, Nottingham Trent University,

The toppling of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England, by activists on June 7 has spotlighted the ubiquitous presence of memorials that glorify colonial and racist legacies. In the wake of protests in 2020 against police violence and racism, calls to dismantle memorials have reverberated around the globe. One might say that the current wave of mobilization surrounding public commemoration began in 2017, when the removal of a Confederate monument was proposed in Charlottesville Virginia and led to violent clashes with white supremacists and neo-Nazis. However, the toppling of statues is neither a new or unique phenomenon nor is it limited to the Anglo-Saxon world.

The transformation of commemoration – challenging and removing existing monuments, and creating new ones – is at the core of remembrance as social and political action. Memory studies scholars have highlighted the extent to which the evocation of the past is always framed by interests and meanings in the present. This book brings together cutting-edge research from different regions and disciplines – not to determine whether tearing down particular statues or renaming places is good or bad, but to help us make sense of the current era of (de)commemoration as a way to understand and transform contemporary societies. The book is aimed not merely at scholars, but at the public more broadly.

We place the idea of “(de)commemoration” at the center of this volume in order to signal that dismantling monuments and place names must be considered in conjunction with processes of remembrance more generally. In other words, we can understand the removal of references to the past only through what is placed there instead – even if it turns out to be an empty space. This notion parallels the close relationship between remembering and forgetting.

Contributors will raise and answer key questions on (de)commemoration, each of them articulating conceptual and empirical elements, emerging from case studies from different continents, perspectives and social science disciplines (including political science, anthropology, sociology, geography, history and media studies, and of course memory studies). Questions to be addressed include (but are not limited to):

  • To what extent is (de)commemoration (or particular elements of it) is a new phenomenon?
  • Does contemporary (de)commemoration result from transnational dynamics?
  • What do claims for (de)commemoration in (mostly) urban spaces mean in a digital society?
  • Who calls for (de)commemoration and using what arguments?  
  • Do “ordinary people” actually care about statues, street names and other vectors of memory that others want to change?
  • How is (de)commemoration implemented and by whom, from state administrators to memory activists?
  • Can we speak of (de)commemoration as a policy field?
  • Can (de)commemoration itself become heritage?
  • How effective is (de)commemoration as a means of challenging ingrained structures of racism and inequality?

Gathering between twenty and thirty contributions (5000 words each) and written for a large audience that stretches beyond an academic readership, the book will be published by Berghahn Books in the “Worlds of Memory” book series (in cooperation with the Memory Studies Association, edited by Jeffrey Olick, Aline Sierp and Jenny Wüstenberg), on an accelerated schedule. We are also exploring co-editions with foreign-language publishers.

Please send a short biography (100 words) and an abstract (250-300 words) in one document to the editors, presenting your case study/studies, methodology and data, and outlining the questions you will address by September 1st.  We will respond by September 15. Please note that, given the goal of reaching a broad audience and our tight production schedule, the final texts will need to be submitted by November 15, 2020. It is crucial that you are fully aware of this expectation.

Send proposals to the editors:

Sarah Gensburger,

Jenny Wüstenberg,