Reviewing Commemorations: A Strategy for Executive Action

Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) commemorative plaque on UCL Charles Bell Building | ProfJoeCain

In a recent blog post on Lessons About Renaming University Buildings, I developed some key concepts to focus discussions about renaming commemorative objects at universities. The aim was to assist in building a strategy for renaming should one be required. Simply put, the best way forward for an institution is to step back and create room for asking fundamental questions about the heritage it wants to promote across the whole of its estate in the present day.

The argument built on several steps. First, naming is a commemorative act. These acts support heritage stories. Conflicts over renaming really are conflicts between heritage stories. These conflicts cannot be resolved by appealing to historical facts because facts don’t decide which heritage story should be preferred. How should we make decisions about renaming? Apply principles of plurality and equity, mostly equity. Do this as part of a three-stage strategy for renaming that balances all commemorative acts in the university, and do this with a clear understanding of which heritage stories are most important to the institution today. Also, plan for future change. Priorities for our heritage stories evolve over time, and new conflicts are certain to arise.

Advice for an Executive Strategy

In this post, I describe a three-stage strategy to review commemorative acts on a university estate. The aim is to operationalise consideration within the framework of these key concepts. I begin with a basic premise: single commemorative acts do not exist in isolation. Each is part of a network of commemorative acts, and each contributes to a range of heritage stories. I end with a basic proposal: disagreements about single commemorative acts are best engaged by review of the larger network, and it is this larger network that might need rebalancing or reorientation to best meet institutional ambitions.

Commemoration for service in the Great War, 1914-1919, University College London (UCL)

Stage 1: Identify “Have” and “Want”

After an executive decision is made to consider the question of a commemorative name, the first stage towards resolution involves investigation and reflection. Constitute two separate working groups to research and advise. Instruct each with specific, but different, question sets.

Question Set 1: What do we have? One track for investigation identifies existing commitments:

  • What commemorative acts exist currently in the community?
  • To what heritage stories were these originally linked?
  • To what heritage stories are these currently linked?

This question set aims for description of the status quo. It asks for historical research to identify, as far as source materials allow, why decisions about commemoration were made as they were and to identify the original heritage story linked with the commemorative act. It asks for discussion and surveys about contemporary interpretations of linkage between commemorative acts and heritage stories. What do existing names mean to staff, students, alumni, members of the community, potential applicants? Expect indifference. Expect variety. Expect fragility.

Understand scale. Are commemorative names common on the estate, or are they rare? Which criteria have been used generally for those decisions? Which heritage stories have been associated with existing commemorations? How strong are linkages currently to original heritage stories, or to newer ones?

Understand range. One of the first questions an investigative team will ask will relate to definition: what’s a commemorative act? what kinds of commemorative acts do we count? If commemorative naming is the focus of attention, then the criterion is easily operationalised to “any activity or facility of the institution that we actively attribute to a specific person or group” or a search for the “use of proper nouns in the names of university facilities, activities, and posts”. Let the team identify additional cases if they care to suggest their relevance.

Wider data about scale and range will assist reflection related to other institutional goals. For instance, research might reveal widespread use of commemorative names for buildings, and further analysis of their equalities variables might show a heavy emphasis on some variants and an absence of others. This knowledge of the status quo can lay bare obvious shortcomings and give the executive clear directions in future decision making.

Understand legal commitments, too. Commemorations often are products of patronage in which specific naming is stipulated in the donation agreement. The working group should advise on degrees of flexibility available to the executive for alteration or adjustment without forfeit.

Blue plaque commemorating Marie Stopes on Beyer Building, University of Manchester " ProfJoeCain

Question Set 2: What do we want? A second working group should focus on ambitions for a new strategy.

  • Which are the heritage stories sought by the community and the institution?

Commemorative acts support heritage stories. Conflicts about commemorations grow from conflicting heritage stories. Opening a discussion on renaming a space creates the momentum for reflection on strategic ambitions as to which heritage stories merit promotion or emphasis, which should be encouraged to co-exist, which are no longer useful for activating desired heritage stories, and which stories merit exceptional advancement to achieve strategic ambitions such as equity.

The executive instruction for this working group is to build a clear set of heritage stories for use in the present, a set that has community support and that supports community-building and identity-building today. Keep in mind collecting data on this question set will lead to a large assemblage of specific heritage stories. These will overlap, compliment, conflict, and flatly contradict others in the set. The executive role is not to achieve consensus on the stories themselves, but to achieve consensus on the set of heritage stories as a whole that are understood to be valuable for community- and identity-building. the executive role also is to ensure fairness and symmetry in the development of the set as a whole.

List-building of particulars sets something of a trap for executive decision making, as advocacy of specific individuals can become a focal point for expressing the social glues and identities associated with those commemorations. Encourage Working Group 2 to move past specific names and to focus on rationales. Ask them to draw from their list making some generalised elements and boundaries associated with the particulars. Identifying generalised elements will give the community common ground across many heritage stories, even in cases of sharp disagreements about specific individuals.

Jeremy Bentham auto-icon at University College London (UCL). Copyright UCL

Elements and Boundaries

Heritage stories often express commonalities in the narrative elements support desirable associations: these identify why we want a particular heritage story in our surroundings. Also, when discussing individual heritage stories, members of the community often express boundaries at risk of being crossed should a name be promoted or declined. Working groups must be alert to both elements and boundaries, as these provide keys for an institution-wide strategy for renaming, for re-invigoration, and for reconciling seemingly incompatible decisions. A focus on these components will move conversations past a focus on specific individuals.

Element Type Description
admiration praiseworthy accomplishments: such as discovery, invention or innovation, projects development, mentoring, external recognition
personal virtue display of character: such as courage, resilience, dedication, fairness, honesty, command
institutional value display of qualities highlighted in institutional strategies: e.g., diversity, regionality, civility, leadership
aspiration ambition for future achievement
    -subjects encourage interest in a field of study
    -behaviours encourage emulation of behaviours, such as leadership, impact, critical thinking, teamwork
    -accomplishments encourage emulation of praiseworthy outcome or attempt
    -responses encourage constructive associations with response to knowing: sense of pride, challenge, inclusion, normality, cooperation
Boundary Types Description
insurmountable asks too much of all parties, corrosive to community
consensus-breaking asks too much of some groups, or highly destructive to some goals, limited compensating benefit
instructional asks much, notable benefits especially teachable moments
democratic asks some of some groups, perhaps unpalatable, but within range of tolerance
institutional degree of affiliation with the institution

Long-standing commemorative acts likely have links broken to their originating heritage stories. For instance, renaming arguments might focus on a building named long ago for a person few remember or know much about. The heritage stories once firmly associated with that person might have lost much of their substance or nuance, and the social value those stories might have changed in significance.

Founders occupy a familiar position in heritage stories and renaming disputes. For one heritage story, a founder created or began something. Over time, focus might shift away from the person itself to that thing created or begun. The heritage story of a founder, then become a means for expressing pride in participation, or concerns for legitimacy.  For another heritage story, that founder is a person with a range of attributable views and products. Some of those products and views now are objected to, based on boundary considerations. Hence commemoration should be disallowed.

Charles Darwin Blue Plaque on Gower Street London WC1 | ProfJoeCain

Move conversations past a focus on specific individuals and towards general specifications. As an example, I might propose the institution commemorate Neil Armstrong by naming a building after him. I should be asked to identify how he might instantiate elements of heritage stories as above:

  • Why Neil Armstrong?
    elements prioritised: accomplishment and courage, plus lifelong commitment to integrity.

Some objections might focus on whether or not those elements are among the most important for the institution to project in the present day, or on whether these are elements key to the institution in the first place, or on whether these elements are already amply represented elsewhere on the estate, thus reducing the urgency for repeating them compared with other ambitions. These can be expressed as follows:

  • Objection 1: other elements are unserved or far less served by commemorations, making them more of a priority.
  • Objection 2: other choices can be identified to offer the desired elements while offering other elements, too. Other choices will increase the impact the commemorative act.

Other objections might assist in the articulation of boundaries.

  • Objection 3: Armstrong was the focal point for a large community endeavour, so whilst acknowledging courage of astronauts in flight, a myth of the lone adventurer is not a desirable heritage story and should be replaced with celebration of team effort in the innovation that created human travel to the Moon and back. Focus on Apollo programme as a whole. This exposes an instructional boundary.
  • Objection 4: Framing courage as “first person to” or “boundary pushing in extremes” structurally excludes large parts of the community who were disqualified from making that attempt. Institutional ambitions can be achieved with an alternative framing for courage, one that offers possibilities for selecting people in otherwise excluded groups. With that, can we find multiple, equally compelling examples for commemoration? Or, can we find an unexpected, but equally compelling, instance of courage to use for an instructional response? Not doing so risks crossing a consensus-breaking boundary.

The overall approach to such proposals involves teasing out core elements and boundaries in the heritage stories linked to a proposed commemorative act. It recognises initial impulses toward commemoration will carry with them strong ambitions to help community- and identity-building, but they also will bring structural or implicit framings that can result in criticisms about fairness.

This articulation of preferences also builds ground for strategic planning about future commemorative acts. Perhaps, the choice of Armstrong in the case above is compelling. At the same time, the executive can recognise the merits of objection 1-4 while framing their decision making. They might, for instance, guide specifications for additional or future commemorative acts.

Commemorative plaque for Sir Thomas Lewis in Rockefeller Building, UCL, Gower Street, London, United Kingdom

Stage 2: What Do We Need?

What an institution needs in this context is a function of (1) what it has, and (2) what it wants. As the work on question sets 1 and 2 comes to completion, the executive will have resources for analysis and engagement.This is the core of a better renaming strategy.

First, compare the data returned from the two question sets. Boundary violations need to be identified; perhaps graded. Linkages need to be reviewed; perhaps restored or modified. Omissions need to be noted. Excesses, too. The strategic aim should be to associate all existing commemorations with current heritage stories, paying particular attention to overall distribution and to boundary issues.

This is a fit-for-purpose test: are the commemorative acts currently in use supporting the heritage stories we want to highlight as an institution? Commemorative acts that do not support the heritage stories should be candidates for redundancy; those that sit outside agreed boundaries should be candidates for removal; those that contribute to agreed heritage stories are candidates for continuation. Some commemorative acts might be deemed innocuous or untouchable (perhaps owing to legal commitments in a deed of gift or owing to a connection with heritage of existential importance or owing to external ownership of a facility), but classification should be transparent on these determinations.

Likely, the comparison will show significant omissions (heritage stories deemed desirable but not supported by commemorative acts) and significant excesses (an overabundance of commemorative acts supporting a few heritage stories or a few elements of many stories). It also will show relics (commemorative acts with links broken to heritage stories) and antiques (commemorative actives link to heritage stories no longer desired or desirable).

Analysis creates the evidence base to guide action on future decisions about commemorative acts, and this has a cascading effect on the strategy fro renaming. It also is the evidence base for balancing competing priorities.

The next step is executive decision-making, using this needs analysis to create a specification for change. This will identify the desired endpoint in the current iteration of review. Which elements and boundaries will become the priorities for the institution as it chooses the heritage stories it seeks to highlight? Which boundaries will function as key limiters? Antiquated commemorative acts can be withdrawn, replaced by acts that serve new heritage stories. Relics can be reinvigorated. A specification also might include a schedule for implementing change, attending to matters of pace, scale, sequence, and review.

Specifications become the focal point for public engagement towards identifying the heritage stories and commemorative acts that meet current institutional ambitions. Simply put, the call for engagement is a call for proposals set against the specification: here is what we need; what do you suggest?

Consultation should request nominations:

  1. new commemorative acts, citing elements in the specification that the proposal prioritises
  2. changing commemorative acts, citing elements in the specification that the proposal prioritises
  3. new linkages for relics

Specifications guide creative thinking towards nominations. They also restrict nominations by identifying priorities. Schedules are tools for expectation management as well as strategic planning.

Inevitably, nominations will exceed opportunities. Prioritisation will be required. Resist the impulse towards mere inclusion. This is a strategy for specification that acknowledges missing elements, then builds a forward plan to add solutions in series from the next opportunity, to the next, to the next.

Whilst seemingly progressive, an inclusive approach alone will fail as an executive strategy. Critical studies of disability, gender, race, and identity consistently and strongly argue that inclusion alone fails to change the power relationships, privilege, and other core normative structures at the heart of existing heritage stories and commemorative acts. Simply put, a newly proposed commemorative act may be interpreted as small consolation if it occupies a marginal position on the estate and overlooked by dominating heritage stories.

The alternative to inclusion is equity. I favour this approach. Equity asks the executive to accept the analysis of critical studies about structural asymmetries and privileges. It asks that decisions default towards an abundance of generosity for historically underrepresented or ab-normalised heritage stories in the overall distribution of commemorative practices across the institution as a whole. Historically dominant heritage stories have many opportunities for commemorative practices, both within the community and in the community’s environment. Losing some opportunities to rehearse oft-repeated stories is no occasion for crisis. Equity uses affirmative intervention, accepting the importance of equity and prioritising empowerment as an element for heritage stories.

Victoria Lidiard, Suffragette, Campaigner in Hove | ProfJoeCain

Stage 3: Plan For Strategy Change

Our choices over heritage stories change with time. The same is true for our choices over the relative priority of elements in those stories and the firmness of boundaries. The strategy for renaming needs to evolve, meaning commemorative acts supporting heritage stories should be reviewed from time to time. Does linkage still occur? Are the heritage stories still meaningful? Have other heritage stories risen in importance, or lost their relevance?

A schedule for review is essential for every executive strategy on heritage. That schedule should include a system for ad hoc review, perhaps to be launched on the occasion of a substantial petition or launched to resolve isolated cases on receipt of new information.

It also should consider how to incorporate absolute growth of the estate: new facilities, proposals for new commemorative acts, proposals to acknowledge new successes and positive change. Guidance for future new commemorative acts should prioritise specific elements of heritage stories in some agreed sequence. This accepts demand often exceeds supply with commemorative acts, and some strategy is required for managing expectation. It offers resolution for concerns about underrepresentation going forward. It shifts naming away from ad hoc opportunism and towards support of institutional ambitions.

Heritage is our use of the past for purposes in the present. Any specification created as part of a strategy for renaming must be reviewed at regular intervals because the heritage stories we choose to highlight will change. The underlying narrative elements will change, too.