“What Story Should it Tell?”-Constructing Memory 

and the 9/11 Memorial

Nisha Gangan

The act of remembering is a personal, cultural, and political undertaking. Societies and countries have historically erected monuments to remember events crucial to their collective identity as a community and nation-state. This paper examines the significance of memory and remembrance, the role of monuments and their visual art and seeks to explore the central role that monuments and memorials play in preserving and transmitting the collective memory of a society, as well as how counter-narratives and counter-memorials can challenge the dominant narrative surrounding the construction of memorials and monuments. It also explores how the construction of the memorial on the site of the World Trade Centre after the attack on the twin towers on Sept 11, 2001, brought to the fore the competing interests that play a role in the commemoration process. Memorialization was necessary for the United States to construct a narrative and meaning for 9/11, but the political dimensions that dominated the discussions leading to the process of constructing the memorial proved far more contentious than expected. The search for a symbol of collective remembering for the traumatized nation, and the debates surrounding the shape and form of its construction exemplified how contestations between conflicting narratives shaped the collective memory of the attacks in the years that followed the events of 9/11.

Keywords: Memory, Memorialization, Monuments, Memorials, Symbols, 9/11.


When human beings experience loss and trauma, they make every effort to find an outlet for it. The public act of remembering what has transpired comes in many forms. Placing flowers and candles, holding marches and vigils, and having small makeshift memorials at the site of the event are the different personal and collective responses that manifest when citizens and communities attempt individually and collectively to come to terms with a traumatic crisis. It is just as common to feel the need to attempt to forget tragic events and go on with one's life as it is to feel the need to honour the dead and reflect on violent conflicts. Memorialization efforts are carried out by communities all over the globe in order to perpetuate the historical memory of traumatic experiences. However, remembering is not just a state of mind alone. It is a personal, political and cultural act. And this is true of individuals as well as nations.

Memory and the act of remembering have long captivated cultural studies scholars and the general public alike. Numerous studies have examined how individuals and societies remember historical events. The Holocaust itself has been the subject of several historical films, documentaries, and dialogues during the last century. However, in his introductory remarks to “Memory and Remembrance: A Constructivist Approach”, Siegfried Schmidt notes that ‘‘the broad academic interest in these topics suffers from a remarkable lack of a theoretical foundation’’. He observes that critical words such as “memory”, “remembering”, “culture”, and “media” are vague, and the theoretical methodologies in critical areas such as emotions and media are often contradictory, inconsistent, and insufficient.

The terms “memorial”, “monument”, and “commemoration” are sometimes used interchangeably without a clear differentiation or border. All three are manifestations of recall and the preservation of memory that might belong to a person, a community, or a country as a collective memory. Despite their interdependence, it is essential to distinguish between these words. And in his Introduction to ‘Memorials and Monuments’, M. Kerby tries to make this distinction: 

Commemoration refers to the process whereby individual memories are constructed and repackaged for public consumption. This could take many forms, including an Anzac Day service, an Armistice Day ceremony, or a religious gathering. By watching and participating in a commemorative event, the individual expresses their loyalty to shared views of the past and acknowledges their importance to the present. Memorial is a broad term that can encompass any effort at commemorating an event or person, particularly when it is associated with loss. It can be a statue, but might just as easily be a community hall, a town’s swimming pool, a book, a scroll, a road or a bridge. Monument is usually used in more narrow terms to describe a built structure which commemorates – though not always celebrates – an event or person.

Visual Art in Memorials and Monuments

A number of defining characteristics have traditionally been associated with memorials and monuments, particularly those that have been built to memorialise wartime events. These characteristics and symbols would have represented events, feelings, and thoughts, and they would have been understood by individuals living in the period in which they appeared (McKay).

According to  Bellentani and Panico “the visual and political dimensions of memorials and monuments always function together and influence each other through continuous mediations” (36). They created the following list of categories in order to analyse the characteristics of monuments:

Dimensions: large/small, wide/narrow, tall/short
Location: degree of elevation, distance/proximity, angle of interaction
Materials of construction: solidity/hollowness, texture of the surface
Topological organisation: form, shape
Eidetic organisation: regularity/irregularity, curvature
Chromatic organisation: colours, brightness/opacity, lighting. 

Functions of Monuments 

It is the larger community that is ultimately responsible for determining how monuments will evolve through time and what they will represent. Belletani and Panico categorise monuments as having four types of functions that are connected to one another:

1) the cognitive function refers to the kind of human knowledge monuments embody as well as the knowledge users have about the representations of monuments; 2) the axiological function considers whether users value this knowledge positively or negatively; 3) the emotional function investigates which emotions and feelings monuments elicit, and 4) the pragmatic function concerns the practices of users within the space of monuments. All these functions are only analytical: in practice, they are interdependent and act simultaneously in defining the meanings of monuments.

The designs of memorials and monuments have evolved throughout time, but regardless of the style, memorials and monuments must have a visual component and an emotional connection with the spectator. A memorial or monument should constantly evoke feelings and sensations. The ability of these concrete lifeless structures to engage the viewer in a process that is simultaneously intellectually engaging and emotionally moving is critical to their “long-term relevance and future potential” (Sci, 43).

Every period, as Sigfried Giedion, observes in his work, “The Need for a New Monumentality”, “ has the impulse to create symbols in the form of monuments, which, according to the Latin meaning are ‘things that remind’, things to be transmitted to later generations’’(51). Monuments as memorials have both a public and a private role. Beyond the process of dealing with personal loss and bereavement and making peace with a difficult past, it also serves as a repository of collective memories and community remembrance. Wagner-Pacifini and Schwartz note that ‘‘Memorial devices are not self-created; they are conceived and built by those who wish to bring to consciousness the events and people that others are inclined to forget” (394).

Tradition has dictated that war memorials and monuments be erected in honour of heroes and the ideologies that nation states hold dear, with the creation of such structures serving only to promote a highly limited and dominant historical viewpoint. “Memorials and monuments are political constructions, recalling and representing histories selectively, drawing popular attention to specific events and people and obliterating or obscuring others” (Hay et al., 204).

Therefore, it is essential to understand that the interpretation of events that these monuments and memorials portray is mostly only the officially accepted perspective of history, as well as the values of the society and the community that erected them initially and those that continue to perpetuate the existence of both this emotion and the concrete memorial structure as such. As “Public commemorative acts – which include the construction of memorials and monuments and the rituals conducted at them – draw at least some of their significance and their ongoing resonance from contemporary narratives and agendas” ( Kidd &Murdoch). The challenge is to guarantee that the depiction of history represents the egalitarian and democratic principles of today's society and is tied to and representative of our evolving beliefs related to race, gender, and core human values.

Memorials and monuments are not static structures but dynamic storehouses of the history and values of a nation. Consequently, there are several memorials and monuments around the world that are increasingly regarded as problematic and as a result no longer considered suitable because they honour events, ideas or values that are no longer relevant. These structures commemorate past events that are now considered deeply divisive and offensive to the new values that the nations are embracing. It is possible that the commonly held meanings of monuments may suddenly come into question when a culture goes through a period of transformation because “the original meaning is not really written in stone at all. Instead, it might be remembered completely differently later on or become the unexpected site of controversy” (Kattago , 185).

Memory is not fixed, but is based on “questions of identity, of nationalism and authority,” (Said,176) and when it is the case of a "received" memory it is reinterpreted as it is passed down from one generation to the next. So the meaning of memorials may often evolve over the course of time and is highly dependent on the life experiences of the person looking at the monument. At the same time, someone on the opposing side of the dispute could see a memorial that assists a victim in regaining their psychological equilibrium as a provocation. As Lisa Benton-Short explains in “Politics, Public Space, and Memorials: The Brawl on the Mall”:

Memorials and other forms of heritage are created in a social/political context where culture, location, class, power, religion, gender, and even sexual orientation will influence what is considered to be worthy of preserving as heritage. Because heritage, national identity, and memory are socially constructed, they are also inherently contested (300).

Counter Memorials, Counter-Monuments and Anti -Memorials

Conventional war memorials and monuments have often been called "nation-building”, “discriminatory” and “sexist” in addition to “militaristic” (Strakosch,270). There have been several ‘counter memorials’ or ‘counter monuments’ (Young) or ‘anti memorials’ to honour and provide visibility to those events and groups that have always been outside the margins and therefore never considered worthy of occupying a place among the pantheon of the officially recognised and celebrated. One of the main goals of a counter-memorial or monument is to challenge the prevailing historical narratives, provide an opportunity for individuals whose experiences have been silenced, and raise public knowledge and the profile and understanding of the historical event that is now being honoured. 

The past decades have seen a proliferation of counter-memorials in many parts of the world. A unique example of a counter monument is the structure called the ‘Monument against Fascism’ that was constructed in the German city of Hamburg. The architectural style of this memorial was unlike the traditional monuments and commemorations of World War II. This monument against fascism was designed to fade away over time and encourage spectators to research the history on their own rather than being taught what to feel. Designed and developed by Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz as a part of a social experiment, this structure was constructed as a disappearing monument. The monument ‘stood’ as a structure from 1986 to the year 1993 when it finally sunk to the ground. Similarly, installed across Europe are Stolpersteine or “stumbling stones”. These stones are part of a project that includes installations around Europe to remember and memorialise the victims of the Holocaust. They are counter-monuments because they blend in with the landscape and require spectators to engage with them as they are literal stones in walkways. Rather than being monumental structures, these stones become a part of the landscape and therefore of daily life, as they should be because of the memories they want to honour.

As a result of this, counter monuments make the observer face their own history head-on, forcing them to add their own meaning to the monument and thereby confront their own past. This stands in stark contrast to conventional monuments, which may be overlooked during a visit or even avoided entirely. The goal of counter monuments is to challenge this indifference and create a lasting effect on the observer. Counter Monuments are a novel perspective of history in that they require the observer to think independently and consider why a monument or memorial is located in a certain location. Instead of constructing a story for the observer, the counter-monument allows for individual interpretations and effects, which may alter how people perceive the past. It is for this reason that society and nations must constantly re-evaluate the relevance of their memorials and monuments, a process that will definitely result in their removal or relocation if it fails to have any more continuing relevance to the community. 

Counter-monuments also serve as an alternative to tearing down existing monuments that are perceived as offensive today. For example, it was decided to preserve an existing monument that glorifies war built by the Nazis in 1936 in Hamburg, Germany, and at the same time build an anti-war memorial right next to it. There are other counter monuments that lend visibility and recognition to the unknown or almost forgotten victims of history.  The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial Museum built to honour gay men and lesbians who have been arrested by the Nazis during the Second World War and persecuted and murdered for their sexual orientation is one such example. This memorial appropriately stands next to the Sydney Jewish Museum which like countless similar museums commemorates the genocide of Jews during the same period. 

The Political Dimension and Constructing the 9/11 Memorial

On the morning of September 11, 2001, the world watched in horror and disbelief as two hijacked airplanes one after the other struck the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center bringing down one of the most iconic structures of New York and the United States. As America and the world watched the grim events unfold on television, the biggest attack on US soil turned into a twenty-first-century “media event” (Dayan & Katz). The WTC was not just a sixteen-acre commercial complex in lower Manhattan with a large plaza and an underground shopping mall, but it was more of a cultural symbol of the economic might of the most powerful nation in the world. The Twin Towers were the tallest buildings in New York City and for many years after its completion in 1973, they were also the largest buildings in the world. With ten million square feet of office space and with each floor the size of an acre, it accommodated about thirty-five thousand people and four hundred and thirty companies. Their dramatic destruction shaped the politics, culture, and self-perception of the United States in the decades that followed 9/11.

As the initial shock, grief, and personal remembrance of the tragedy began to fade, it was time for state officials to respond to the communal need and choose a design for a memorial structure to honour all those who lost their lives in the tragedy. Architects and designers had it as their challenge to not just create a befitting memorial but also to respond to diverse stakeholders and emotions. The meaning and memory of 9/11 had competing claims to it. The challenge was to reconcile demands from those who wanted it to be purely an empty space symbolising remembrance, to those who wanted the structure to be altogether rebuilt to exactly as it was before as a symbol of the most appropriate response to terrorism.

“The story of 9/11 is in part a story of architecture—after all the Twin Towers were targeted for their profile in the skyline more than for the companies within them” (Sturken). The debates on the design of the memorial were contentious. State and municipal authorities were tasked with balancing two roles, both of which were equally important but diametrically opposed to the other. On the one hand, the authorities in New York were given the responsibility of establishing a national monument that would remember the lives that were lost and memorialise the collective memory of 9/11. However, since the attacks had also destroyed the most important commercial centre in New York, the city leaders, therefore, wanted to replace the demolished World Trade Center with a new commercial center that could meet the requirements of the city's many commercial enterprises. These requirements were made more difficult by the presence of a number of public interest organisations, all of whom had a vested interest in the site as well as the memorial procedure. Each and every one of these organisations was supposed to take into consideration the opinions of the numerous different groups comprising survivors, relatives of victims, champions for first responders and those that represented the interests of the business community. “Public needs, both commercial and political, conflicted with the complex cultural and private emotional needs to memorialize the attack” ( Harrison).

Once the World Trade Center was cleared of the debris, officials used the blueprints of the structures of already existing memorials like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in their process of commemorating 9/11. Designed by Maya Lin, the memorial- Vietnam Veterans Memorial, however, was deeply contested by conflicting interests during the time of its construction. Not surprisingly, the route that led to the creation of the monument for the World Trade Center followed a very similar journey.

At a meeting convened at the town hall on July 20, 2002, called “Listening to the City”, around four thousand people attended to deliberate and review six designs shortlisted by Beyer Blinder Belle for the construction of the 9/11 memorial. This meeting had a wide variety of citizens in attendance -from family members of the victims to architects and ordinary citizens to city planners. However, all entries were rejected.

During the debates on plans for the construction of the 9/11 memorial, two main perspectives emerged. Family and relatives of the victims advocated that the whole sixteen-acre Ground Zero site should be left vacant. To them, it was a sacred burial ground, the final resting place of their loved ones. All through the selection process, family members of the victims were in support of having “ a memorial that would not only take into account the need to appropriately commemorate both the devastation and heroism of September 11 but would also reflect their personal needs for memorialization” (2011). It was the necessity for a memorial that would fulfil their deep need for a space to commemorate their personal memory versus the need for a symbol that would address aspects of the process of collective remembering and cultural memory.

This viewpoint was diametrically opposed to those who advocated leaving Ground Zero vacant. What should be built where the twin towers once stood? Renowned architects and artists were not able to agree on the nature of the memorial.  James Turrell, the American sculptor felt that “we should rebuild… People want a memorial now because they're feeling emotional, but emotion passes, all emotion passes, and then the memorial has no meaning. The new buildings should be higher than the old ones…We should not feel bad about building on top of the ashes. All cultures are built on top of earlier cultures” (Solomon). However, according to Robert A. M. Stern, then Dean of the Yale School of Architecture building tall structures was a symbol of American confidence. “It is important to build. The skyscraper is one of the great American creations and is probably the greatest American contribution to architecture as a whole” (Solomon).

But not everyone was so enthusiastic about reconstruction and felt that the void created by the absent towers will have its own eloquence. For Sculptor and creator Joel Shapiro “leaving the space empty would be the most effective remembrance... We don't need a monument. You see a monument and you don't think of anything” (Solomon)  and Artist Shirin Neshat echoed similar sentiments- “It would be absolutely cruel to build a building on the site. In order to remember the loss of lives, you need a certain amount of emptiness. If you build, it’s like you’re covering up the tragedy and will forget it” (Solomon).

After the rejection of the original round of designs, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) decided to have an “Innovative Design Study” that would come up with a novel master plan to have a framework in order to address the issues related to the memorial plans. On February 4, 2003, two designs were shortlisted from around eight submissions. One was by Daniel Libeskind and named “Memory Foundations”. Its "Freedom Tower" was designed to stand at a height of one thousand seven hundred and seventy-six feet and was unmistakably intended to demonstrate the United States’ resiliency and capacity to recover after the 9/11 attacks. The second was a design by the THINK team and was inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The project intended to transform the World Trade Center into the “World Cultural Center”. Even though these designs had features essential to meet the monument's commemorative purpose, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation was determined that a recognised, official memorial was required.

Subsequently, the committee received thirteen thousand eight hundred registrations from and outside the United States from which the final selection was done. The work that was finally chosen was the one designed and submitted by Israeli American architect Michael Arad and landscape architect  Peter Walker and named ‘Reflecting Absence’. It was this design that was inaugurated on the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2011. Situated on the old World Trade Center's western side, where the Twin Towers previously stood, the Memorial Plaza has two massive reflecting pools where the towers formerly stood featuring thirty-foot waterfalls one of the biggest man-made ones. The water cascades into pools of reflection before vanishing into the central holes. The names of those murdered in the 9/11 attacks in New York, at the Pentagon, and on Flight 93, and also the names of the victims of the 1993 bomb attack on the World Trade Center, are carved in bronze around the perimeters of the pools. Cobblestones and more than four hundred swamp white oak trees edge the plaza, separating it from the sights and noises of the surrounding city to provide an area for introspection. 

The memorial grounds were designed in a way that ensured that it “will not be isolated from the rest of the city; they will be a living part of it” ( Harrison ). A later addition to the memorial complex was the 9/11 Memorial Museum, which opened on May 21, 2014, under the Memorial plaza. It displays artifacts from the World Trade Center 9/11 attacks, interactive exhibitions, quiet places, and events that tell the personal and community stories of survivors, first responders, rescuers, and witnesses. 

Controversy broke out immediately over the naming of the victims. The initial plans that called for having the names of 9/11 fatalities on the walls of the pools in a random sequence were vehemently opposed by those who believed that first responders were more deserving of this honor. To some, the memorial’s underground orientation was tantamount to insulting the memory of the dead. The fiercest opposition, however, was to the decision of the LMDC to construct museums at the memorial site, like the controversial International Freedom Center. Those opposing also insisted that the whole sixteen-acre site should be completely dedicated to the memory of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and that it was inappropriate and therefore unacceptable to have any cultural monuments or any structures relating to the economic reconstruction plans for the site. 

These controversies created intense public fury. Family members of the victims, convinced that their personal loss gave them the moral authority to have a decisive say in how the 9/11 memorial would finally shape up, came together under the alliance of the “Take Back the Memorial” movement.  In a petition made to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the then-Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, the group made its stand clear:

We, the undersigned, believe that the World Trade Center Memorial should stand as   a solemn remembrance of those who died on September 11th, 2001, and not as a journey of history’s ‘failures’ or as a debate about domestic and foreign policy in the post-9/11 world. Political discussions have no place at the World Trade Center September 11th Memorial (Doss). 

In response, all proposed plans for the construction of any museums and also The International Freedom Center for the site were quickly shelved, and it was decided that there would only be a dedicated 9/11 Museum that will be constructed on the site where the World Trade Center buildings once stood. Some critics, like as Edward Rothstein, believed that conversations around the monument had become too “preoccupied with the private, not the public” (Doss). To him, the vast majority of people slain in the assaults did not deserve public attention beyond sympathy for being the victims of the worst attack on American territory since the Pearl Harbor attacks. 

The next controversy again erupted in 2010 about ‘Park51’ in relation to proposals for the construction of a Muslim American Community Center. These plans for having the Islamic prayer centre in Lower Manhattan caused massive outrage over the fact that Park51’s location was only a few blocks away from where the World Trade Center formerly stood. There were violent demonstrations and to the American political right, such plans were regarded as a triumph for what they perceived as religious radicalism. 

The task of memorialization and creating memorials in modern society is a difficult one. A formal memorial is still regarded as necessary for the crucial task of commemoration. A living memorial needs to be passed down to the next generation. However, reconciling the conflicting demands for individual spaces for mourning and remembrance and the requirements of collective spaces catering to diverse expectations from different interests and opinions of what a national monument of commemoration should symbolise. The 9/11 memorial thus has to balance the need to commemorate 9/11 in America’s national history all the while recognizing that each individual will have different relationships and different responses to this tragedy. The challenge is to create a memorial that is a blend of a national and a private memorial. It is in recognition of this desire that Arad and Walker decided to have the names of all the victims of the September 11 tragedy engraved on their memorial. 

The entire controversy surrounding the erection of the monument to 9/11 victims raises some interesting questions - Is there a hierarchy in remembrance? And in this particular tragedy, do the victims or the heroic first responders come first? And who should have the final authority on the decisions about the design and construction of a memorial?  Is it the survivors or families of victims who have the moral authority? Or is it best to leave it to architects, designers, local authorities, or politicians and administrators? 

The extremely emotive nature of the arguments over the erection of the 9/11 monument at Ground Zero thus shows how issues about aspects relating to a nation’s collective memory and national identity are in modern times shaped through the prism of intense public emotion and conflicting interests. The combination of a memorial that is both public as well as private might impede the formation of a unified social remembrance of the attacks. But, in successfully addressing this sometimes-conflicting challenge and at times irreconcilable differences, one can present through a memorial a larger narrative of shared history for individuals and at the same time be a part of a nation’s history and collective memory. 

“Memorialization is a process that satisfies the desire to honour those who suffered or died during conflicts and as a means to examine the past and address contemporary issues. It can either promote social recovery after a violent conflict ends or crystallize a sense of victimization, injustice, discrimination, and the desire for revenge” (Barsalou). The post-9/11 period in the United States started with a great deal of national unity and the construction of memorials throughout the country in honour of the victims of the September 11 tragedy, but the national attention has now shifted to race relations with major protests against police brutality and debates about whether to remove historical monuments commemorating “racist historical figures” such as the Confederate monuments in the southern United States. As Sturken argues “memory is both the battleground and the site for negotiations of national identity because it is a field through which the past is experienced in the present”.


Civilizations have engaged in the practice of creating memories. The act of remembering has always enthralled people and communities with hurriedly created locations to honour victims and astonishingly intricate buildings that have endured the test of time. Academic research on remembrance and the act of memorialization lacked a theoretical framework, but the visual features of creating monuments have followed certain distinctive characteristics pertaining to the location, proportions, materials utilised, colours, and lighting used. To properly express the structure's intended meaning and message, monuments must fascinate and captivate their audience. Historically, memorials and monuments were connected with battle and heroes - both fallen and surviving ones. It was a communal observance of the prevailing story by the nations and groups concerned.

In response to the changing opinions regarding the principles symbolised by the ancient monuments, however, there has been a trend throughout the years in favour of counter monuments or anti-memorials. As society transcends established stereotypes, history is reconsidered and prevailing narratives are questioned. The design of the monuments was drastically altered to match the memories they were intended to represent and align them to the changing values. Anti-memorials and counter-memorials bring to light the testimony of individuals whose tales were never acknowledged by the mainstream, whether it was the local community or the country as a whole.

The disputes surrounding the building of the monument to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks are illustrative of the processes involved in the creation of most contemporary memorials. To conclude, the process of memorialization involves significant contributions from members of the broader community. The competing claims of diverse interests, as well as the discussion on which of the victims had the first right over the memorial design and many elements linked to the structure of the monument including the use of space, construction of gardens, and the symbolism of the design, bring to the forefront the challenges that are faced by administrators, city planners, architects, and decision-makers as the process of selecting the appropriate design get underway. The challenge, as this paper tries to bring out, is in negotiating and balancing the individual demand for a private memorial place with the nation's need for a monument that represents the collective emotions of the nation – a process demonstrated throughout the conversations relating to the construction of the 9/11 memorial.


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Nisha Gangan
Assistant Professor
Department of English 
SV’s Sridora Caculo College of 
Commerce and Management Studies
Khorlim, Mapusa, Goa
Pin: 403507
email: nisha.gangan@gmail.com
Ph: +91 9765196981