Recent limitations on access to hair stylists would not have troubled Medusa, the Greek Gorgon whose hair-do was actually a “snake-do.” Looking at Medusa was never a pleasure, but gazing in her direction could sometimes take a terrible turn.

If you looked directly into her eyes, she would turn you to stone.

In a mystifying trend that took off in the late nineteenth century, influential Americans took Medusa as their role model. All over the country, in a surge of enthusiasm for monuments and memorials, interesting people were turned into rigid and formulaic configurations of stone and metal.

Once those lifeless figures were fixed in place on pedestals, the dynamism of history had been permanently switched to the “off” position. This literal deadening of the people of the past defeated the monuments’ supposed purpose: to keep the memory of history alive. Even worse, conventional approaches to monument-making flattened history’s inherent complexity.

And so, over the decades, monuments revealed themselves to be useless and even counter-productive tools for crafting and popularizing a forthright reckoning with the past.

Every phase of the lifetime of monuments came with its own variation on failure. People creating monuments failed to consider the deeper historical context of the figures they celebrated. People who thought they were defending the monuments failed to give room for the full meaning of the individuals they thought they were championing. And people destroying monuments failed to think through what they were destroying.

We have a prime example of these failures close at hand.

On June 25, 2020, the Civil War Monument on the grounds of the Colorado state Capitol came under attack. The abrupt nosedive taken by the central figure in that monument, a Union soldier, encapsulates the reasons why the time has come to find a better way to ask citizens to remember the past.

During the Civil War, Union soldiers put a halt to the advance of Confederate troops into Colorado. And those Union soldiers also took part in brutal encounters with Arapaho and Cheyenne tribal peoples.

How is a monument to reckon with such a mixed legacy? Would it work to retain the half of the Union soldier who defeated the Confederacy, and amputate the half of the Union soldier who killed noncombatants at Sand Creek?

The one thing we know for sure is that the folks who knocked down the statue on June 25 were not inclined to pause to deliberate on that question.

When the monument was put in place in 1909, the original plaque included the “battle” of Sand Creek among the achievements of the Union Army. Fifty years earlier, in the 1860s, three formal governmental investigations had condemned the Sand Creek Massacre. In 1909, the creators of the Civil War Monument forgot, or never knew, about those commissions and their findings.

Like its counterparts nationwide, the Civil War Monument bears little relationship to the time period that it supposedly addresses. Any visitors and observers who thought they were contemplating the Civil War era were actually contemplating the values and preoccupations of the early 1900s.

Monuments and memorials with similarly problematic qualities are embedded in communities everywhere. Removing them would burden already overstretched civic budgets, while triggering endless, community-dividing disputes.

Here’s a more promising approach.

Let time, weather, and the physics of metal fatigue take over as the caretakers of the monuments.

But don’t stop there.

Unleash the amazing (and affordable!) talent pool of young folks who majored in history. Create a whole new corps of EMTs, with “EMT” reconfigured as Emergency Monument Technician. In truth, given the potential for violence in disputes over monuments, the new-style Emergency Monument Technicians will lessen the burden on the old-style Emergency Medical Technicians.

Trained to guide their fellow citizens through the process of weighing evidence and interpretation, these young people will leap into action when summoned to the sites of historical controversies. And when the controversies let up, the EMTs will shift over to conjuring up fresh and original ways to arrange structures and expressions — physical, digital, artistic, literary — that will invite historical reflection far more effectively than conventional monuments ever did.

So I dream of a future trip to the Colorado state Capitol grounds, a place of pilgrimage by people eager to see for themselves the world-famous, precedent-setting “Monument to Memorials”: a statue of Medusa, angry at the loss of her power to turn people into stone, but significantly improved in appearance by a visit to the herpetology stylist.

Patty Limerick is the faculty director and chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.

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