Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Uneven Landscape of California's Historical Landmarks

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Uneven Landscape of California's Historical Landmarks

Article excerpt


The term "California" evokes varied images in the minds of its citizens, and also visitors to the Golden State. These may be influenced by the early exploration of the area by the Spanish and others, the Catholic missions that developed thereafter, or the subsequent Mexican administration and later loss of control of the area. Or, they may be due to the influx of forty-niners who comprised the Gold Rush population explosion leading to statehood and the rise of cities such as San Francisco and Sacramento. Others may marvel at the agricultural heritage that has transformed areas like the Central Valley into some of the most productive regions on earth. Then again, the moviegoer might be more inclined to envision the state as one large cinematic stage set. These images are important components of the social memory associated with California. They indicate what kind of place California is, who lives there, what they value, and how these memories vary. Historical markers are one way that collective memory has been embedded in the landscape. This is an evolving landscape that changes temporally, conceptually, and spatially. In this paper we analyze California's historical landmarks by geographical distribution, evolving thematic typology, and change in the designation process. This will underscore the central role that monuments and markers have in creating and directing memory in the public consciousness.


Historical markers are a ubiquitous element of the United States cultural landscape. These markers identify the location of the country's heritage sites and generally offer a brief explanation of their significance. Distributed along the country's roadways, attached to buildings, and scattered throughout villages, towns, and cities, historical markers memorialize famous individuals, commemorate important historical events, mark the locations of technological achievements, and note buildings of historic and architectural significance. As part of the cultural landscape, memorials/monuments, historical markers, statuary, and other types of heritage sites are symbolic, referential, and possess meaning. Geographers and other social scientists use memorials and monuments as a type of cultural landscape database from which to glean information on what is remembered about the past, how the past is portrayed, who controls the designation process, and what it tells us about society (Alderman and Dwyer 2009). Richard Schein describes the cultural landscape as discourse materialized, indicating that it is an important repository of information about residents of a given area (1997). This implies that heritage sites are frequently our unwitting autobiographies--bestowing insight about society upon close examination--and composed of multiple meanings (Dwyer and Alderman 2008).

Historical markers are important tools used to display heritage. Heritage has been defined as the use of the past for present/contemporary purposes (Graham and others 2000). This implies that heritage is more than a recollection of past events. It is a social construct and as such it varies by groups, time, and space. Heritage is also contested, meaning that historical events are remembered in different ways for different reasons, and can also change over time (see Mazur-Stommen 2004 for a California example). This is due to the fact that there are multiple stakeholders in any society, each having their own agenda and purposes for their actions.

One function associated with heritage is the creation and maintenance of collective memory. Research in this area can be traced back to the seminal work of Maurice Halbwachs, who described the nature of collective memory as the body of beliefs and ideas about the past that helps a group make sense of its past and future (Halbwachs 1980, 1992; Bodnar 1992; Hoelscher 1998b; Hanna and others 2004; DeLyser 2005). The concept of collective memory is important in heritage studies because it is often the memories of a common past that help bind a group of people together, create meaning, provide a sense of belonging and group identity, and are potent political tools for influencing society (Hoelscher and Alderman 2004). …

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