On Memorialization in America

Posted on: March 26th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya 2 Comments

They can be found in urban spaces, in rural places, spread across battlefields, and in neighborhood parks. Sometimes they're found in nature, and sometimes on roadsides, memorializing and recognizing the past.

But what makes a memorial tick? Some memorials are familiar, hewn of stone with great marble columns astride stunning life-like figures. Others are abstract, representational, evoking a feeling for a moment in time and space.

A statue of Abraham Lincoln in New York's Union Square. (Photo: 14eleven on Flickr)

Last week the commission in charge of a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower adjacent the National Mall came together to look at the latest design by architect Frank Gehry. Washington Post cultural critic Philip Kennicott describes some of the opposition to the current design, and asked some important questions about memorialization in America.

Paramount is his question: When is it too soon to memorialize someone? Can we really produce a testament to a 'great man or woman' without perspective? And who gets to make that decision?

The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. (Photo: Christopher Chan on Flickr)

As I read the article I found myself reliving my high school history classes where we often traveled to monuments to ask: Are all monuments and memorials created equal? Is meaning inherent in the topic being memorialized, or created by a complex set of factors determined by how we see the past? 

Conceptually at least, memorials are preservation in a nutshell. They are structures imbued with meaning - either to the individual or event it stands for, and by those who created it. But unlike our typically passive interaction with old and historic buildings, we specifically visit memorials looking for the story, trying to eke out the symbology for a piece of the past long gone.

A roadside "ghost bike" memorial in Chicago. (Photo: Dottie B. on Flickr)

I know that it's important that the commemoration is honest in the honoring, but at what point does design matter? When I visited the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial last year I was cognizant of the controversy surrounding the structure and quotations. But that didn't stop me from thinking about the role he played in the civil rights movement, while also admiring his placement on the Tidal Basin across from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

And what happens when meaning fades away? As time passes and we have new events to recognize, new leaders to honor, new citizens who change the world, is it then that the design becomes a part of the landscape, a place where we wonder who are we remembering?

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. (Photo: ehpien on Flickr)

For my part, I love it all: the conversations that go into the design, the attempts to see monuments and memorials as canvases and works of art, the concerted creation of meaning, and the history and individuals we recognize. These are all ways for us to express that the past has meaning, and that we want to remember it, whether in objects, in brick, in stone, or in bronze forevermore.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

General, Reflections

2 Responses

  1. Rich Bradway

    March 26, 2012

    Some of the greatest memorials were created by Daniel Chester French, whose summer home and residence are a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. There you can see some of the challenges (and inspirations) he faced in creating some of America’s most memorable memorials.

  2. W. White

    March 27, 2012

    I wholeheartedly agree with the National Civic Art Society. America’s memorials and monuments are some of the most powerful architectural testaments placed upon the land and, unfortunately, have been joined by some very high profile and obtrusive additions recently. We should all attempt to emulate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but that cold-eyed, cross-armed man half encapsulated in a stone slab has very little to do with the real Dr. King, who would have stood in Washington, D. C. with open arms welcoming all to stand beside him.

    A memorial does not need to be the size of our great national memorials to be powerful. One of my favorite memorials was located in Franklin County, Alabama. At the intersection of two quiet county roads stood a proud marble obelisk, human scaled and relatable at about ten feet in height. The obelisk was placed there in memory of a young Navy seaman who was killed in World War II. The young man’s friends and family memorialized his sacrifice for his country by honoring him not in far off cities or battlefields but among the rolling farm fields he left to fight for Freedom and Democracy. The obelisk was a powerful sight, a simple white shaft among green fields and mighty oaks. I have not visited that memorial in several years, nor can I again as the area was decimated by the 2011 tornadoes. Many memorials should strive to achieve the quiet, powerful dignity that Franklin County memorial achieved.