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.