En memoriam: Memorial design in the age of terror
Schiffmacher, Adam Charles
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Lowell, Massachusetts has erected 252 memorials to various subjects since the mid 19 th century. 65 of those 252, more than one quarter of them, were built in the last twenty years of the 20 th century. Similarly, a wave of Holocaust memorials around the same time began the establishment of the United States of America as the “preeminent nation of official Holocaust remembrance.” This was primarily realized after the 1985 political controversy where President Reagan chose to commemorate German soldiers as Holocaust victims on the 40 th anniversary of WWII in a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany. The examples above represent a larger narrative over the cultural importance of the memorial as a physical architecture of public collective memory. The representation of the commemoration of an idea, event, or person with a style that reflects the zeitgeist are the purpose of monuments and memorials in their differing incarnations, architectural design provides spaces to reflect, remember and honor the subject of commemoration. Memorials in present day are manifested in everything from online social media pages to museums built on the hallowed ground of a terrorist attack, they can range from temporary and transient to the large scale memorializing of buildings, highways and other infrastructural elements within the public or private sector. The scope of this thesis views the definition of memorials and monuments as equal, interchangeable spaces of commemoration. These spaces include architectural constructs that further a narrative of the subject of commemoration within its representation. The purpose of the design of a monument or memorial, then, is to eternalize the subject of commemoration for future generations. Anson Rabinbach states that the real problem in over commemoration of Holocaust memorials is not forgetting about the Holocaust, but the excess of Holocaust imagery present in the U.S. culture, questions the necessity and effectiveness of monuments and memorials over traditional historical text and media.3 The population of a city gathers to celebrate victories of local and national sports teams, to learn, to remember, to console in the face of grief, and to protest against policies and events with which they disagree. These architectural spaces are defined at different moments by the temporal programs that inhabit them, providing experiences that effect and shape local public memory. They are designed centers for civic engagement, symbolically representing the values of the community that built them. While the purpose of memorials is to eternalize the values, sentiments, and culture of a particular time, their meaning in the community can be reinforced or degraded as time progresses and perspectives on the subject commemorated evolve. The prominent issue with erecting a monument or memorial with the intention of eternalizing its position in the cultural zeitgeist is that they are too reliant on the physical materiality of the memorial to eternalize the subject. Materially, memorials outlast centuries of abuse and weathering, but culturally they are temporal. Our descendants, generations from now, will know of the events that took place to merit such commemoration, but it will hold less value because they did not experience the society that commemorated & valued the subject. The public praises memorials without completely understanding the context of the subject being commemorated. The meaning that defines the rhetoric of an object fades with generations; therefore the memorial must find additional ways of adding meaning to it in order to sustain cultural relevance. The rhetoric of the memorial as well weakens when its reputation is exposed to controversy when a differing perspective or opinion arises. Erika Doss states the dilemma in her historiography Memorial Mania: “Its (the modern memorial) meaning is neither inherent nor eternal but processual—dependent on a variety of social relations and subject to the volatile intangibles of the nation’s multiple publics and their fluctuating interests and feelings.” From political statues to the representation of marginalized groups, memorials have long served as a means to further a political, psychological or social need of society. In serving such psychological purpose, their appearance has become more frequently debated, the public having more access and voice in saying what should be memorialized than ever before. The National Park Service has acknowledged this by adding supplemental exhibits to established monuments & memorials to better include minority voices through the showcase of media such as videos, facsimile recreation of artifacts and exhibits that offer a more inclusive perspective of the subject commemorated. The most controversial and polarizing in the United States are memorials that commemorate war, violence and military action. War Memorials provide controversy because of the content they do not memorialize, the United States building a reputation for its military and defense spending and portraying the country as an impenetrable fortress to terrorism. The attacks on the World Trade Center towers on September 11th 2001 launched the United States into an unofficial “Age of Terror” which is classified thus far by a global war on terrorism, two major wars, extensive domestic surveillance programs and a relative forfeiture of civil liberties amongst U.S. citizens. The War on Terror, the military campaign that includes the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has impacted U.S. culture and irreparably changed the nature of war memorial design. The resulting domestic policies that allowed information to flow more freely (such as the Freedom of Information Act-which was a response to the Patriot Act) have also encouraged society to seek out information regarding the inner workings of our government, especially relating to war. This encouragement, and the rise of the Internet and social media as a tool in war reporting, ultimately circumvents the intended narrative of a U.S. commissioned physical war memorial. Thus, war commemoration must employ a different series of design decisions to adapt to shifting perspectives and new information regarding the subject of its representation. The literal forms of past memorials are not effective for contemporary war memorials; the subjective interpretation of the visitor completes the memorial experience. The military endeavors of the United States have numerous shifting perspectives on moral grounds, establishing the United States as a world power, invigorating its economy and strengthening the sense of national pride of American citizens. A country that has collectively spent over 7.9 Trillion dollars on war since it’s inception, the United States has a never-ending amount of source material to commemorate.5 The emergence of real-time media and a socially aware public with modern technology has exposed the residual effects of war, offering perspectives from civilians affected directly in the warring countries. With the populace of the U.S. in possession of unfiltered access to this information, the public realm passes judgment about the actions of the government before it can produce propaganda to justify its actions. The typical cultural response to war in the United States is to praise the servicemen and women that sacrificed their lives through the establishment of a monument or memorial. These physical representations of a war, as currently designed, tend to distill the complexity into digestible national icons intent on eternalizing a patriotic and pro-nationalistic rhetoric. This thesis will argue that this process actually does the subjects of commemoration more harm that good, and that in this complexity lies an opportunity to re-conceptualize war memorial design.