Thursday, October 11, 2012
Memorialization in Washington D.C.
I'm trying to learn how to create a narrated tour in GoogleEarth. So I've written a script, giving a little "tour" of national memorials sites along the National Mall in Washington DC. I hope I can record the script for a 'flyover' effect of this geographic sites.
As has often been noted, the core east-west axis in downtown Washington DC., proceeding west from the Washington Monument is replete with memorial symbolism. The various memorials clustered in this zone are a veritable compendium of the different modalities of public memorialization at play in American society.
The anchors of the axis are the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the John F. Kennedy gravesite overlooking Arlington Cemetery.
The Washington Monument is a resplendent Egyptian-inspired obelisk, celebrating in triumphant nationalist mode the founding national patriarch. Proceeding due west across the reflecting pool we come to the very different Lincoln Memorial, a deeply moving temple in which the sorrowful martyred figure of Lincoln broods over the nation for whose unity, in effect, he gave his life. Further west in turn, we encounter the preeminent 20th century martyred president, John F. Kennedy, memorialized through the eternal flame, presiding over the vast necropolis of Arlington National Cemetery.
Arrayed around these core sites are a range of important memorial entities, each carrying a different emotional valency. The Jefferson Memorial, like the Lincoln Memorial, is centered on a statue of the dead president, surrounded by his written words, but the two structures are entirely different in tone. If the Lincoln Memorial is in minor key, suffused with a perpetual romantic sense of loss and longing, the Jefferson epitomizes the Enlightenment ethos of rationalist optimism. Lacking the elegiac shadows of the Lincoln, the Jefferson is open on multiple sides, encased within a cupola that recalls both Monticello and the great arc of the Heavens made knowable by Science.
The most complex memorial site on the Mall lies a bit northeast of the Lincoln Memorial. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Maya Lin, flies in the face of the conventional monumental logic of the city’s other memorial edifices. In contrast to the sky-directed alabaster structures, the Vietnam Memorial sinks into the ground, created out of black granite. If the other monuments hearken back to ancient Greek city-states’ veneration of the Olympian gods of the sky, the Vietnam Memorial seems to summon up a much more ancient cult of the earth, centered on a primeval Earth mother . “The Wall” as it is known, functions as a complex mirror for its visitors, giving reflectiing back visions of themselves and of the lost; one of the most frequently taken photographs, tellingly, is of the soaring Washington Monument reflected in its granite panels, an ironic juxtaposition of the nation’s founding promise and its tragedies.
Between the Lincoln and the Jefferson, arrayed along the lovely Tidal Basin, is the beautiful memorial sculpture garden dedicated to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which functions as a memorial both to the New Deal and the nation’s triumph in the Second World War. Nearby is the considerably less successful memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., centered on a banal large sculpture of another national martyr.
Just to the east of the Tidal Basin is another complex memorial space, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It seems overdetermined that the grim east facade of the Museum, which is most evocative of the horrors of Auschwitz is not turned towards the nation’s symbolic center, the Washington Monument, but is rather less visible, oriented towards an internal city street.
Mention should be made of two mediocre memorial sites in the Mall’s environs. Between the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool stands the hyperbolic, insipid World War II memorial, a complex, many have noted that seems more fitting to Albert Speer’s Berlin than to the capital of the world’s preeminent democracy. Across the Reflecting Pool from the Vietnam Memorial is rather weak Korean War Memorial, featuring figures advancing across a lonely wind blown battlefield.
Although these are works of variable quality, the overwhelming impression of this memorial zone remains enormously powerful, constituting a poignant national pilgrimage space centered on the epic mytheme of loss and collective regeneration. At the same time, there are fascinating shadow histories hovering about the Mall, traces of deep historical struggles and contradictions that are still not fully resolved. One thinks of the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, from which, in deeply Jim Crow Washington DC, African American were shamefully kept at a distance in segregated enclosures; an in turn of Marian Anderson’s performance on the steps of the same Memorial, and of the 1963 March on Washington in the same location, site of Dr. King’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech.
One thinks as well of the bitter battles over the design and construction of the Vietnam Memorial which so dramatized the unhealed wounds of the Vietrnam War.
Not all historical problems are ‘solved’ by this complex of memorial sites, but they are at least externalized and rendered subject to debate. Here, in short, we glimpse the genius of democracy, the essence of which lies, in E.E. Schattschneider’s telling phrase, not in the suppression of struggle, but in the “Socialization of conflict.” Taken together, the national Mall’s memorial reflect back to us our own enduring struggles and conflict as a people, in voices that are both multiple and unitary.