|Public Memorials in American Life|
What does America’s passion for public memorials tell us about the nation and its people, and what meaning and purpose do memorials have in American life? These and other questions have no simple answer, as there has been insufficient scholarly research into the nature and significance of public memorials. To help answer these questions, this study attempts to identify important physical, political, social, and cultural elements that appear to be common to memorials and to develop a conceptual model of the purpose and meaning of public memorials.
By Mona Doreen Greenberg and Robert P. Watson
2nd March 2011
Simply stated, Americans love their memorials. Public memorials and monuments attract millions of visitors each year and, in town squares throughout the country, it is common to find memorials honoring fallen soldiers, the town’s founder, or a significant event in the community’s history. The National Mall in Washington, D.C., has become defined by the numerous memorials that line the broad pedestrian boulevard and, for a people thought to be ahistorical, Americans have enshrined sites such as the Lincoln Memorial, Mount Rushmore, and the Alamo as part of the national creed.
What do we know about public memorials in terms of what they tell us about the nation and its people? To answer this question, first it is necessary to attempt to understand the purpose and meaning of public memorials in America. While numerous studies have been conducted on individual memorials, and a few on specific elements of those memorials (architectural design, visitors, etc.), insufficient attention has been paid to the larger questions surrounding the meaning of memorials, commonalities among memorials, and their place in American society. There are, after all, many memorials with great variation among them. Memorials serve an apparent array of functions such as preserving history, remembering, the grieving process, educating visitors, and so on. In this paper, a conceptual model of public memorials is developed in an attempt to both better understand the purpose and meaning of memorials and assess their significance in American life.
Memorials in America date nearly to the founding of the nation. Throughout American history, memorials have been established in honor of great American political leaders and events. Indeed, most Americans are familiar with the Jefferson Memorial, Vietnam Wall, and other tributes in the nation’s capital and numerous memorials throughout the country. America’s passion for public memorials seems to have begun in 1783 when Congress proposed the development of a memorial in recognition of George Washington. Although no memorial was funded or built as a result of the initial gesture, both interest in and support for such a project grew and culminated on July 4, 1848, with the laying of the cornerstone for the Washington Monument. The dedication of the completed work finally occurred in 1885.
Perhaps the first significant American memorial to be constructed was completed in 1825. It honored those lost during the defense of the city of Baltimore from British attack in September of 1814 during the War of 1812. Other early memorials began to appear on the American landscape also honoring battles and soldiers, including one in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Completed in 1843, it was dedicated to the American casualties of the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War.
A turning point in the history of memorials was the Civil War. Prior to the 1860s, the military typically interred soldiers lost in battle in cemetery plots either at the fort where the soldier was stationed or in a simple grave where he died. However, during the Civil War, and by an act of Congress in 1861, the War Department began recording burials and ordered military commanders to designate sites at the battlefields for burying those lost in battle. (1) Congress also began acquiring land for the development of national cemeteries in 1862 both in the vicinity of the actual battles and at sites such as Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.
From that time onward, family members, veterans, the press, and the general public have expressed an interest in memorializing the dead, battlefields, and the causes of conflict. As one scholar has noted of such memorials, “as landscapes of memory they serve as a reminder that war memorials, and war memorializing, can take many forms, both sacred and secular, public and private, political and personal.” (2) The Civil War promoted the act of memorializing the dead and heroes by public monuments to the point where it has arguably become an American custom. (3) More than simply a memorial for the dead, however, this custom appears to serve numerous purposes in American society. For instance, President Abraham Lincoln viewed these monuments and battlefields as not only memorials for the dead but also reminders for the living and tributes for veterans of war. (4)
Gettysburg National Cemetery was probably the most impressive and widely regarded example of the new memorials. The standard was established when the State of Pennsylvania chartered the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association in 1864 and, by 1890, over 300 memorials and monuments to the deadly and decisive battle of July 1863 were established on and around the site. In the years after the Civil War, many communities and organizations across the nation began building memorials in town squares, at the site of battles, and at the birthplaces of heroes. Likewise, communities, states, and foundations established trusts and boards to begin formalizing the process of erecting memorials.
Another crucial moment in the history of public memorials in America was the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, more commonly known as the Vietnam Wall, in 1982. The project, like the war itself, was controversial and has become one of the most visited and one of the most popular and recognizable memorials in the country. As one study of the memorial concluded, “More than any U.S. war since the Civil War, Vietnam divided America and made us reevaluate our society.” (5) The Vietnam Memorial represents a new kind of memorial and possibly a new role for memorials: To reflect on controversial and difficult historical events and possibly heal deep scars in American society. In this capacity, the Vietnam Wall has become an integral part of and physical centerpiece for America’s debate on that war.
Both the trend for establishing memorials to momentous and tragic events as well as the nation’s passion for memorials continues. In recent times, three of the most noteworthy memorials have been in honor of those lost not in conventional wars but to acts of terror. Thus, the memorials reflect the changing focus of American national security and identify: The Oklahoma City bombing, the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York City, and the campus shootings at Virginia Tech. The act of erecting public tributes has clearly not been limited to the political realm and warfare. It appears to be a distinctly American notion that memorials have grown to cover the full range of triumph and tragedy in the American experience, including natural disasters, scientific discovery, heroic deeds, historic firsts, and the loss of life.
Little research has been done on the purpose and meaning of public memorials in the United States. (6) Perhaps one of the reasons is the wide array of types of memorials and their diversity in terms of the size, cost, number of visitors, architectural design, and location around the country. Not surprisingly, one also discovers that there are numerous definitions used by scholars and the memorial foundations themselves for what constitutes a public memorial. For example, the American Battle Monuments Commission described their effort as “to honor those who died in service to our nation, not for the sake of nostalgia, but out of respect for their unselfish contribution to the heritage we enjoy.” (7) This mission has various practical results. The Galveston Hurricane Memorial is narrowly focused on preserving the memory of that deadly disaster in 1900, while the Wounded Knee Memorial Museum endeavors to clearly tell the story of Native Americans, both through the battle and in a larger sense in American history.
It says something about the role of memorials in American life that most definitions of memorials recognize their role in honoring and remembering great individuals, events, and ideas. Therefore, memorials exist at the intersection of memory and history and bond us to our past. In this regard, one scholar states quite flatly about memorials that they are one of the ways we “conserve what is worth remembering and discard the rest.” (8) They are also representations of historical places, ideals, and individuals that are valued by American culture, thereby both reflecting the culture and shaping it. (9) Definitions also imply that memorials exist for the public, and appear to be primary components of the American concept of public space. But such definitions of memorials might fail to capture the full measure of that being memorialized. Struggling to give meaning to the battle and cemetery at Gettysburg, Lincoln suggested as much: “But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract.” (10)
Studies of memorials differ greatly in their aims and methods, and there appears to be no single, best, or even agreed upon approach to the study of memorials. (11) Some scholars, for instance, have focused their energies on examining the reasons memorials are developed. (12) Others have attempted to seek an understanding of memorials by examining the artifacts visitors leave at the site. (13) The memorials themselves track the number of visitors to the site and memorial staffs often employ evaluations designed to measure visitor use and satisfaction.
What remains is the need to pull all these studies together and synthesize the findings in an attempt to understand the significance of memorials in American life and to develop a model to explain the purpose and meaning of public memorials. To accomplish these goals, a comprehensive review of the literature on memorials was undertaken in order to identify the primary elements – social, political, physical, and otherwise – of public memorials. Based on the analysis of the literature, it was possible to identify 10 elements – referred to herein as “constructs” – that appeared with some frequency in the scholarship on public memorials. In order to be included in our list of constructs, items had to be the subject of multiple studies in scholarly journals, scholarly books, or academic conference papers and deemed by the authors of the studies to be important to our understanding of memorials. The constructs identified in this list did not need to be included in every study, as some of the studies listed one construct while others listed several of the constructs; and some appeared with more frequency in the studies than others.
The term “construct” is borrowed in this study from the sociological and anthropological concept of social construction, whereby meaning is created from context and uses. Constructs are concepts that assume meaning based on foundational characteristics and interpretations. For example, memorials function to construct memory insofar as the nature of memorials is to help us remember. They might also construct our notions and practice of grieving or, through historical interpretation, the memorials might construct the meaning of warfare or the sacrifice of the fallen. The 10 constructs identified from the literature base are listed in table 1.
In order to test whether the list of constructs identified is useful to our understanding of the purpose and meaning of memorials, hypotheses were developed for each construct. These are listed in table 2.
In order to test the hypotheses, in early 2008, in-depth interviews were conducted with experts and administrators at 16 public memorials around the country. Those interviewed included memorial directors, CEOs, superintendents, and deputy superintendents, as well as curators, historians, chiefs of interpretation, senior advisors to the museum, and chiefs of staff at the site. These interviews included long and detailed telephone calls, email and mailed correspondence, follow-up contacts, and questionnaires. The memorials selected for study included three of the most recent and high-profile memorials in the United States – Oklahoma City, September 11, and Virginia Tech – and one of the nation’s most famous memorials, the Vietnam Wall. These four were selected because of their prominence and preeminence among public memorials today. The remaining dozen memorials studied were selected by us in order to reflect the broad array of American memorials, thus constituting a purposive sample. Purposive samples (sometimes referred to as judgment samples) are selected subjectively in an attempt to obtain a sample that appears to be representative of the population.
The memorials selected in this study were chosen from the population of national memorials, which includes 29 national memorials administered by the National Park Service and 93 national monuments administered or owned by the federal government. In addition to the four noteworthy memorials listed above, the other dozen reflect the broad diversity of the nation’s memorials in terms of geography, time, size, number of visitors, and focus of the memorial. For example, they cover the geographic expanse of the country from Washington, D.C., to New York City, to Hawaii. The list also includes most well known as well as less well known memorials such as the memorials to the Galveston Hurricane, Fallen Firefighters, and Wounded Knee. There are memorials for one person such as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, a small group, as in the memorial to the Space Shuttle Challenger, and large population, as is the case for the National World War II Memorial. The memorials under study span the period of time from the 19th century (1836) to the new millennium (2007), and include a wide array of types from natural disasters to veterans to war to space exploration to cultural diversity to campus violence.
We concede that there are limitations of this study owing to a small “N” and non-probability sample. However, social scientists have used purposive samples with success, especially in the case of exploratory studies attempting to propose an initial model or theory. (14) Such is the present situation. The memorials under study appear in table 3 and are listed in chronological order.
One potentially important construct is the visitors to a memorial in terms of who visits, why they visit, when they visit, and how many visit the site. Visitors help pay for memorials, leave comments and suggestions, participate in educational and interpretive programs, and, of course, take away meaning of the individual(s) and event memorialized. Roughly 1.8 million people each year visit Gettysburg Battlefield, the vast majority being white males. The Memorial is currently attempting to attract more minority and female visitors in order to more fully portray the significance of the site. (15)
Another construct is the connection of memory and meaning. Memorials construct memory and meaning by helping to “ease dying through eternal monuments.” (16) Savage describes memorials as “forever a place for collective memory.” The notion of memory and meaning impacts visitation, as “finding meaning after a loved one has disappeared also requires continued participation in family and community rituals and celebrations, finding some spiritual or optimistic interpretations, learning to tolerate uncertainty, and participating in storytelling and reminiscing.” (17) Kavanagh suggests that “social remembering” – a collective recounting of the past – through the commemoration of events is important for healing. (18) Here again, memorials may help to construct our notion and practice of healing. In a way, memorials function much as the national holiday, Memorial Day, which became a day of national remembrance in 1868. Collective remembrance helps to further define or redefine both history and the event. For example, Middleton and Edwards point out that “when people remember things together, seeking to compare and contrast different accounts, to construct and defend plausible versions or to criticize or doubt their accuracy, they articulate the grounds and criteria for what is remembered.” (19) While the physical structure remains the same, the perceptions and meaning of memorials and the event or individual they honor may change.
Because of the modern news media and advances in electronic communication, the tragedy and grief of the shootings on the campus of Virginia Tech in April of 2007 were brought almost instantaneously to much of the world. The spontaneous gathering of students, lighting of candles, writing of poems, and even the laying of a semi-circle of “Hokie stones” on campus both reflected and assisted the grieving process for students, staff, and loved ones. The array of vigils held on campus included both public and private examples of grieving, which appears to be another construct of memorials. Memorials, as noted by Winter and as suggested throughout this paper, not only commemorate but fulfill a part of the mourning and bereavement processes. (20) Likewise, a number of scholars view memorials as places for expressing grief. (21) The physical arrangements at memorials, the act of visitors leaving behind artifacts, the ability to touch objects and experience the intimacy of the site, and the listing of names of the lost at memorials are all parts of grieving, be it the private sadness of an individual or collective sadness of society over the futility of war. As such, memorials are constructed for the living in honor of loved ones lost. (22)
Most memorials offer an array of educational programs and exhibits that “interpret” the function and meaning of the site for visitors. This includes guest speakers, guided tours, exhibits, and even Junior Ranger programs for children that offer badges, patches, certifications, and an array of activities. Most memorials also have museum-like elements such as interpretive signs, handouts and brochures, docents, and more. The National Park Service, who administers many of the country’s memorials and monuments, states that interpretative services available on site exist for both the visitor’s enjoyment and an understanding of the memorial. As such, education would appear to be a construct for understanding memorials and, in turn, helps to construct meaning for visitors.
Another construct identified in the literature is artifacts. Visitors to memorials often bring and leave behind artifacts such as flowers, photographs, stuffed toys, combat boots, military awards and unit patches, flags, and personal notes. Many people find this to be therapeutic or helpful in remembering or connecting with the event or individual lost. Hass suggests that such letters and notes are ways the living have of “speaking to the dead and to the place of the dead in culture.” (23) Foss sees the objects left behind at memorials as reflections of our own lives, relationships, and views on death (24); and some suggest that the act is often spontaneous and appears to be on the increase at memorials. (25) National Park Service curators have catalogued more than one million artifacts – what is sometimes referred to as “offerings at the wall” – placed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and many memorials are recording and keeping artifacts deposited on site. (26)
One apparently important construct of memorials is to list names, something which used to be common on local or town memorials but is now seen at some national memorials. (27) The Vietnam Wall was the first national memorial to include names of all those lost in the war, which was part of the original design criteria. Names are a part of such recent memorials the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, Oklahoma City National Memorial, the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial, and the Virginia Tech Memorial. Winter writes that, “Touching war memorials, and in particular, touching the names of those who died, is an important part of the rituals of separation which surrounded them.” (28) Naming offers a sense of personalization to the memorial both for those lost and the surviving loved ones. It also interacts with other constructs identified in that naming assists with grieving, gives memory and meaning to the site, and transcends the limitations of place and time.
A variety of architectural styles and designs, from marble and bronze statues to headstones and tombs to walls and even chairs, have been incorporated in memorials. The use of water, mirrors, and other physical materials and surfaces have also helped memorials to become places of reflection. (29) Likewise, the design of memorials, which sometimes includes a space set aside for family members and mourners, serves to comfort the bereaved as well as to educate visitors. (30)
The USS Arizona National Memorial rests beneath the waters of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii while the Galveston Hurricane Memorial overlooks the sea that brought the devastating storm. Both thus incorporate space into the architectural design in a way that inextricably ties the memorial to the event it memorializes. Perhaps the most famous and controversial architecture at a memorial is the design of the stark black wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which has been criticized for its “lack of people” but also ingeniously offers a reflective surface that allows visitors to both reflect on the roll call of the 58,000 dead but also on their own image staring back at them. (31)
Life and memory in American culture have no price, but there is a cost for memorializing the dead. Individuals, foundations, corporations, and governments support memorials. Sometimes all these groups share the costs, as in the case of the Oklahoma City National Memorial which received a $5 million appropriation from the federal government, matching funds from the State of Oklahoma, and roughly $17 million raised through private donations by the memorial’s trust. The costs, which some argue are important in understanding the nature of memorials, vary, especially over time. For instance, the National Mall in Washington, DC includes memorials with price tags as low as $3 million; whereas the World War II Memorial, dedicated in 2004, cost in excess of $182 million. Cost has become an issue in the development of the National September 11 Memorial at the former site of the World Trade Center because some estimates have put the project at $1 billion.
Another construct for memorials is a sense of place and connectivity to the hallowed ground at the memorial. Most memorials share the land where the event occurred or are built at a site of importance to the individual or event. So too do architects incorporate the landscape into the design in order to achieve a sense of place. For example, the Oklahoma City National Memorial uses the “Survivor Tree” to establish a sense of protection and places chairs at the site.
The final construct identified in the literature is technology. Many memorials include “cyber-shrines” or web pages that contain facts and information, photos, or “web ranger” programs that are interactive. Here, virtual visitors can learn about the people, animals, history, or nature of the memorial through games and activities. Virtual memorials allow visitors to experience the site anytime and from any location. (32) Websites often spring up spontaneously, such as after the death of Princess Diana or the collapse of the bonfire at Texas A&M University, which allow individuals to record their thoughts, extend condolences, or grieve from a remote location yet with some connectivity to the site. Visitors to or viewers of the memorials online are often invited to leave comments on their experiences.
Experts at and directors of 16 memorials were asked during comprehensive interviews and by written questionnaires whether or not the 10 constructs were important to an understanding of the purpose and meaning of their particular memorial. They were also asked to rank the constructs in order of importance. The results of the questionnaire are listed in table 4 with each of the 16 memorial director’s scores in the rows and the constructs in the columns. The scores at the bottom of the columns reflect the rankings of the memorial directors for each construct, with the lowest totals reflecting the most important constructs.
Based on these results, it is possible to accept or reject the 10 hypotheses (one for each construct hypothesized to be important to memorials). In addition to the total scores listed in table 4, the hypotheses were tested using measures of central tendency, as listed in table 5. The authors determined that hypotheses would be rejected if the total score is in excess of 80 (the score if 5 – half the total number of constructs – is multiplied by 16, which is the total number of memorials) and the arithmetic mean is higher than 5 (which is half of 10, which is the total number of constructs).
As evident in tables 4 and 5, it is possible to accept five of the hypotheses/constructs: Memory/Meaning; Education; Sense of Place; Grieving; and Visitors. It was also possible to reject five hypotheses/constructs: Technology; Costs; Artifacts; Architecture/Design; Personalization. It was not possible to either accept or reject with any confidence the hypothesis/construct “Personalization,” as the results were near to the point used to accept them. This is also apparent in the scores for the median and mode for that hypothesis/construct. As such, it is recommended that “Personalization” be considered in future research in order to determine whether it plays a role in representing the purpose and meaning of public memorials. There was also a lot of variation in some of responses by memorial directors (reflected in the large range scores) regarding efforts to personalize the memorial experience.
In general, there is some consensus among the directors of memorials as to the purpose and meaning of memorials. There was some consistency in responses by memorial directors in that they agreed as to which of the constructs defined memorials and which certainly did not define memorials. This is apparent in the constructs with the lowest and highest scores.
The goal was to then develop a conceptual model of the functions and meaning of public memorials. The construct “Memory and Meaning” (C-2) had the lowest score (42) and the lowest mean (2.63), and therefore appears to be the most important construct in understanding memorials, followed by “Education” (C-4) with a total score of 62 and mean of 3.88, “Sense of Place” (C-9) with a similar total score of 66 and mean of 4.0, “Grieving” (C-3) with a total score of 72 and a mean of 4.50, and “Visitors” with a total score of 76 and mean of 4.75. As such, these five constructs – and possibly a sixth (“Personalization”) appear to best reflect the purpose and meaning of public memorials. Therefore, together they constitute our conceptual model of public memorials in America, a model which should help scholars better understand the purpose and meaning of memorials and how memorials reflect and influence the people and values of America.
In America, memorializing the past is quite different from the practice in much of the world, and especially in Europe. This tells us something about the American character. For instance, Americans memorialize history through the unique act of historical reconstruction, such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Old Mystic Seaport in coastal Connecticut, and Tombstone in Arizona. Whether it is New Salem, Sleepy Hollow, or Jamestown, history is brought to life and visitors truly experience that history. In America, Civil War reenactments and presidential impersonators are commonplace, consumed with great enjoyment, and are a part of the process of memorializing history. As such, American memorials are less for remembering than they are for experiencing, and through the extensive array of educational and interpretive elements, they create a sense of place and give meaning to visitors.
A visitor to the Roman Coliseum or the Athenian Acropolis, or most memorials in Europe, is far less likely to experience interactive exhibits, interpreters and re-enactors, and extensive signage. The act of memorializing in much of the world includes “do not touch” signs, whereas, in America, elements such as access and experience are defining traits of memorials. There has been a conscious and concerted effort to achieve a popular interpretation of American history. In this regard, there is a democratic nature to memorials and history in America.
The power of memorials as not just cultural reflections of American life but as interpreters of the American experience can be seen in the various education and interpretive programs at memorials. Mayo notes that war memorials do not simply remember the fighting and the lost but sometimes question the war, frame the cause of conflict, and promote peace. (33) Lowenthal suggests that memories serve not just “to preserve the past, but to adapt (them) so as to enrich and manipulate the present,” which reflects the power of memorials and the experiences of many people who visit them. (34) A good example is provided through Little Bighorn Battlefield where the preponderance of artifacts left behind by Native American visitors helped to change both the focus and name of the site. Until the late 20th century the memorial was known as Custer National Cemetery, but it has increasingly become an important cultural site for Native Americans. The memorial now honors the fallen from both sides of the conflict and serves both the past and present.
To that end, public memorials seem to have a role in maintaining and promoting what Whitehead calls “the symbolic code” of society. (35) All societies have varying degrees of reverence for their national and cultural symbols and memorials provide not just a sense of place but important ways of celebrating and enshrining the symbols of a nation. Mosse maintains that memorials reflect an expression of national pride and help to strengthen national identity. (36) This appears to be especially true in the United States. As this study demonstrates, memorials offer memory and meaning for iconic individuals and events, provide and recreate a sense of place for the individuals and events Americans most cherish, educate the citizenry about their history and culture, and serve as a gathering place for Americans to grieve, interpret, and remember.
The former Librarian of Congress and noted historian, Daniel Boorstin observed that the European experience has often been to honor the crumbling monuments of ancient castles, forts, and palaces by restoration, but only in a way that would not “cover up the masters’ sure touch with the bungling brush strokes of latter-day amateurs.” (37) As such, ruins must be left unrepaired in order to preserve their magnificence. Also, many monuments in older cultures were built from and on top of the old ruins of earlier civilizations. But, America’s monuments and memorials to the past are quite different, argues Boorstin, as Americans tend to “view the present as the climax of history.” (38) The greatness of America’s Founding and Founders, for example, is celebrated in large measure because it lives in Americans today. It is still alive.
Many monuments around the world have invited destruction. Think of the cries of “Down with the Bastille!” or the defacement of statues at Notre Dame during the French Revolution. Likewise, the destruction of some of the monuments of the Roman Catholic Church was done by dutiful protestant reformers and, some Middle East cultures and religions have desecrated or destroyed the monuments of other cultures and religions. Ideologues have burned ideologies that came before them and we have observed that the erecting of icons prepares the country for iconoclasts of the future. But, in America the monuments and relics of the past have been removed or replaced not to deny them or oppose them, but to fulfill their promise or to improve upon them. Americans preserve history as the living current of American society today. So, in America, unlike in much of the world, memorials give meaning to our present.
Public memorials exist as representations of American culture and values. They capture American history and function to preserve and shape national identity or what might be deemed the American creed.
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16. Savage (1997), 4.
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20. Winter (2995).
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28. Winter (1995), 113.
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33. Mayo (1988).
34. Lowenthal (1985), 82.
35. Whitehead (1959).
36. Mosse (1990).
37. Boorstin, D. (1987). Hidden History: Exploring Our Secret Past. New York: Vintage Books, 150.
38. Boorstin, D., 151.
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