It is currently estimated that there are over 2,528 officially designated public monuments located in venues across the United States. These public monuments vary as greatly in scope and size as with intent as in commemorating heroes, war, buildings and events to name just a few of the reasons these monuments were built. While I cannot say that I have visited all of those sites, I can attest to the fact that I have seen a fair number of public monuments during my time on this planet. Which brings me to the point of this article. What makes a public monument memorable?
The idea behind this blog came about because of a recent business trip to Washington DC (talk about a town filled with monuments). I had a couple of free hours on my last morning there and decided to take time to revisit and walk the mall area. During the couple of hours I spent there I had the chance to revisit the Vietnam Memorial Wall, ascend the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, gaze up at the scaffolding that enfolds the Washington Memorial and admire the Jefferson Memorial as it looks out over the Potomac River. It got me thinking – why did my time at the Lincoln and Vietnam Memorials evoke a significant emotional response while other monuments didn’t? What role did the collective experience of each of the other visitors who were with me that day have in making my personal experience unique?
As a Vietnam Era Veteran I know about the Vietnam War. People I knew as a child were killed in that war. It was a war that divided this nation for generations. It was a war that left deep scars on the psyche of young and old alike. Even the building of the memorial itself involved a process filled with anger and angst. Yet, out of that angst came a memorial that touched the soul of our nation – it provided a way of embracing our loss – it affirmed the validity our grief – it allowed us an opportunity to forgive those who sacrificed a generation of unrealized promise – and it reaffirmed with those around us – the indomitable spirit that is so much a part of our American character. As I watched people reverently touch a loved ones name, place handwritten notes, flowers, teddy bears, photos, dog tags or hats, I felt included in their experience. I was a part of that moment in time.
After a while I moved on, this time ascending the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Entering the chamber where Lincoln sits and contemplates the world around him I thought about the momentous historical moments that have taken place under his watchful eyes. Perhaps no historical moment is more importance that Martin Luther King’s “I have been to the Mountaintop” moment that took place on those very steps just fifty years prior. This monument, created to honor the man willing to take a nation to war to free the enslaved, seems to embrace the collective will of a people still struggling to ensure the equality of all people. It is a powerful space.
So what exactly is the point I am trying to make? I guess what I am attempting to say is that heart matters! As I walked the Mall what resonated most for me were the monuments that touched me at a deeply personal level. I thought the Jefferson Memorial was beautiful (and it is indeed that) and the Washington Memorial is fun to see (especially when it is lit up in the evening) but what made my experience memorable was the intensely personal response I felt that morning, an experience that was both personal and communal. It will never be experienced in that way again. It also got me thinking about those other experiences of the “heart” – Ground Zero, Gettysburg, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Federal Building in Kansas City, U.S.S. Arizona – they are monuments that capture the heart both on a personal level and on a communal level. These monuments affirm our humanity. It is my hope that as we build the next generation of monuments we find the “heart” that will give these monuments lasting value to current and future generations.