Memorial Advocates Are Sold On the Kiosk

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is slated to get an accompanying museum  --  in which gift shops often lurk.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is slated to get an accompanying museum -- in which gift shops often lurk. (2001 Photo By Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006

Seven years after Congress passed legislation to create a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, members of the memorial commission finally got the location approved in September. The new memorial, which has yet to be designed, will sit opposite the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, smack in the middle of what used to be Maryland Avenue. But no, it wasn't the fact of a new memorial in a memorial-cluttered (and memory-obsessed) national city that qualified as a disturbing harbinger of things to come, nor was it the fact that it will block off another of Pierre L'Enfant's original grand avenues. No, it was a small plea made by one of the memorial's supporters, at a meeting of the National Capital Planning Commission.

"We would also like the memorial in some way to maybe have a kiosk or some place where items and books about the president's life can be purchased," said Nelson Rimensnyder, of the District of Columbia Republican Party. "We think that this is very important."

Rimensnyder wasn't speaking on behalf of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission, but Daniel Feil, executive architect for the group, says there may well be a book kiosk in the 2,500 square feet of support space it's planning. There are officially no plans for a museum, but when pressed, Rimensnyder also acknowledged that other supporters of the memorial want some museum space as well.

And so it goes. Even before a design has been proposed, there is an upfront admission from the memorial's supporters that nothing the architects or planners or designers create will be self-sufficient. Even before a single scrawl of pencil on a piece of drafting paper, the memorial's proponents concede that it will not stand alone as an aesthetic object. It will need support space. Members of the public will not just visit and remember. They will be instructed, and perhaps they will shop.

This compulsion to gum up memorials with unnecessary kiosks, shops and museums only gets worse. Not satisfied with one of the best loved and most visited monuments on the National Mall, the people who brought you the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are preparing to build an entirely new museum on the Mall near the memorial. That space will be underground, though don't be surprised if it's not entirely invisible. And don't be surprised if whatever gets placed inside the museum opens up the very can of ideological and political worms that the beautifully blank and abstract memorial was meant to keep closed.

What a long way we've come from Nicolas Poussin's haunting painting "Et in Arcadio Ego," in which shepherds discover a simple, isolated tomb marker, a quiet image of death and memory all the more powerful because the tomb tells so little about what it commemorates. In death, modern leaders need to be not just remembered but interpreted and, of course, beatified with a little commerce.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company