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Outlook: The Transforming Memorial Landscape

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Kirk Savage
Author and Professor
Monday, June 15, 2009; 11:00 AM

Associate professor of art at the University of Pittsburgh, and author of "Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape," Kirk Savage, was online Monday, June 15, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article about the culture surrounding memorials in Washington, D.C.

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Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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Kirk Savage: Hi, This is Kirk Savage. Welcome to the Post's forum on my Sunday Outlook essay. I will be happy to respond to your questions and comments, and I'll try to get through as many as I can.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Dr. Savage, you write that the landscape of Washington must "move beyond victim and victimizer" and become a vehicle for connections between groups. Does the permanent public monument, with a more fixed meaning, still have a place in this endeavor, or is the impromptu memorial the new method of memorializing a democracy?

Kirk Savage: You raise a great issue. The problem with traditional monuments is that they do try to sum up the significance of an event in a permanent, fixed form. They try to achieve "closure," often from a very limited point of view. This is one reason why I suggest, at the end of my book, a moratorium on new monuments, during which impromptu or ephemeral memorials and installations would be encouraged instead. I think these temporary memorials are much more likely to create the kinds of connections among disparate groups, and to raise new possibilities that haven't occurred to the rest of us. If that idea seems too unrealistic, we could also work to create new permanent memorials that are more open to change, and we could try to take a somewhat less rigid attitude toward preexisting monuments, so that they could be modified more creatively over time. In reality, public monuments get modified a lot, but often times the modifications are more defensive than constructive.

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Rockville, Md.: Hi Kirk, you've written a book about memorial building in Washington so you must know the process. Given the current memorial building process which leaves the choice of subject, location, and design development to private sponsors, isn't the victimization/heroism model inevitable? Is it possible to create a American narrative that rises above the narrow special interests of memorial sponsors -- who see their subject as either heroic or a wrong that needs to be righted -- to a larger, common theme and goal? How can we do that? Who can do that?

Kirk Savage: That's an excellent question, and I don't have a ready answer. Public monuments in DC have always been driven by various private groups, professional associations, and special interests. Starting in the early 20th century planners have tried to take control of this process. Now we have a bunch of regulatory agencies that are supposed to rationalize the process, but the process is still beyond their control and is more like legislative politics than planning. My question is, would the planners do a better job? I'm not at all sure. This is another reason why many people have proposed that we move away from permanent monuments and more toward ephemeral ones, counter-monuments, reinterpretations of existing monuments, etc. I think you've hit the nail on the head, and we need some new ideas.

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washingtonpost.com: Finding Heroes, Victims and Violence on the National Mall

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Arlington, Va.: Is there a committee or group that actually manages the amount of open space the National Mall should have? Is there a real potential that we will run out of open space on the Mall in the next 100 years?

Kirk Savage: There are several regulatory agencies including the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts. The NCPC developed a plan to close off the central Mall to new monument construction, which has been endorsed by Congress with some projects grandfathered, such as the underground visitors center for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But the question remains whether this ban will be enforced or whether new projects that have political clout will get exemptions on a case by case basis. The organization Save the Mall has an interesting Third Century Initiative, which tries to reimagine the Mall as an expanded area that encompasses more of central Washington (you can find it online).

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Washington, D.C.: It's hard to figure out exactly what you are saying here, but you seem to imply that the existence of the Holocaust and other "victim" memorials (your classification) is responsible for crimes like von Brunn's. If not, what is the point of the article? Just exactly what kind of "commemorative landscape" would take us "beyond victim and victimizer" and reconcile bitter white males with their perceived enemies?

Kirk Savage: No, that is not the point of the article. First of all, "victim monuments" have had the very positive effect of countering the old exclusively white male model of heroic commemoration. Von Brunn, in my view, was reacting angrily to the mere presence of a Jewish museum on the Mall. That doesn't mean we shouldn't recognize the Holocaust, or slavery, or the dispossession of the American Indian. We should and must. But the question is, where do we go from here? The existence of the victim monument raises a new question, that never used to be asked before: whose victimization deserves to be commemorated, especially in the precious national space of the Mall? And that question can be divisive. So my plea for now is to think of ways to connect victims, not to forget them, much less to blame them, but to figure out ways that we could build bridges from one victim group to another, so that we use our own experience of victimization, whatever that may be, to empathize with and help others, rather than to hate them.

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Washington, D.C.: What kind of monument is more "open to change" than a museum -- such as the Holocaust Museum -- that can always accept and display new information-- and as you yourself point out, link to other tragedies such as Darfur? There will always be impromptu memorials of flowers and teddy bears and the like, but I don't understand what you are advocating that isn't already potentially there in the establishment of themed museums.

Kirk Savage: You are absolutely right, which is one reason why museums are becoming a more important memorial type. The proposed visitors center at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for example, will basically be a museum grafted onto a stone monument. The flexibility to change the exhibits builds in a degree of change into the mission of the museum. But having said that, museums can only change slowly and cautiously, and they have their own constraints. I'd like to see more possibilities, not just teddy bears and flowers, but more creative interventions and rethinkings of the memorial landscape.

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Arlington, Va.: Mr. Savage, As a public historian, I have to disagree with your assertion that public monuments try to achieve closure regarding historical events. In many instances, monuments like the one honoring those who served in Vietnam are dynamic; they change, grow and based on the perceptions of individuals, evolve based on contemporary context. While I certainly agree that the monument building process and those events that we attempt to "capture" in a fixed form can always be improved, to call monuments instruments of closure is taking it a step too far.

Kirk Savage: I think you are right that our expectations of monuments are evolving, and that we now expect more dynamic audience response and interaction and a more dynamic stance from those who administer memorials. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was groundbreaking in this respect, in the way visitors have brought their own unexpected materials and rituals to the site, which have changed the way we think about that monument. Still, I can point to many recent examples that are a lot more static and a lot more didactic (the Victims of Communism memorial, the World War II memorial). And even the more open-ended monuments such as the VVM create closure in ways that are often not discussed, for example in the criteria by which names on the wall are included or excluded.

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New York, N.Y: I would like to throw out a question, more for discussion than for you to answer: I believe there should be a monument for victims of Armenian genocide. Yet, one can not raise the issue without creating great debates over the extent or even if such genocide ever occurred, and there are numerous political ramifications to recognizing the Armenian genocide. So how should this genocide be recognized?

Kirk Savage: This has been a very difficult question for the Holocaust Museum, which has made great efforts to connect its central story of the Jewish holocaust with genocide in other places and times. But as I'm sure you realize, there are huge political difficulties involved in recognizing the Armenian genocide, owing to Turkey's longstanding denial of it. And the U.S., Europe, and Israel want to maintain good relations with Turkey. This points to the kind of political questions that always intrude into memorial efforts.

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Impact on Tourism: Hi, Dr. Savage,

I'm sorry that I haven't yet read the article, but I stumbled across this session and wanted to ask a question.

What might be the impact on D.C. tourism if we start creating these less-than-permanent memorials? I haven't given it much thought, but it seems that it could be very beneficial: People who'd already "been there and done that" could be courted back by a changing landscape of ephemeral monuments.

Kirk Savage: Certainly, I think that would be a benefit. It would create a lot of buzz and a lot of discussion, which is what democracy is all about.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Is there a plan for a September 11 memorial on the Mall? Is it an appropriate site for such a monument?

Kirk Savage: I have heard rumblings about the idea, but I don't have any inside information. The memorial at the Pentagon came about relatively quickly and efficiently, but as you may know, the memorial projects in Manhattan and Shanksville, Penn. (my neck of the woods) have been extremely complicated and buffeted by competing interest groups and controversies. Imagine how difficult it would be to achieve any kind of consensus about a 9-11 memorial on the Mall, especially because the site on the Mall opens up large questions about the national meaning of this event. The memorials at the crash sites have a basic, limited duty to honor the people who died there, at that spot, and even so the projects are difficult to carry out. But a memorial on the Mall would be different, would raise different questions that are still unanswered. All the many ramifications of that event for our nation and the world, which we are struggling with now in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, etc., would inevitably come into play if a memorial were proposed for the Mall.

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Pomfret, Md: "This is another reason why many people have proposed that we move away from permanent monuments and more toward ephemeral ones, counter-monuments, reinterpretations of existing monuments, etc. I think you've hit the nail on the head, and we need some new ideas." -Kirk Savage

What do you mean when you use the term "counter-monument"?

Kirk Savage: James Young has written a lot about these, mostly in Europe -- monuments that are meant to disappear, or to be covered with graffiti, or to change the way we look at familiar monuments. Maya Lin herself has called the Vietnam Veterans Memorial an "anti-monument."

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Washington, D.C.: An example of "creative re-thinking of the memorial landscape"-- that has been going on for decades-- is the use of the Lincoln Memorial as the site for important civil rights and other demonstrations. In that sense, we have been doing this all along, I think.

Kirk Savage: Absolutely, that's one of the best examples we have.

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Anonymous: So why, after all these victims and victimization, can't we stop these pointless wars? Why do we tolerate behavior in our leaders we wouldn't stand for in kindergarten children? With our nation nearly bankrupt, we continue to pour countless billions into the bottomless pits of Afghanistan and Iraq, to what useful purpose? Certainly not "defending our freedom;" rather, infringing on the freedom of others. Your thoughts?

Kirk Savage: I do see the proliferation of war memorials on the Mall, in a sense, as a tragedy. I do not mean that the soldiers who answered the nation's call shouldn't be honored; they should be. What I do mean is that it's tragic that war continues unabated and that we have to keep building new monuments to new wars. I wish I had an answer to your question.

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Philadelphia, Penn.: How would you feel about a monument recognizing those who liberate people from victimization?

Kirk Savage: Sure, but how? The Lincoln monument in Lincoln Park would be an example of how not to do it: Lincoln singlehandedly freeing a passive slave. One of the biggest problems with this monument is that it gives the impression that slaves themselves had nothing to do with their own liberation, when in fact their resistance, their flight from slavery, was crucial in spurring Lincoln's policy of emancipation. The Holocaust Museum tells many stories of liberation, including, of course, the liberation of the camps by the Allies. I think it would be very important in any monument to liberators to deal with the efforts of the victims to liberate themselves from oppression.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: My. Savage, it seems like there has been a "tyranny of numbers" that influences the design of all new monuments. So many modern monuments seem like death toll counters. Look at the WWII memorial, or the Sept. 11 memorial at the Pentagon. Both have physical objects representing the number of victims. The most famous of all is probably the Vietnam Veteran's memorial. Do you think monuments necessarily need such reminders?

Kirk Savage: Good question. The number of the dead does have a huge impact on the design of these monuments. The monument in Oklahoma City commemorates 169 victims, each of whom has a bronze chair to represent them. This solution would be impossible for the 58,000 dead in the Vietnam War, but simply inscribing their names on a wall was a major design problem. The WWII Memorial honors 400,000 dead, so now the names are no longer possible and instead a wall of stars is erected, each star representing 1000 dead. The Victims of Communism Memorial commemorates 100 million dead, thus rendering even the star solution impossible. But the larger question you raise is important. What kind of recognition do the individual victims need? How can we think about them in new ways?

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Kirk Savage: Thanks so much for your thoughtful and challenging questions. I hope they have stimulated your thinking as much as mine.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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