Most of us know memorials as either a statue celebrating a famous figure who has passed or, an extravagant monument mourning those lost in a terrible disaster. What usually gets overlooked is the process of careful planning and decisions made about every little detail down to location, meaning and design.
Notre Dame Professor Erika Doss posed the question: why are we so obsessed with memorials? Last Wednesday at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, Doss gave a lecture based on her acclaimed book “Memorial Mania: Public Feeling” in America which explores the emotional framework of memorials in the United States.
Erika Doss is an award winning author who has published several other books including “The Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism” and “Pollack”. She attended Ripon College to getting her B.A. and received her PhD at the University of Minnesota. As a Professor at Notre Dame, Doss teaches Modern, American and Contemporary Art and Culture.
In her lecture Doss discussed the emotional aspects behind modern monuments. Recently commemoration has been turned into an experience rather than a bronze statue; for example the 9/11 memorial that sits on ground zero, is not only a memorial but includes a museum that goes in depth about the disaster that changed the way our society functions forever. The memorial itself is two square pits that have waterfalls all around it falling into it only filling it up a quarter of the way. Around the pit is black walls that contain the names of the people who perished in each building. It took until 2006 for the monument to be approved after much scrutiny and plan changes, and it took until 2011 to open.
Doss also discussed another memorial that challenge monotonous stereotype. The Oklahoma City Memorial that remembers those who were lost in an act of domestic terrorism by Timothy McVeigh in 1995. McVeigh set off a bomb outside what was the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, leaving 168 people dead including a daycare center located inside the building.
This memorial has meaning in every aspect. 168 chairs hand made with glass and bronze for each of the people who died in the attack, under each chair there is a light to signal for hope. The Gates of Time that represents the moment of destruction with the times of the bombing engraved on them. 19 chairs are smaller for the children who died, including three unborn children. A reflecting pool that some visitors see “people who were changed forever by this attack” when they see their mirror image in the water.
Memorials are also prone to controversy, the other 9/11 memorial in Pennsylvania was attacked by a conspiracy theorist who claimed the memorial was created with the intent to look like a Muslim prayer site. The theorist went on to get an aerial image of the monument and put it on the globe showing that it was built pointing directly towards Mecca, the holy land for Muslims. Some Americans went as far as considering the monument in Pennsylvania a war memorial instead of a commemoration for those who we lost in this terrible attack. That caused some flack for the architect, and the people behind the memorials to treat them sensitively.
If there is one thing that came from Erika Doss’ lecture was that memorials have been an obsession in America for years and will continue to be for years to come. They are a way of preserving history and remembering those who changed our world in some way. Not only for major events but even small things, like vigils held for stars who died such as Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain. Even those small crosses on the side of the road with names written on them to remember those who died in road accidents. Our fetish for public mourning has a rooted place in our culture as a country. If you want to read more you can purchase “Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America” by Erika Doss online through Google Play, or in a bookstore near you.