Have Our National Monuments Become Too “Disneyfied?”

by Borderstan.com March 14, 2012 at 8:00 am 1,208 8 Comments

"Borderstan" "Lincoln Memorial"

Our favorite memorials might not pass muster by today’s standards.   (Luis Gomez Photos)

From Maggie Barron. You can reach her at maggie[AT]borderstan.com and follow her on Twitter @maggiebarron.

It’s been a tough few weeks for monuments. Secretary Ken Salazar has instructed the National Park Service to fix the rather dimwittedly abridged “drum major” quote on the side of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. And Congress will hold a hearing on March 20 to discuss the much-loathed plans for the Eisenhower Memorial.

How is it that stone can inspire so much flesh-and-blood passion?

The Eisenhower brouhaha began when Ike’s family didn’t like the design put forward by architect Frank Gehry and approved unanimously by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission.

The design includes two huge stone bas reliefs depicting Eisenhower as a statesman and general, but what seems to have offended the family and a slew of conservative critics are the parts that evoke Ike’s humble upbringing as a “barefoot boy from Kansas.” (Lydia DePillis at Washington City Paper has a fantastic rundown of different articles on both sides of the debate).

First, I’d like to address the critics who are up in arms that the Eisenhower Memorial is somehow disrespectful. For example, the Heritage Foundation blog said that the memorial “plans to strip him of his moral discovery, his convictions, and his accomplishments.”

Whoah, people. He is getting a memorial on the National Mall. That is an honor reserved for the smallest group of presidents, men much more famous and beloved than Eisenhower. People are spending millions of dollars to honor this guy in perpetuity. So let’s get off the “Eisenhower is being grossly mistreated” kick.

I am not in love with the Gehry design either, but for entirely different reasons. I see it as part of a larger trend overtaking our monuments. I don’t mean any disrespect towards the people being honored. My issue is with the increasingly Disney-fied ways we end up honoring them.

Have you ever noticed that walking through the FDR Memorial is strangely similar to meandering through the line for Thunder Mountain? Or that MLK protruding from the “Stone of Hope” looks more like a parade float than a human being?

Our monuments today (I’m thinking the Korean War Memorial forward) seem hyper-eager to provide people with an “experience.” Every character facet or event related to the subject has to be completely spelled out with quotes, pictures, and usually some sort of water fountain. The Eisenhower Memorial and its surroundings, with its photographs, quotes, sculptures, and tapestries, is just one more example.

Monuments used to be about making a singular statement for people to interpret. They could be simple, or even abstract. Now they’re about hitting people over the head with the obvious while ticking off boxes for different interest groups. It’s a mentality that leaves you with 56 columns around the WWII memorial rather than 50 (lest ye forget Guam!)

Maybe the monuments have become so scattered because we really only expect people to “skim” them, anyway. Ed Jackson, the Chief Architect for the MLK Memorial, said he decided to abridge Dr. King’s quote because “By the time the visitor engages with the Stone of Hope…they’re beyond the point where they’re interested in reading a lot of detail.”

That pretty much says it all. “Four score and seven years ago, yada yada yada…” People are so exhausted by the time they reach the main part of the monument that they can’t be bothered to read more than ten words.

Our successful monuments, the ones that give you chills on approach, don’t need to be skimmed. The artists’ singular vision and ability to edit a big idea to its essence give the monuments their power. Without that vision, — which not everyone will like —  you get the little-bit-of-everything approach typified by recent designs.

In fact, I have a feeling that none of our best monuments would pass muster by today’s “standards.”

If Lincoln’s memorial came up for approval today, critics would say “Wait! You are only representing him with a beard. What about all of his accomplishments when he had no beard? You are denigrating his memory!”

For Washington: “How are people going to know what Washington did from looking at this?” or perhaps more likely, “Why are we representing our first president with a symbol from the Middle East? Why do you hate America?”

For Jefferson: “Why is there no mention of Sally Hemmings?”

By trying to please everyone, we’ve reached a point where our monuments have no center. Instead they are scattered with different snippets, images, and messages, all meant to keep us stimulated, but not engaged —  and unoffended, but not moved.

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  • Rob K

    Great post. My favorite example of this odd phenomenon is the FDR monument. FDR explicitly requested that if we insisted on memorializing him, we do so with a stone block about the size of his desk on a lovely, oft-overlooked patch of grass in front of the Archives. Originally we complied with his wishes – that monument still stands, and is frankly among my favorites in DC.

    When we then proceeded to construct the insanely ornate (albeit beautiful) park of waterfalls and sculptures on the Tidal Basin that is what most people think of when they hear “FDR Memorial”, who were we making it for? Certainly not FDR, as we were essentially ignoring his wishes. At that point is it memorializing, or propaganda?

  • AJ

    what is your logic for complaining about 56 columns in the WWII instead of 50? if you think only states should have been recognized, there should only have been 48 columns – Alaska and Hawaii were not granted statehood until 1959, several years after the war ended. and do you know anything about Guam during WWII? unlike any of the lower 48, Guam was actually a battleground. there are still twisted metal fittings in the caves on the island from defensive installations, as well as the rusting-out hulls of abandoned tanks.

    furthermore, limiting the columns to actual states would have – yet again – overlooked the District of Columbia itself. the number of men DC sent to war and who died during WWII was disproportionate to the population, and not on the low end.

    personally, i loathe the WWII monument. but your example of it is nonsensical.

    • My intent was not to dis Guam. You’re right that there were only 48 states at the time, that DC participated, etc. And that’s just the point I was trying to make — by trying to include everyone, we often leave people out, or struggle to fit everyone into what ends up being a less coherent design. No memorial can capture everything, especially when it comes to the sacrifices of millions of people, and so I believe that designers need to make choices — and that those choices make for better monuments.

      • AJ

        the problem with the WWII monument (IMO, anyway), has little to do with the number of the columns. the entire design of the thing is terrible – the scale is oppressive, the design is completely out of character with the mall, and it celebrates militarism – not something i normally associate with the US. (in contrast, one of my favorite recent monuments is the abstract air force memorial, which manages to convey meaning without overt militarism, despite being *specifically* a military monument.)

        we’re probably saying the same thing, just for different reasons. sorry for the sniping in my earlier post.

  • CS

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this myself. Thanks for putting it in print.

  • RondaB

    “That is an honor reserved for the smallest group of presidents, men much more famous and beloved than Eisenhower.”

    You know that Eisenhower was president, right?

    • Yup, I do — I simply meant that not every president automatically gets a memorial on the Mall. So far it’s been only a pretty select group.

      • Eli B.

        I think he is being given a memorial less for his works as president than for his accomplishments as a general. Defeating Hitler and his armies makes him, in the US and parts of Europe at least, very famous and much beloved. That aside, a fine article.


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