Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Brief Meditation on Memorials

When visiting Edinburgh Castle, I was most struck by the memorial to the Scottish soldiers who perished in World War I.  It's a big, chapel-like structure within the castle grounds, and inside, battle flags of Scottish regiments and big books with names of those who died are perused by visitors,  made somber by the setting itself, as the memory of that particular war is long-gone.

This week, I spent an afternoon with three former railroaders, reviewing plans for an exhibit about the Lehigh Valley Railroad at the Sayre Historical Society.   My concern with a topic like railroads is that I've misunderstood or misrepresented a technical detail--that I really don't know what a car-knocker does, or how railroad switches work, or whatever.   But, as I finished showing them the plans for the exhibit, one looked up and said, "There's one thing you're missing."   That one thing:  a memorial to those Sayre men who lost their lives working for the railroad--in the shops or on the track.  That suggestion led to a discussion of a few of those men, now long-gone--of not only the accidents when they were killed, but their personalities and foibles--they all became real to me.   And those men, killed doing their jobs,  will be recognized in the exhibit.

Late this afternoon, as the fog rolled in at dusk,  I drove home through the village next to mine, and wondered what was happening.  The main street was filled with cars, state troopers were out--and I suddenly remembered that today was the funeral of a young Marine killed this month in Afghanistan.  Yellow ribbons lined the streets in his memory and Boy Scouts distributed flyers inviting everyone to his funeral.  In a small community like Franklin, I'm guessing almost everyone knew him or his family.  

This all made me think about other memorials I'd seen in museums.   I can only think of a few--and the one that stands out was one to Resistance fighters at a Resistance museum in Friesland, the Netherlands--and the reason again was the personal connection.   I visited that museum with a friend who recognized the family names of many of those honored--and she noted each one as she looked at the individual photos.

Are memorials the work of a museum?  What do we hope that memorials accomplish?  How can we create memorials in museums that stand the test of time--that continue to have deep meaning that transcends the generations? 


Werekat said...

That's one difficult question, Linda. People tend to forget, or history would not have so many variations on similar themes - or so I believe. I do have a recent memorial that I believe will stand the test of time. It's a testament to the events of the Babiy Yar. http://korrespondent.net/kyiv/982717
It's a bronze boy looking at a replica of the historical order for all Jews to come to Babiy Yar. The concept is utterly simple, but the effect... Most people of this day and age don't know how the exact order read, so they come by to read it. And that makes it seem as if people are reading it again for the first time, not yet knowing what is to come.

I have to say that this is the first memorial I knew that gave me the historical creeps. And I think it's a good thing - it seems to involve passerbys in the preservation of history. It does make it personal when you realize that you could have been there, reading that order.

Bob Beatty said...

Your question gets to the very heart of a lot of discussions I'm having and hearing about, particularly with the Civil War's 150th anniversary coming up. What is our role vis-a-vis commemoration and memory? Local history, in particular, is as much about local memory as it is the study of history. The latter being
what is most fraught with difficulty as challenges to the accepted memory are often met with resistance.

And speaking of memorials, some of the most effective I've been to are the Holocaust Museum in DC and OKC Bombing Memorial in Oklahoma City. And the memorial in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was incredibly moving (they have the clock, forever frozen in time---you are not allowed to photograph it).

Bob Beatty

Linda Norris said...

Katya--is this a new memorial at Babi Yar? I'm so intrigued by the idea of people stopping to read the order--to actually understanding that sort of bureaucratic structure and the terror it wrought. And I love the idea that it really does involve passersby in the process of thinking about history. I'll put it on my to-do list for when I return!

Bob--I haven't seen the Oklahoma memorial or Birmingham. OK to come this fall, I guess. But I wonder how we know understand the Civil War. I had an ancestor who fought, but I don't feel the same connection. I wonder if the change is from specific identities (such as at the Vietnam Memorial) to a broader recognition?

Werekat said...

It's not precisely at Babiy Yar - it's on the corner of a street some 15 minutes away from it, near where I live. I'm glad you like the idea. :)

Linda Norris said...

Even more interesting that it's not at Babi Yar, but on a street, where everyday people just encounter it. A fascinating way to think about a memorial. I feel like in Odessa, I saw some plaques denoting where people were arrested...no statue, but the same sort of idea.