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?