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Monumental Fights: The Role of Memorials in Civic Life

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Over the past year, the recently dedicated Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Memorial and the planned Eisenhower Memorial have renewed controversy about the meaning and purpose of public memorials. What do America’s memorials and monuments tell us about our nation and our identity as citizens? How should we memorialize past events and individuals?

At an event on Friday, May 18, 2012, that was co-sponsored by AEI’s Program on American Citizenship and theNational Civic Art Society, a distinguished panel discussed the important role of public memorials in civic life, using the recent controversies over the Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Memorial and the proposed Eisenhower Memorial to guide the conversation.

After an introduction by AEI’s Gary Schmitt, Michael J. Lewis of Williams College emphasized that monuments exist to proclaim one urgent gesture. In essence, they should convey overarching truths instead of getting caught up in the minutiae of specific ones. Attempting to reverse this rule, Lewis noted, has been one of the great failings of the proposed Eisenhower Memorial.

Roger Scruton of AEI agreed that modern architects often fall into these traps and warned that recent monuments overwhelmingly suffer either from kitsch, bombast or false sentiment. Proper monuments, on the other hand, compel people to recognize and endorse their nation’s highest ideals and to translate those aspirations into a concrete urban fabric.

Bruce Cole of the Hudson Institute commented that memorials in the American democratic context raise unique questions about how to properly recognize greatness. He expressed concern that Americans have increasingly become a “nation of amnesiacs” that is in danger of forgetting the great historical acts and people it celebrates.

Diana Schaub of Loyola University Maryland pointed to the Lincoln Memorial as an example of how the best monuments still educate visitors and inspire them to live up to the ideals that the memorials represent. The panel concluded that similar aspirations should be taken into account when planning and constructing modern memorials.

AEI