Memorials to Shattered Myths, New Book Examines Monument-Building

02/23/2016 02:09 pm ET Updated Feb 23, 2017

As a nation, what do we commemorate, and how do we commemorate it?

This is the thoughtful question posed by Harriet F. Senie in her new book, Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11. Her book introduces readers to the paths we have traveled in establishing monuments and commemorations following terror attacks and other tragedies.

Issue Introduced with Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The first memorial for close examination in Memorials to Shattered Myths is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The VVM set the precedent of the therapeutic memorial.

Senie points out that the listing of the names brings people to the monument for the types of reasons one usually visits a cemetery--a quiet time of personal remembrance. But because this war was so vehemently contested, the memorial has also served to unify Americans. We are brought together by shared regret over the men and women who lost their lives there and relief that we have finally done something to recognize them.

The book continues with well-documented discussions of our memorials to the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the tragedy of Columbine, and the multi-faceted attack the country suffered on September 11, 2001.

Three-Tiered Approach
The author, who is Director of the M.A. Program in Art History and Art Museum Studies at City College at CUNY and co-founder of the international organization Public Art Dialogue, makes a case for a three-tiered approach to monument-building. She fully acknowledges the immediate need to grieve----anything from flowers by a roadside to stuffed animals left at Columbine--is perfect for that first form of a memorial.

Senie notes that because final monuments require planning, fund-raising and community permits, there is a real need for the interim memorial. This memorial is the right one to be planned by the victims' families. The process of coming together can be therapeutic, and this also provides a blueprint for what mourners would like to see in the final monument.

The Final Monument
The word monument derives from the Latin, with the root word "moneo," meaning to warn, writes Senie. A permanent monument should be something that serves to warn or remind with regard to conduct of future events.

Senie suggests that for the final monument the right team is one that can maintain perspective; people who are outside the tragedy. She calls for using professionals.

While the story of loss should always be told, there needs to be a way to tell the story of why the tragedy occurred (such as at Columbine or Sandy Hook Elementary School). In addition, light should be shed on the broader result of the tragedy.

She notes that 9/11 demonstrated our vulnerability to international terrorism, yet the monument and museum memorialize the event primarily by replaying what happened. She sees a bigger and more difficult story in telling how our society and our civil liberties have changed as a result of this threat.

Unification shouldn't be the Primary Goal
Senie writes that President Bill Clinton frequently stated: "Oklahoma City made us all Americans again." She describes this story of rebirth from tragedy as a diversion--not the story that should be the prime focus of a permanent memorial.

While feeling a community has come together from a tragedy and that strength has built hope in the future, the true hope would come if there were signs that our government was prepared to address the basic ill that led to the problem.

Currently our monuments step away from the possibility of discussing complex societal issues; we lose the story of the dire acts, which allows for no study of the circumstances that caused them.

While Harriet Senie's thesis is worthy of our attention, I wonder about its practicality.
While presidential monuments fall into a different category, one would think the decision-making there would be easier than the decisions after a tragedy. However, we need only read about the ongoing wrangling over the monument to the former supreme commander of the Allied Forces and former president Dwight D. Eisenhower to understand that for every opinion there is an opposing opinion.

Perhaps the goal for future monuments following tragedies is to allow room for later interpretation. While Senie does not spend a great deal of time on the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, she notes that the museum lets people reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the Holocaust; that it presents to visitors an opportunity to consider their own responsibility as citizens.

As Senie conveys, the best monuments remember those who died, but they also give context to the events that led to the tragedy. By telling a broader story with a memorial, a monument can launch thought and debate to those who live long after the actual event that is being commemorated.

For information on the book, click here.

To read more stories of America's past, visit www.americacomesalive.com.