Kirk Savage


On his book Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape

Cover Interview of March 02, 2010


At the end of the book I discuss the paradox of the public monument: meant to be permanent and “timeless,” monuments typically slide into obsolescence.

Even as brilliant a monument as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial has lost some of its original charge as the veterans of that era grow old and the events retreat into ever more distant memory.  For this reason the sponsors are now planning a huge underground visitors’ center near Lin’s wall, which will supplement her memorial with museum displays about the war and pictures of the men whose names appear on the wall.  But this solution simply raises new questions.  Does every war memorial deserve an accompanying museum?  And who deserves a monument in the first place?  If the twentieth century witnessed a shift from the great hero to the ordinary soldier and even to history’s victims, then which victims merit a name on a wall or a picture in a museum?

Meanwhile the great space of the Mall has already changed radically since its birth in the mid-twentieth century.  The Civil War theme of its original design has been overshadowed by a series of major monuments to America’s wars in Europe and Asia.  Since the attacks of September 11, the space itself has been carved up by security walls and by the immense new barrier of the World War II Memorial.  Yet despite all these changes the monuments that get built continue to be the products of special interest groups that can successfully navigate a byzantine legislative and regulatory process.  Change occurs, but in a haphazard, ad hoc way.

To expand the possibilities for democratic debate and representation, the closing pages of Monument Wars propose a moratorium on permanent public monuments in the capital, and a period of experimentation in which many groups and designers would be empowered to erect temporary memorials and installations.

While it is doubtful that this simple proposal will find much support in the current political climate, I am gratified that the book is being read and discussed within the planning bodies that do have responsibility for stewarding the Mall and its monuments.  If Monument Wars can make even a modest contribution to a more open and informed national conversation about the landscape of public memory, then it will have done its job.

© 2010 Kirk Savage