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Earlier today, I visited the new memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington DC. I had previously read descriptions of the memorial, focusing on the Chinese designer, the resulting resemblance between King’s statue and a statue of Chairman Mao, and so on; so I was prepared to not like elements of the design. However, even beyond what I already had known, I was very disappointed with the memorial. It seems to me that it failed to accomplish the point of having a memorial in the first place.

Back of the envelope, monuments could have three general purposes, which could and should overlap. First, a monument can be intended to teach the viewer about the significance of the subject of the monument. Second, a monument can be meant to honor the subject for the subject’s achievements (particularly in the case of casualties of war; in the ancient world, honoring dead soldiers was a crucial task of such monuments, in part to offer soldiers the chance of eternal glory should they die in battle). Third, a monument can be meant to teach new things to the viewer, perhaps by using symbolism to suggest new meanings or understandings of familiar elements.

An excellent example of a monument that accomplishes all three would be the one to President Thomas Jefferson. Beneath the monument is an underground passage, full of educational murals and videos that discuss the history of President Jefferson. (Admittedly, they downplay the really interesting bits, but such displays can’t get into the juicy details, I suppose.) The monument itself contains a statue of Jefferson, and the walls are carved out with quotes from his writings, which capture the essence of who Jefferson was, what he believed, and his significance for the history of our country and the world in general. (Some other time I might write about how the Declaration of Independence had effects that reverberated throughout South America as well as North.)

The choice of quotes is also meant to impart a lesson to the viewer; I am particularly fond of Jefferson’s statement, “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” This statement is inscribed around the rotunda, giving it pride of place, and indicating to the viewer that this is the key lesson of President Jefferson, something that we too can learn from and put into practice. But all of the quotes are variations on the same theme: liberty, freedom, justice in society. Among these is an extract from the Declaration of Independence: the viewer cannot forget that Jefferson is its author, and a crucial figure in the Revolution.

Compare the foregoing to the MLK memorial. In form it is a massive block of stone, out of which is carved King’s likeness. Flanking it on both sides is a curving wall, which bears several quotes from King’s writings and speeches. I shall ignore the demerits of the statue itself, and focus on the quotes. None of them, none of them at all, indicate to the viewer that King’s life work was fighting against the segregation of blacks from whites in America. None of them indicate that King was a religious figure, or anything about his life history, or that he was assassinated as a martyr to the cause of racial equality. In fact, if you knew nothing at all about the man before visiting the memorial, you would leave it knowing nothing still.

To be sure, the sentiments expressed in the inscriptions are often lofty. But they are too lofty—so lofty that the quotes are entirely metaphorical (for example discussing light driving out darkness), or discussing the universal brotherhood of humanity (rather than the concrete struggle for black freedom). Other quotes seem non-sequitors, particularly the one about people deserving three meals a day. It has significance only if you already know who King was, why he was important, and the stature he has within the American consciousness. So the quotes end up seeming banal and trite, because we do not know why they mattered.

In short, this memorial utterly fails to teach the viewer about who King was. It honors King himself, but only in a general sense; the task that he dedicated his life to is not made explicit, and so is cheapened by omission. Similarly, his assassination is not acknowledged or honored. And finally, because none of the groundwork is there, there is no sense that the arrangement of the memorial can convey any new meanings, in metaphor or imagery.

Why am I discussing this on a blog devoted to structuring our environments? (Aside from my not posting anything for the last month…) Because really, anything we do can be a memorial in the sense discussed above. Much of how we arrange our environments is meant to guide our behavior, either by explicit teaching and direction, or by implicit metaphor and influence on the mind. Knowing the principles of a good monument can be useful in many areas of life, I suspect. And the more people who can tell good monuments from bad ones, I hope, the better constructed our public spaces will be.

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