Harriet Senie, in Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11, builds on work I’ve read previously for public history, including Kirk Savage’s Monument Wars, Marita Sturken’s Tourists of History, and Edward Linenthal’s The Unfinished Bombing. Senie examines The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Oklahoma City memorial, the Columbine High School memorial, and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Each of the events that precipitated these memorials, Senie contends, “challenged long-held cultural myths of an already frayed sense of national identity, and each corresponding memorial solution conflated the concept of a public memorial with that of a private cemetery.” (4) According to Senie, each of the memorials separate the victims from the event that caused their death, and, additionally, she asserts, “the attempt to individualize the deceased has merged the function of cemeteries…with remembering and grieving in public.” (10) While some of the material she covers in her work, including the various design competitions and the construction of the memorials and museums, is examined at length in the previously mentioned scholarly works, her approach was novel and some of the material–specifically the chapter relating to Columbine–was new to me. In her second chapter, “Immediate Memorials: Mourning in Protest,” she examines the evolution of American cemeteries and the emergence of roadside memorials, celebrity displays, and immediate memorials. That chapter provides a framework for the remainder of her work, as she details the immediate memorials and the built memorials that followed. In her discussion of Columbine, Senie examines the immediate memorial that took the form of a shrine the size of a football field across the street from the high school. The objects left by mourners reflected the religious sentiments of the Columbine community. Immediately following the shooting, people had to grapple with the ways in which to remember or not remember the shooters, and the permanent memorial does not mention them. Families of the victims collaborated to raise money to replace the library and rebuild any space where a student was killed. A 28-member memorial committee was formed with the purpose of creating a permanent memorial for the Columbine community. The memorial was dedicated eight and a half years after the shooting, and is located at the edge of Clement Park, close enough so that visitors can see the nearby high school. The memorial consists of an Inner Ring of Remembrance and an Outer Ring of Healing. Senie also examines the secular and religious narratives that emerged following the shooting, and the two films created that directly and indirectly reference Columbine. The chapter that best reflects immediate memorials was her final chapter on 9/11, perhaps due to the severity and extent of the tragedy. Ultimately Senie effectively demonstrates the ways in which grieving has become a collective process embodied in immediate memorials and the resulting permanent memorials.
In Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett examines museums, festivals, world’s fairs, historical recreations, and tourist attractions. She seeks to answer the question of what it means to show, and contends that both people and objects have begun to perform their subjectivities. “Drawing on the history of the avant-garde and the implications of its practices, Destination Culture attempts to theorize the artifact and the logic of exhibition in the context of lively debates about the death of museums, ascendancy of tourism, production of heritage, limits of multiculturalism, social efficacy of the arts, and circulation of value in the life world.” (1) Her first essay, “Objects of Ethnography” complements the work of Steven Conn in Museums and American Intellectual Life. In this essay, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues that ethnographic objects are objects of ethnography and people are the medium of ethnographic representation when they perform themselves. She examines the notions of presenting objects in situ, in which an object is a part that stands in relation to an absent whole, and in context, in which techniques of arrangement and explanation are used to convey ideas. In what is perhaps the most interesting portion of the essay, she details the ways in which humans have been put on display in museums, cemeteries, homes, theaters, public dissections and executions, and galleries. Two other chapters I found particularly interesting were those on Ellis Island and Plimoth Plantation. Her experience at Ellis Island mirrors that of Daniel Walkowitz, who reflected on his visit in “Ellis Island Redux,” found in the edited collection Contested Histories in Public Space. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett found the commercialization of the site highly problematic. The gift shop converts immigrants–the subjects of history–into marketable objects, and American Express cardholders can honor their ancestors by paying $100 to have their names inscribed on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett contends that Ellis Island is a place where memory is produced, rather than reclaimed, and that it thematizes immigration. At Plimoth Plantation, time has stopped, and every year is 1627. The world of the first settlers has been re-created in painstaking detail, and costumed interpreters–who act as though they have not lived past the year 1627–interact with visitors. Visitors to the site are invited to walk around and experience Plimoth Plantation without the aid of tours or brochures, and can interact with the costumed interpreters as much or as little as they choose. In such an environment, the history of ordinary people is examined, and anyone is welcome to enter that constructed world. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues that the site, which she contends is experimental theater, “reveals a shift from ceremony to virtuality, from commemoration to exploration.” (10) This is certainly an interesting way to approach performing history for a wide audience.
These two works examine the ways in which the public interacts with tragedy and history, how individual grief is transformed into a collective process through the creation of immediate memorials, and the ways in which heritage and culture are performed for mass audiences.