The urge to commemorate is human and timeless. What distinguishes modern memorials, apart from their sheer quantity—we seem intent on commemorating anything and anyone, especially victims—is their appearance.
Until recently, memorials followed widely accepted conventions. The humblest commemorative device was a plaque, the sort of thing that you still see in the streets of London or Paris—so-and-so was born here, or worked here, or died here. If more was required, there was a variety of more impressive devices: urns, fountains, arches, cenotaphs, and columns. These structures were generic. If you came across a column in a town square, you knew that it was a memorial to something—the actual subject being commemorated was only revealed on closer inspection.
The most important memorials generally included human figures. The sculpture might be a bas-relief, a bust, a life-size or larger-than-life figure, or an equestrian statue. Nothing is as evocative as the human figure, whether it is Michelangelo’s David, Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, or Daniel Chester French’s brooding Lincoln.
A Curious Jumble
The advantage of having a lexicon of memorial devices was that the form of the memorial could be matched to the significance of its commemorative matter. Contemporary memorial builders lack such normative conventions. The generic monuments of the past no longer satisfy the public, and most accomplished modern sculptors scorn figural representation. Influenced by the narratives of movies and television, designers produce memorials that do not simply commemorate but tell stories. As a result, memorials are increasingly a curious jumble of pedantic literalness and artistic abstraction.
Old memorials were satisfied to elicit an emotion, but contemporary memorials have a pedagogic mission—to inform and educate. This is well-intentioned but it undermines the contemplative nature of commemoration, turning memorials into three-dimensional classrooms. Another difference: old memorials were objects, while modern memorials occupy space. These spaces are increasingly large, perhaps to compensate for the absence of a figural focus. Of course the column in the Place Vendôme, and Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, were large, too, but despite their visual impact their footprint was small and left plenty of room for urban life. Today’s sprawling memorials, like the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (almost 2 hectares) and the 9/11 Memorial in New York (almost 3 hectares), are much more intrusive. They occupy sizable parts of the city and they do so in an aggressive way that displaces other activities.
Encourage Private Reflection
Good memorials have two responsibilities. The first is to satisfy the immediate commemorative impulse to honor a momentous event or a meritorious personage. “We shall never forget,” we say. But, of course, we—and future generations—do forget, and that leads to the memorial’s second responsibility: to become an integral part of the city long after the event or personage fades from memory. That is the advantage of a column, which functions as a landmark, or of a fountain, which provides visual and auditory pleasure.
Successful memorials do not bombard us with information, but encourage private reflection. They also don’t have to be large. A small example stands next to the sidewalk at the eastern edge of New York’s Central Park, commemorating the architect Richard Morris Hunt. It was erected by his friends in 1901. Hunt was an important nineteenth-century figure, although his is hardly a household name today. The architect’s bust—a serious face with a Van Dyke beard—occupies the center of a limestone exedra whose base is a bench. At the extremities are two life-size female figures representing Art and Architecture. The memorial, which contains a brief inscription, doesn’t try to explain who the architect was or what he built—you would have to read a book to find that out. In the meantime, you can admire the allegorical figures, one holding a palette, the other a model of a building. Or you can turn your back on Mr. Hunt and simply sit on the bench, watching the passersby on Fifth Avenue.