Memorializing without change? Hurricane Sandy at the World Trade Center

memorial fountain

Michael Arad’s “Reflecting Absence” fountain in the footprint of the North Tower at Ground Zero, New York. Photo: Kai Brinker (

Was I the only one who noticed this? There was an eerie similarity between Michael Arad’s “Reflecting Absence” memorial in the footprint of the Twin Towers and the virally-circulating AP photo of seawater rushing into the foundations of new skyscrapers at the World Trade Center construction site during Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge last week.  “Something powerful about this image,” one tweet noted.  “Zeitgeist moment.”

water flooding construction site

John Minchillo’s photo for AP circulated virally during the height of the storm.

To my eye, the picture’s resonance came from the troubling layers of meaning and memory within the World Trade Center complex.  The site reflects both the broadest extensions of American economic and technological power and the ways that that power has been spectacularly rebuked in recent years, both by those who have pushed back against the U.S.’s political and military presence in so many other parts of the world and–increasingly–by a planetary ecology saturated with the by-products of two hundred years of industrialism.

And yet we continue to build and rebuild, extending our reach outward and upward even as we’re also creating spectacular memorials to some of the most striking costs of our own power.  Those parallel processes–commemorating without any real intention of changing direction–are what I see when I look at these two images together, and it makes me wonder, not for the first time, about how memorials can close off thought and memory as well as provoking them.  Last week, it almost seemed to me that the hurricane itself was trying to underscore that point.

~ Cathy Stanton


“Illuminating” the Legacy Concept in Higher Education

In this election cycle, like just about every previous election cycle of recent memory, the role of higher education in improving society has been raised and debated. The past sixty years have seen unprecedented growth in the higher education sector, with a proliferation of for-profit and distance-learning options supplementing established research universities, liberal arts colleges, and community college programs. (For a more comprehensive, but not exhaustive, look at the history of higher education, see John Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education).

This growth, coupled with an ever-increasing pool of student applicants, has created a situation in which institutions of higher learning must distinguish themselves from each other in order to attract qualified students, and “alma maters” must compete with other deserving charities for the discretionary spending of alumni in order to maintain and improve programs to sustain this high level of competition. The result is the advent of a highly sophisticated marketing program! But what can a particular institution of higher learning market beyond widely available and sometimes stultifying statistics? The answer is something very familiar to public historians and historic preservationists: heritage. Continue reading

Leapfrogging over politics with a mobile historical app?

The Southern landscape and many other parts of the United States remain pockmarked with state historical markers that demand reinterpretation or removal.  One state historical marker noting the failure of New Orleans’ 17th Street Canal in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina demonstrates that Louisiana has landed on the right side of this history.  Efforts to erect a similar federal marker have twice been stymied, however, as the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the land in question, has not yet commented on a National Register nomination approved two years ago by the state historic preservation officer.  The corps argues that it cannot comment upon the application while litigation over its role in the 2005 flooding of the city remains in process.

Continue reading

City Yard: A memorial verb without an object

These intriguing images, previewed in last week’s “In Search of a Label” post, depict a public artwork by Sheila Klein called “City Yard,” commissioned as part of the development of the Frontier Airlines Center in Milwaukee in the 1990s. Information about the artwork and its history has proved elusive for an observer based outside of Milwaukee. I’ve had to rely on a Wikipedia “stub” for a basic description of the piece noting the media as: “landscape elements, limestone architectural ornament, and salvaged public works objects such as fire hydrants and the classic blue police call box.” The stub references a 1998 article by James Auer in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called “INGRAINED Art – Creative works spice up personality of new convention center.” Unfortunately, the Journal Sentinel’s online archive, a sadly aborted project powered by Google, is devoid of a scan for the article’s date.

So, without the time to interview the artist, what’s left to an observer is the artwork itself. At first glance, “City Yard” might seem to be a generic public space beside a generic convention center, all wrought-iron rails and brick planters. But upon closer examination, the architectural elements and “public works objects” stand reverently, like monuments in a graveyard. The words beneath the lions’ mouths on the four-sided central structure of the piece further evoke a memorial sentiment: “Gone But Not Forgotten.” Like the stairway leading up to a tree that marks the border of the space closest to the convention center building, the whole piece seems to be a question mark incarnate.  Who or what is gone?  How are we to avoid forgetting if we don’t know what we are commemorating? Are we mourning for a time when the civic structure of the city provided a sense of comfort and community?  There are still police officers and and firefighters without these particular call boxes and hydrants.  But these objects inhabit a protected past behind their wrought-iron fences.

In a museum, the same objects might be used to tell a story, to narrate the development of cherished institutions within a meta-narrative of progress.  At the nearby Milwaukee Public Museum, the slightly miniaturized buildings and scenes of the “Streets of Old Milwaukee” exhibit seem to do just that, flavored with a heavy infusion of nostalgia. “City Yard” is not exactly nostalgic, nor is it entirely mournful, and it is certainly not informative. It is an ephemeral timescape, a verb without an object, entreating the busy visitors to a modern convention center to remember for remembering’s sake.

~ Adina Langer