Michael Arad’s “Reflecting Absence” fountain in the footprint of the North Tower at Ground Zero, New York. Photo: Kai Brinker (http://www.flickr.com/photos/kbrinker/6156711439/in/photostream/)
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.”
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.
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 →
Smoke, light, and hundreds of amateur performers re-create “The Age of Industry” in the July 27 2012 Olympics opening ceremony in London.
The Olympic opening ceremony last Friday, staged by filmmaker Danny Boyle, left me with a strange feeling of déja vu. All the high-tech elements aside, this show could have been produced in 1912 almost as easily as 2012. Its capsule-history-of-Great-Britain-from-green-and-pleasant-land-through-industrial-power-to-postindustrial-success format essentially followed the pageant form that was popular a hundred years ago. Continue reading →
In addition to the photos that have accompanied Zach McKiernan’s “Letters from Chile” series this spring, there have been many more that we didn’t post with the articles, but which we’re including here in a visual addendum to the series. … Continue reading →
Water cannon used by the state at the June 10 funa (Photo: Zachary McKiernan)
This past Sunday, June 10, the right-wing Corporation 11 de Septiembre held an homage to the dead dictator Augusto Pinochet under the auspices of a documentary screening at the iconic Teatro Caupolican in Santiago Centro. That day it was answered and challenged in sometimes violent ways by diverse sectors of society and weeks before when many of Santiago’s notably non-violent human rights organizations and sites of memory maneuvered to use legal and political recourse to prevent a ceremony that celebrated a leader infamous for overseeing an era of human rights violations. After these efforts were exhausted and the Chilean Courts came back with an answer that allowed the planned activity to take place, it became apparent that the battle for history and memory would manifest that day in the streets and sidewalks around Teatro Caupolican. Continue reading →
Founded in 1984 to combat graffiti, Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program replaced tags and bubble letters with larger-than-life murals that were designed collaboratively by community members and professional artists, becoming one of the most influential public arts organizations of its kind. Since that time, more than 3,000 murals—memorializing famous Philadelphians, commemorating immigration and migration stories, and acknowledging groups ranging from veterans to people with disabilities—have put a visual face on many neighborhoods, identifying and crystallizing their unique character.
“Daycare and Carfare” by Stephen Powers. (Photo by Adam Wallacavage, used with permission of the Mural Arts Program)
Yet, out of all of these, the most popular mural project, according to the Mural Arts Program, has been “Love Letters,” a series of 50 rooftop murals completed in 2010 that “collectively express a love letter from a guy to a girl, from an artist to his hometown, and from local residents to their neighborhood.” Continue reading →
Incomplete and semi-permanent interventions in Escotilla 8, a “special protection” site within the Chilean National Stadium
This is a personal letter. It is personal because I came to Chile to write and participate in the history of the museum project “National Stadium, National Memory,” whose aim is “the material establishment of national memory in respect… to the Concentration Camp… in 1973.” Where I ended up some seven months later in the network and politics of human rights and public memorials is a story that will unfold in the dissertation, tentatively titled Public History and Human Rights: The National Stadium of Chile and the Power of Public Memorials. But that’s for next year. This year, though, has been a real life lesson in preparation for a career in public history. That this lesson is intimately linked to human rights through historically oriented projects makes it equally empowering and problematic—and a reminder of a question my venerable advisor Randy Bergstrom constantly asks me: what and where is the line between personal activism and professional responsibility? Navigating this and other ethical challenges has been at the center of my study and approach to an engaged scholarship of advocacy.
Since my September arrival in Chile, the Museum of Memory and Human Rights has become a common ground for my historical work, with handfuls of visits to its Center of Documentation for conversations and conferences, and the permanent exhibit. Although not a physical or recovered site connected to human rights violations, it sits squarely in the memory landscape of Chile, a barely-born institution that has made waves since its 2010 inauguration under then-President Michele Bachalet. The museum’s history has roots reaching back to the Rettig Commission’s recommendations (1991). Its creation weaves through the demands of human rights organizations and their UNESCO designated “Memory of the World” archives, and the commitment of two consecutive presidents of Chile’s Concertación, the center-left political bloc whose reputation for handling human rights reparations in the post-dictatorship period (1990-2010) is still questioned and critiqued. The museum’s executive director Ricardo Brodsky told me in an April 2012 interview that the museum represents a collaborative effort between diverse sectors of civil society and the state.
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.
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.