Posted in 20th century America, commemoration, journal articles, material culture, memorials, military, tourism, Vietnam War

Collective Remembering through the Materiality and Organization of War Memorials

Beckstead, Zachary, Gabriel Twose, Emily Levesque-Gottlieb, and Julia Rizzo. “Collective Remembering through the Materiality and Organization of War Memorials.” Journal of Material Culture 16, no. 2 (2011): 193-213.

In this article, the authors use the Massachusetts Vietnam Veterans Memorial, located in Worcester, MA to explore how the various memorial ‘objects’ guide the way the memorial is experienced, understood, and related to. They question the socially mediated meanings inscribed or encoded in the war memorial to see how they relate to messages about the war. In particular, they examine how these material and symbolic objects evoke feelings as part of the meaning-making process.

Citing foundational memory scholars such as Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora, the authors make the case that social and individual memories meet through interacting with forms of objectified memory as can be found in memorials and monuments. War memorials, in particular, work to perpetuate remembrance through incorporating “hard, long-lasting materials such as concrete, brick and mortar.” (195) Traditionally, war memorials emphasize themes of ‘honor’, ‘sacrifice’, and ‘common good’, which offers some form of redemption and meaning for the loss of life. War memorials become sites of memory “where national and social myths are mapped and group and individual identities are created.” (196) Through pilgrimage and commemorative rituals, visitors imbue memorials with personal and social meaning.

Feelings play a large role in the meaning-making process. The authors show that even though each visitor has a personal reaction, that response is regulated through cultural quotes and symbols that are familiar to the visitor, for example, “freedom is not free.” In the case of the Vietnam War Memorial in Massachusetts, or any other memorial to the Vietnam War, society has not come to full agreement that the loss of life was worth the cost. (201) The authors then discuss the Vietnam Memorial Wall designed by Maya Lin and the public’s initial and later responses to it followed by a fuller discussion of how the Massachusetts Vietnam Veterans Memorial works to make meaning.

The way the memorial is constructed enables individual identity to be subsumed within the larger socially mediated discourse, “overwhelming the perceiver, wstrengthening a culturally prescribed emotional response.” (206) The authors claim this memorial was designed to provoke a cathartic experience to allow healing. Monuments promote a particular narrative and social order, memorials offer a more therapeutic experience. (210)