Op-Ed: What Makes A Successful Memorial The Sept. 11 memorial at the World Trade Center opened to the public the day after the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Art historian Simon Schama explores the purpose of public memorials, what makes one successful and what many memorial designers get wrong.

Op-Ed: What Makes A Successful Memorial

Op-Ed: What Makes A Successful Memorial

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The Sept. 11 memorial at the World Trade Center opened to the public the day after the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Art historian Simon Schama explores the purpose of public memorials, what makes one successful and what many memorial designers get wrong.

Read Simon Schama's Financial Times piece, "The Remains of that Day"

NEAL CONAN, host: And now, The Opinion Page. Yesterday, Presidents Obama and Bush helped to dedicate the 9/11 memorial in New York. Scores of victims' family members poured on to the new plaza to search for the names of loved ones etched in bronze around the reflecting pools built into the footprints where towers once stood.

Today, the memorial goes public. Historian Simon Schama reflected on the birth of the 9/11 memorial in an essay titled "The Remains of That Day" in the Financial Times. He joins us in a moment, but we want to hear from you as well. What's the purpose of memorials and which ones that you've visited work? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Simon Schama is university professor at Columbia University. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back.

SIMON SCHAMA: Hello, Neal. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And you begin your essay reflecting on the purpose of public memorials. Is it for the victims or does it have to have a larger purpose?

SCHAMA: Well, I think, first and foremost, it is to honor the dead and those immediately around them. And one can say, I think actually, that the 9/11 memorial - anybody watching yesterday or anybody who's been fortunate to visit it can say that it's done a remarkable job, actually, of kind of - creating a kind of poetic communion.

If you think about what Michael Arad, the young architect designer of the fountains - I call them the basins of grief, because water falls, echoing, but in a subtly indirect way, the fall of the towers and the fall of people. If you think about what they were trying to do, he said they were reflecting absence, and absence is a very difficult, by definition, hard thing to reflect on. But the immediately bereaved are owed something like this.

The question for a larger society is whether or not such memorials work. You know, go above their immediate purpose of a somber remembrance to make us reflect on the reasons for the sacrifice.

Pericles, in a verbal exercise, really, in Thucydides' masterpiece "The Peloponnesian War," of course, made his famous speech in which the bodies of the young fallen for Athenian democracy were paraded before their nearest and dearest with a meditation on the reason why they perished. And a free society, a democratic society needs occasionally to ask those questions. They must not, however, trample on the immediate rites of grief. And my own feeling is that 9/11 memorial space, when it's finished, complete with the museum of the remains, will have done a remarkable job in reconciling those two goals.

CONAN: Isn't it a little difficult to even envision what it's all going to look like? As you said, the museum is not finished. Certainly, the buildings that will rise around the memorial, they're not finished either.

SCHAMA: Have you been, Neal? Actually, have you had a chance to...?

CONAN: I have not been down there yet.

SCHAMA: It's not, you know, actually, and this is, again, a tribute, I think, not just to the designers but to the phenomenal craftwork: plumbers, landscape. Peter Walker is the man who designed the landscape of what he calls an urban grove of what will eventually be 400 swamp oaks. If you go - and it is a sort of, you know, still frantically busy construction site - the feeling you have is of three elements to this. The first and the most immediate is that isn't - there's a memorial plaza. It's our world even though we're coming to grieve and reflect on the threats on democracy or whatever. It's a world where you can easily feel children will come and play in the space underneath the trees and will taken by their relatives to find the names of the missing, or simply by people who are part of what I call in the essay, this larger, extended community of mourners, which are all of us, all of us in America, all of us in the Western democracies. You can see that that will be a human-populated space.

I did ask one of the people, so are there going to be ice creams, for example? I saw no reason why there shouldn't be, actually...


SCHAMA: ...and she wasn't quite sure about that. I must say, there are no benches actually under the trees. It's a very British thing, I suppose, the bench. But I rather love the bench. You have rather formidably austere granite slabs on which you sit, which is disconcerting.

Down below, what you observe is memory, is the past, is the catastrophe, the footprints of the towers. You have this kind of rather terrible, almost Egyptian - because the Egyptians felt the dead still walked among them - Egyptian feeling of the waters of grief. And all around, of course, skyscrapers, office blocks of better and lesser value, worth, design and aesthetic splendor are going up. That, too, is a retort to the terrorists, you know? In the essay, I say, well, the merchants of death will be replied to by the merchandizing of everything else, actually.

And so you do have the sense this will be business. There will be a time when somehow past, present and America's wonderful perennial belief in the future will all come together quite seamlessly. It will just be one of the great spaces in American public life, I think.

CONAN: Interesting, you mentioned benches. I don't know if you had, again, a chance to go to the Pentagon Memorial, but it is built around benches designed so those facing into the building represent those people who were aboard the aircraft, Flight 77, that crashed into the building. Those pointed out were those in the building who died as a result of the crash.

SCHAMA: Are people going to be sit - going to be able to be sit on them?

CONAN: Indeed.

SCHAMA: Well, I think that's rather good, actually. I think the whole sense of repose is actually part of very good memorials. Those of you out there who don't know the Oklahoma City Memorial, that is absolutely magnificent. Of course it's much smaller than 9/11. But it actually is not quite the same thing. But there is a stone, a large almost throne-like stone - well, that's too much - a large stone chair for every one of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. And they're seated around like a kind of, you know, banquet of missing souls, a body of reflecting water with a clock stopped at the moment when the horrible bomb went off. And that's rather wonderful.

So - listen. I think sort of people might have problems somehow with, you know, sitting on a representation of the dead, actually. That's why I asked about the benches. But I don't, actually.

CONAN: We're talking with Simon Schama, a British historian and art historian, university professor at Columbia, contributing editor at the Financial Times, where he wrote the essay "The Remains of That Day." He's with us from our bureau in New York. What is the purpose of a public memorial? Which that you visited work? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And Brad is on the line calling from Wichita.

BRAD (Caller): Hello, and thank you for taking my call. I visited the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, and it must have been about 10 years after the bombing itself. And I was not expecting much in the way of, you know, my ability to connect with the events of that day. However, when we got to the memorial, we were struck immediately by the size of the opening that greets you when you get to the memorial, walking through that opening and reaching the area where those chairs are positioned, each chair representing one of the lives lost that day. The emotion and the power of that memorial were absolutely intense. And I believe I cried for 20 minutes just taking in the events of that day. So I am very happy that the people of New York City and indeed the people of the world that are represented by those of New York City have a place that they can go and reflect upon what happened that day. And that's all I have to say.

CONAN: OK. Brad, thanks very much for the call. Interestingly, Simon Schama, it is a 9/11 memorial. It is not just those who were killed that day in New York, but those who were killed that day in Pennsylvania, and in Washington and indeed those killed at the earlier attack at the World Trade Center.

SCHAMA: Yeah. Six people who were killed in 1993, Neal. I think that also - I'm not sure if it was part of the original brief in the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, but I'm very glad - and maybe it was - but it's a very good idea. Because in some sense, actually, what the memorial is - being a New Yorker, as opposed to a Londoner - we also had our calamity on 7/7 - it's first and foremost, you know, we feel it to be ours. On the other hand, New York, is, of course, a world city. When we talk about New York, we think immediately of the number of different cultures and religions and ethnic groups who can manage to live together peaceably or at least even when they differ without the obligation to exterminate each other.

And in some sense, actually having the fallen at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, who were incredibly brave, of course, be part of this one big memorial, we feel bonded in the ideas for which we grieve. We're grieving for the loss, but in some sense, we're sort of grieving for the ideas that which put us together as a political community - freedom, toleration, lack of censorship, a resistance to theocratic tyranny. All these things bond us together as well as simply hands linked around the grave. So it's a very, very good idea, I think.

Let's go next to Terry(ph), Terry with us from Longwood in Florida.

TERRY (Caller): Yes, I'm here. I'm here. Thank you very much for taking my call. You had asked what other memorials that we might have seen that might compare. I have been to the Arizona Memorial in Honolulu, and that one was particularly moving. It's, you know, it's a very graceful monument. You know, calls out all of the people who were involved, has a beautiful painting rendition of the day. Plus, you can actually see the infrastructure of the ship under the water, because it's not very far under the water. And even just thinking about it chokes me up a little bit. I was rather sorry to hear that they did not incorporate any of the steel or the sphere or anything like that from the World Trade Center in the monument, to the - or in the memorial to the people who died there.

SCHAMA: Neal...

CONAN: Go ahead.

SCHAMA: Neal, maybe I can put that right. First of all, I want to say that I couldn't agree more about Honolulu. It's deeply moving. It's somehow - there's an Atlantis quality about the half-buried, half-drowned vessel warships. And it's quite wonderfully graceful and has a kind of poetic economy, actually, if that's not too pretentious a way of putting it. But, what's your name, caller?

TERRY: Terry.

CONAN: Terry.

SCHAMA: Terry, hi. No, maybe that's a problem for you, but I do want you to feel assured that the museum - it's a funny name for it really. What - the access, actually, to the site quite soon will be through the, I think, rather graceful and strong and successful above-ground entrance. Most of the museum containing remains and documentation and so on will be underground. And it will be finished next year. But the sort of heroic vestibule that you go through, of glass principally has, as its centerpiece, two of the monumental, the so-called trident columns.

If you remember the epically ruined, tragic, heroic sort of pictures of those jutting columns of steel, which were supporting much of the structure of the World Trade Center, of the Two Towers, two of them, two of them been preserved at monumental heights, I believe about 60 foot, but don't quote me. And that, they perform a kind of - a sort of tragic salute to you as you go in. So the sense, actually, of the overcoming of ruin by a kind of defiance, which is very American, will be there, and actual remains are definitely going to be there. They're not incorporated into the physical structure of the fountains. That's quite true.

TERRY: I'm very glad to hear that. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Terry.

TERRY: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: We're talking with Simon Schama on the Opinion Page this week. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Gordon is on the line, calling from Elk Rapids in Michigan.

GORDON (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

GORDON: I - every year, I go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I'm a Vietnam veteran. And I meet there with the 9th Ranger reunion. And it's mostly veterans there. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people. And it's a wonderful place to have a ceremony.

CONAN: And perhaps - thanks very much for the call, Gordon. The remarkable controversy over the construction of the Vietnam Memorial - one of those you did not mention in your piece.

SCHAMA: Did I not, actually?

CONAN: I don't think so.

SCHAMA: That's a feverishly overenthusiastic editor. I'm quite sure I did in the original draft. No, in fact Maya Lin, who was actually on a panel of judges which awarded the choice of design in the 9/11 Memorial, of course, designed the Vietnam Memorial. And I guess maybe I didn't actually, Neal, but certainly I was thinking about the Vietnam Memorial and how successful it's been. Pat Buchanan, I seem to remember, called Maya Lin a communist. And it was thought that by eschewing, by not having a figurative, not having actual soldiers, grunts, sort of recognized somehow, but having this trench or rift in the ground, there was something sort of shame-faced and negative and apologetic and defensive, and that brought up terrible memories from veterans, including veterans I knew, about feeling not sufficiently honored when they returned from their terrible mission.

That, of course, was not the case. What's interesting about your, you know, the three calls have all actually been praising designs of poetic compression, rather abstract designs, which is not to say that heroic figures actually can't be quite moving too. But when the scale of a catastrophe is so great, and when you want to ruminate both on the loss of nearest and dearest and simply fellow Americans, and also the reasons why we lost them, and if you can bring it off with grace and depth and profundity, the abstract designs for me, at least, always beat the sort of, you know, slight frozen action of soldiers. I will say, I do think the one that works very - and Vietnam is, of course, an extraordinary success now - there was a lot of hostility. But the figurative design I think works rather well, better than I imagined it would, is the small, quite modest but rather beautiful Korean Veterans. And if you got any Korean veterans out there, which are figures. And that was, of course, the Winter War. And these are rather ghostly figures who kind of trudge through the steamy or Washington weather, which you know very well, Neal.

CONAN: I was going to say, best seen in February.

SCHAMA: Yeah. It is probably best seen in February. But we filmed this, actually, for a documentary I made, very - just as dawn was breaking, indeed, in winter. And it's terribly moving, I think.

CONAN: It's interesting, the Vietnam Memorial also - the first to my knowledge that focused so much on the names - and it was interesting, Mr. Arad, the designer of this memorial, said the - for the first two years after the design was accepted, all he heard were arguments about the placement of the names.

SCHAMA: Yes. He was very decent and conscientious about however long it took, going, you know, deep consultation process. All hats off to him for doing that. And he came up with what he calls, in an unbelievably unlovely terminology, meaningful adjacencies. I mean, what language is that? 'Tisn't English. What he means is families, colleagues, relations, fellow passengers and so on. Groups of people who knew each other and fell together. So that's kind of honored. And I think that's right too. I will say there are little things that - this may sound really bizarre. But again, I think we should congratulate them on what could've gone wrong, the font. It sounds really ridiculous, but the actual style of calligraphic - calligraphy, in which the names are inscribed is exceptionally beautiful and graceful. And when you said etched, Neal, people should know that that means actually literally cut through the bronze so that light will flow under it both day and night, which is very beautiful.

CONAN: Simon Schama, thank you so much.

SCHAMA: You're so welcome.

CONAN: Simon Schama joined us from our bureau in New York. His essay "What Remains Of That Day" appeared in the "Financial Times." There's a link to it on our website. Go to npr.org. Tomorrow, Israel besieged. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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