The Many Meanings of 'Memorial'

Somers Point
The open gate suggests once it is unveiled visitors will be literally able to touch history in the form of the WWII era torpedo at the Sub Vets Memorial, while the generally favorable location of the 1812 Memorial became a big problem when it was drowned by floodwaters during Hurricane Sandy.  Photo courtesy of the author.

Over the last year as I prepared for a comprehensive PhD exam in public history and engaged in research for various essays, as well as for this monthly blog, I’ve become increasingly interested in the issue of what if anything defines a specific structure as a ‘memorial’. Recent works such as Memorial Mania by Erika Doss have highlighted the extension of memorialized groups (to include long-dead witches and the victims of Communism) and expansion of spontaneous roadside memorials as two manifestations of the explosion of memory in contemporary society. Moreover, the sheer variety of subjects that various sites and sculptures claim to memorialize has made me question whether the term ‘memorial’ may have lost some of its traditional meaning. Several so-called memorials in Philadelphia and South Jersey, including national as well as state and locally sponsored examples of commemorative artwork and architecture, help to shed some light on the many meanings of the term ‘memorial’ and what, if anything, they share.

Fairmount Park
Besides the Ohio Building (a two-story stone cottage that lives on as a coffee shop) the massive Memorial Hall is the only surviving structure of several dozen built for the Centennial Expo, while I can’t recommend crossing the road, as I did, to get an up close picture of the Garfield Memorial.  Photo courtesy of the author.

Fairmount Park is home to two of the older, more traditional examples of commemorative structures in Philadelphia. An ornately decorated bronze dome built in 1876 as the main Art Gallery of the Centennial Exposition, Memorial Hall is now home to the Please Touch Museum, which also offers historic tours of the site that promote memory of various events at this first American World’s Fair including a landmark voting rights protest by Susan B. Anthony. Just over the Schuylkill River (right across a highway from the sprawling Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial Sculpture Garden) lies the James Garfield Memorial, a bronze bust atop an engraved shield created in 1895 by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, himself better known for the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common. Two other structures located in Center City begin to blur the lines between memorial and monument. The Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, a house museum run since 1972 by the NPS that was briefly home to the Revolutionary War military engineer in the 1790s (following his involvement in a failed revolt in his native Poland), seems to function more as a monument to Polish-American democratic patriotism than a site mourning the death of a single person. Similarly the Irish Memorial located near Penn’s Landing, completed in 2003 ostensibly to remember the millions who died during the Great Hunger famine prompted by the potato blight of the late 1840s, is really much more a monument honoring the million immigrants who made it to America and the culture they brought with them. Several sites in South Jersey reflect the shifting meaning of military memorials.

Center City
A close look at the Irish Memorial shows the roles of religion, community, farm life, and family in nineteenth century immigrant society as well as the cramped conditions found on board ships, while the signage surrounding the Kosciusko Memorial belies its location close to other Center City sites.  Photo courtesy of the author.

Like the million tourists each year who travel along US Route 40, I’ve often wondered about an anchor alongside a piece of artillery in the middle of the tiny town of Elmer in Salem County.   Though few stop to look at this small roadside All-Wars Memorial, these manifestations of martial memory first created in 1952 (amid the Korean War) serve as subtle reminders of the sacrifice of veterans from the surrounding community while celebrating the strength of American military might and the fact that the United States had never, at that point, lost a major war. A very different form of military commemoration is present in Atlantic County at the Veterans Memorial Park in Egg Harbor Township which includes basketball courts, baseball fields, and a library as well as a Freedom Tree planted in 1972 to honor soldiers lost in Vietnam located next to a Peace Pole dedicated by a local Girl Scout troop in 1996. This park illustrates a trend in the evolution of mid-to-late twentieth century war memorialization by being a post-WWII infrastructure memorial encouraging community activities that later added on living memorials to ordinary soldiers as well as abstract concepts. My hometown of Somers Point also plays host to multiple military memorials including a beachfront pillar completed in 1923 to honor patriots of the War of 1812, a bust dedicated last year to Master Commandant Richard Somers who died fighting Barbary Pirates, and a yet-to-be unveiled WWII era torpedo that is meant to highlight the often forgotten role of US Navy submariners. Indeed, it was the experience of driving past the still tarp-wrapped torpedo that inspired this blog post.

By locating a large artillery gun and an anchor in front of smaller plaques to deceased soldiers the All-Wars Memorial in Elmer seems to emphasize the heroic rather than tragic side of war, while the Peace Pole at the Veterans Memorial Park in EHT presents a pretty clear anti-war message.  Photo courtesy of the author.

What then makes something a ‘memorial’ rather than just a monument, merely a building, or simply a sculpture? One factor would seem to be the ways they function in relation to the spaces around and within them. Memorial Hall has served as some form of museum since its inception, while the Garfield Memorial is literally cut off from pedestrians by a road, creating a kind of sacred space (complete with nocturnal spotlights). The Kosciusko Memorial might be any other colonial era home in Philadelphia except for its demarcation by the National Park Service, while the Irish Memorial sculpture sits in a row that includes individual memorials to Scottish Immigrants as well as veterans of both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The Elmer All-Wars Memorial is positioned to convey a message to travelers passing by (indeed it even included a “Merry Christmas” sign when I recently visited), while the Veterans Memorial Park in EHT is itself a blank space on which community activities and individual remembrances can be overlaid. Finally, the placement of the 1812 Memorial at a bayside beach on a popular tourist strip, and of the new Sub Vets Memorial (adjacent to a county bike path and next to the VFW), each guarantees that both local children and summertime visitors are frequently reminded about area wartime heroes. Thus one quality shared by all these memorials may be a dual role in heritage tourism and local memory.