This week I am in the nation’s capital working with history educators alongside the incredible staff at Ford’s Theatre. This is my third year working with the team and it is one of the highlights of the year for me.
I am always struck by the power that this city’s monuments and memorials evoke in visitors. The varied and often emotional responses that these monuments and other historic sites often raise speaks to a fundamental tension in our commemorative landscapes.
On the one hand these sites are an attempt to shape a collective or shared memory. We travel to D.C. – often with kids in tow – to find out something about who we are as citizens of the United States. In remembering the past we hope to somehow strength current bonds of community and union. That project, however, is never quite completed. Nor can it ever be.
Regardless of the attempt by fundraisers, artists, and dedication day speakers to impose a static meaning to monument sites that they intend or hope to unite communities, they are always open to multiple interpretations.
The evolution of meaning of many of these sites and the often bitter debates about what, if anything should be done to them, speak to contentious questions concerning citizenship, political power, and justice. That fact is a reflection of the messiness of democracy itself and the challenge that a nation like the United States faces in the continuous and unfinished work of trying to forge ‘one out of many.’