Remembering can be controversial. For the past 13 years, Americans have gathered at Ground Zero in New York on 9/11. Nothing too scandalous there. But that act became tendentious when we built a memorial—and then, this year, a museum—to recall the tragedy.
It’s easy to find fault with this type of tangible remembrance. How, you may ask, can a single artistic representation possibly encompass searing brutality, grief, horror, and loss? Is it morally appropriate for perpetrator governments or their successors to build these monuments? Is it ethical to construct sites that attract gawking tourists? These uncomfortable questions have prompted many to argue that remembrance days, educational programs, and empty spaces specifically designated for commemoration are better than physical memorials. But that argument ignores an important benefit of the memorial: No matter how they look, they have a permanence that an empty space or an educational program does not. And that permanence sends a powerful message – that the memory of the tragedy won’t be ephemeral.
That fact doesn’t make it any easier to design a memorial that’s universally pleasing. New York’s 9/11 Memorial and Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe show how hard it can be to construct an appropriate, effective memorial. The first challenge they illustrate: How to navigate the trade-off between information and aesthetics. Too many plaques, for instance, overwhelm the aesthetic impact of a place, but too little information leaves observers to wonder what’s being commemorated. This is the case with the Holocaust memorial. It consists of a field of massive gray steles designed to communicate sorrow, accompanied by an underground information center. But the information center is difficult to find, and the memorial’s title doesn’t mention who persecuted the Jews or even which Jews were murdered, reducing this information to the assumption that “everybody knows.”
The need to balance form with education is made harder by the fact that visitors have different degrees of knowledge, cultural backgrounds, and mother tongues. Architecture may communicate the past better than a plaque can, but successful memorials must still incorporate both design and data. The 9/11 Memorial sought to solve this problem by building a museum next to the memorial, but this only caused a clash: A few months ago, an interfaith council objected to one of the museum’s films, saying that the short movie, designed to educate visitors about Al Qaeda, doesn’t clearly differentiate between radical jihadists and ordinary Muslims.
This still leaves maybe the biggest dilemma in headlines: How should memorials engage visitors? The Holocaust and 9/11 memorials, again, demonstrate this difficulty. Critics argue that the Holocaust memorial, with its rectilinear stele arrangement, has ineffective artistic engagement, partly because of how hard it is to find the accompanying information center, and partly because many of the steles are now beginning to crumble. There’s also the issue of how the memorial is used as a park in which children (and adults, too) play hide-and-seek and sit on smaller steles. In other words, it’s not entirely clear whether the memorial is supposed to be a site of fun or solemnity.
Similarly, the 9/11 Memorial is still often criticized for being “given over to multimedia flash”: With its bagpipe music, gift shop, and jam-packed displays, the memorial is more likely to leave visitors confused than moved. Moreover, there’s been the even more recent snafu over selfies—should visitors be taking smiling photos of themselves at a solemn memorial? Some visitors, whether at the Holocaust memorial or 9/11 Memorial, argue that selfies are a form of tribute; they put people into a larger context. But for others, this tragedy tourism is disrespectful.
These concerns are real and valid. But we can’t let them obscure the reality that constructing a memorial is still a positive and significant step toward remembrance. For instance, Berlin’s Memorial for the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered in National Socialism wasn’t finished until 2012, though it’s for a tragedy that occurred in the 1940s. This delay was due in large part to the fact that although the Roma Genocide, or Porajmos, killed nearly one quarter of Europe’s entire Roma community, many people hadn’t heard of the Porajmos. It wasn’t until 1982 that the German government acknowledged that Roma and Sinti were persecuted for racial reasons. Before then policy held that they had been killed for asocial behavior. By constructing a permanent Porajmos memorial (within view of the Reichstag, no less), the government is stating that it accepts past guilt and will offer future support to the Roma. So memorials, regardless of their flaws, are critical in sustaining attention paid to past tragedies. (And seeing as how Roma still face government-sanctioned prejudice in some of the very places where their relatives were killed, and how European Jews are facing a refueled anti-Semitism in what has been called the “worst times since the Nazi era,” memorials are key for making sure we don’t forget.) Their power, in other words, is in their permanence.
Clearly, it’s difficult to construct a memorial that pleases everyone: governments, communities being honored, and outside observers, while simultaneously balancing artistry with information. Memorials shouldn’t be prioritized above victims’ needs, nor should they be created without first consulting the victims themselves. “Failed” monuments abound. Examples such as Marcel Breuer’s aborted Roosevelt Memorial from the 1960s, Yemen’s Sana’a suicide bombing memorial from 2012, and Hungary’s arguably revisionist World War II memorial from this year shine a light on how difficult it is to combine the ingredients needed to create a memorial that’s accurate, easily interpreted, and respectful.
With artistic, historical, and educational integrity, however, memorials are powerful reminders that the darker chapters of the past mustn’t be repeated. They’re living lessons that promote non-recurrence of long-ago conflicts, as well as of recent tragedies.
Claire Greenstein is a Ph.D. student in comparative politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her prior research has focused mainly on Europe, and her research interests include transitional justice and memory politics. This piece originally appeared on The Weekly Wonk.