The philosophical ramifications of the title question are profound. For memorial or commemoration committees, the question is deeply pragmatic. Is a person the sum of their achievements? Should they be recognized for their personalities or behavioral characteristics? How do you physically manifest those ephemeral concepts?
I don’t envy the task of a memorial designer or artist. Summarizing a person’s essence must be daunting. Great memorials do evoke the emotion surrounding the person or event being memorialized. Last fall, I read about the proposed Frank Gehry design for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C. I am neutral about Gehry. Some of his designs are overwrought; some fulfill their aesthetic parameters. I found the Eisenhower design exceptionally overwrought and completely lacking any sense of Eisenhower. While I am not an Eisenhower fanatic (I do respect him and his achievements), I think a person should be appropriately memorialized. The memorial should invoke the person’s essence, not the artist’s personal aesthetic.
So as an activist public historian, I immediately registered my public comments with the Washington, D.C. Fine Arts Commission. I also stumbled across an organization, the National Civic Art Society, which was fighting the proposed Gehry design and inquired about internship opportunities. NCAS accepted my internship application, and I have been researching memorials for white papers and Congressional hearings ever since.
A few situations surprised me. I knew that the fights over memorials could be contentious. The discussions about Presidential Memorials are, unsurprisingly, quite ferocious. The families, friends, enemies, and artists all vie for their interpretations. Susan Eisenhower has been a witty, fierce critic of the design. The squabbling continues until one person, through sheer will power, forces the beginning of construction. Franklin D. Roosevelt started the digging for the Jefferson Memorial before Congress even finalized plans. The stories behind his eventual memorial deserve their own blog post.
The Eisenhower Memorial is currently on hold as the Department of Interior reviews the design and the actions of the memorial commission – missing the hoped for D-Day anniversary announcement. As the politicians sort out the fiscal, political, and aesthetic issues, we come full circle, still wondering how do you memorialize a person and his/her accomplishments. Unable to answer all these questions and enduring 100 degree heat, I propose we instead look to the Smithsonian Institution and discuss which president would be the best military leader against zombies. I concur with Harry Rubenstein.