This article was originally published on Common Edge. Monuments, as Alois Riegl pointed out a century ago, are aids to memory. “In memoriam,” the carvings cry out. Though they are almost always tainted with political ideologies and social values, they can stand on their own as works of art, absorbing meanings over millennia. Many that we continue to treasure were once associated with events and practices antithetical to modern mores and taboos: Greek temples were founded on the altars of animal—and, earlier, human—sacrifice; the pyramids were made by slaves; market crosses may have served as flogging posts. There really are no innocent human artifacts dedicated to remembering human acts, as fact or fiction. Compare Grant’s Tomb, now standing largely ignored in Riverside Park, New York City, with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., long one of the capital’s most-visited tourist sites. When first erected, the monument to Grant, one of the nation’s most beloved war heroes, was still connected to Civil War veterans and Reconstruction. Hundreds of thousands came to the unveiling, and weekend visitors to the site were legion for the first decades of the 20th century, like the ones who today hang flowers and tributes on “the wall” designed by Maya Lin while she was a student at Yale. It is likely that the modest black wall on the National Mall will suffer the same fate as General Grant’s temple/mausoleum during the next century. That won’t make it any less valuable as a national monument.
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