Are Temporary Memorials the Future on the National Mall?

By Ellen Goldstein and Judy Scott Feldman

We think of memorials on the National Mall as permanent and timeless, constructed in marble and granite decades after the event being commemorated, and after emotions have faded with time. But the 600,000 small white flags that occupy twenty acres of the grounds around the Washington Monument show the power of the ephemeral.

The flag installation, conceived by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg and entitled “In America: Remember,” memorializes the number of Americans lost to COVID-19. Visitors are invited to roam through the neatly ordered rows and to inscribe the flags with personal messages to family and friends.

The pandemic is ongoing, the emotions are searing. Simply having a place like this to share our collective pain is cathartic.

Firstenberg has said that the inspiration for this project was her rage over the huge death toll brought by COVID in the U.S., and the indifference or inaction of public officials across the country.  She told NPR that because so many deaths occurred in isolation in hospital ICUs, away from loved ones, she hoped that seeing all the individual flags will acknowledge those deaths and make the huge number easier to comprehend.

White flags waving on the National Mall (Ellen Goldstein)

The flags bring to mind another temporary installation, the AIDs quilt project in October 1987 – exactly 34 years ago.  Then, 1,920 memorial quilts filled the National Mall to draw public attention to another mysterious illness killing Americans and to demand action from Congress.

Temporary memorials such as “In America: Remember” may become increasingly popular on the Mall in coming years. Permanent, stone memorials take years or decades to come to fruition; they remind us of the past. Temporary memorials have a more timely – and democratic – purpose: they raise our awareness of urgent matters, encourage our empathy, and spur us to take action.

What better place to use the power of temporary installations than on the National Mall – the Stage for American Democracy.

The installation opened on September 17th and closed on October 3rd.

• Ellen Goldstein is a member of the Board of the National Mall Coalition. Judy Scott Feldman, PhD, is a founding member and Chair of the National Mall Coalition.

Photo Gallery: Artist Suzanne Brennan Firsten’s “In America: Remember”

  • Artist Suzanne Brennan Firsten's National Mall exhibit "In America: Remember," memorializes the number of Americans lost to COVID-19. (Photo by Ellen Goldstein)

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