How complete is the American story we tell on the Mall? How can we update and enrich that story?
A visitor to the monuments and memorials on the Mall encounters a story at once inspiring, moving, and sobering — monuments to Founders and Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Grant, FDR; memorials to the Civil War, Vietnam, the Korean conflict, World War II; our most recent addition honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. At our national museums the visitor can explore American history, science, space, art, and native American and African American (soon) history and culture. Surely this is a rich panoply of past and present, individuals and movements, arts and technology. But is this the full story we want to tell?
What’s missing? What do we want visitors — including the 8th graders making their once-in-a-lifetime trip to DC — to take away about our common heritage as a people, our common purpose and goals as we look to the future? For example, can we tell a richer, fuller story that captures the imagination of pedestrians on the 2-mile-long expanse between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial?
The truth is, the story told on the Mall is uneven and inadequate. But we do not need any more 7-acre monuments paving over the dwindling open space. The current, often controversial state of affairs in memorial building is more a product of the modern process than it is of intentional design. Unlike the monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln that were designed and located to create the geometry and vistas that define the Mall’s symbolic core, later monuments happen haphazardly. Interest groups propose a memorial or museum, Congress authorizes it, and government review agencies approve final designs. Site selection goes through the same process. Congress in 2003 imposed a moratorium on memorials and museums but pressures to add new monuments will continue as future generations tell their story.
What is needed is new ways to think about memorials and museums and the role of the Mall in telling our country’s history. Instead of interest groups choosing and filling the Mall’s open spaces with 7-acres of granite (FDR Memorial) and 30-foot-high statues (MLK Memorial), we can:
- Establish an American Story Committee of educators, scholars, cultural leaders to review and revise current memorial and museum building policy to create a coherent system that enhances the Mall’s ability to tell more of our story
- Create a broad outline of key figures and chapters in American history that would be desirable themes on the Mall, drawing on respected sources such as the 8th grade American government curricula, the American Citizenship exam, and civics education materials
- Develop new typologies for smaller scale and useful commemorative features, such as statues and plaques, and landscape elements such as fountains and pools, and propose how they could be grouped to create interesting, thematically connected walking tours
- Encourage civic minded memorial and museum sponsors to implement new projects such as those proposed above that both tell more of the American story while also enhancing the Mall as a nationally significant public space to learn about and experience American democracy