Functions of Memorials


Download: holocaust_memorial.doc


So what exactly is a war memorial and what should be it’s foremost functions? Maybe one of the most important functions should be to help moving forward in the healing process. To be able to make sense of the past, make peace with it, and bring us into the future. And  maybe in order to heal, a war memorial needs to invoke public discussions and controversies.  

This was what architect Peter Eisenman thought when he designed The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. When the memorial finally unveild in May 2005, it had already been raising questions for public debate for 17 years. And still, it continues to do so. 

The Holocaust Memorial consists of an entire city block covered, seemingly haphazardly, in huge concrete blocks. Some of the steal pillars lay low to the ground, while others stand upright, the tallest reaching a height of 4.7 metres. The 2,711 pillars, planted close together in undulating waves, represent the 6 million murdered Jews. The Memorial in itself is merely a symbolic sculptural construct. It is obvious that it is not required to construct complex sculptures in order to generate a vast amount of media attention, discussions and controversies. 

Here’s a few examples of the controversies: One of the questions raised has been “Why does it only represent Jews and not the Romas and Sintis? What about the homosexuals and the political dissidents?” They also died in extermination camps. Some Jewish leaders, on the other hand, have warned that they would consider to recommend Jews not to visit the memorial; A result of Lea Rosh, the initiator of the project, wanting to embed a tooth she found at an extermination camp into one of the steal pillars.  

But all controversies are welcomed by the architect. Eisenman has aimed to open up discussion rather than close it off: that is, to take the Memorial beyond its specific Holocaust context, and raise wider issues of anti-Semitism and social responsibility. To achieve it he designed an abstract sculpture. A sculpture that wasn’t out to control visitor thoughts and actions, just to provoke them. ‘It stands there, silent,’ he says: ‘the one who has to talk is you.’” 

But does it just stand silent? There are different opinions on how the Monument affects its visitors. Jon Brunberg says that it makes you feel closer to WWII: 

“Standing on an uneven piece of land, the stelae almost fall into the centre of the site, rising up again towards the edge, forming a myriad of uneven stone corridors. Walking down one of these passages is disorientating, and scary; you can’t see who is approaching you, nor who is behind. The tilting ground and lack of vision offers some small idea of the Jewish experience from WWII: your past snatched away, your future insecure, little hope of escape.” 

Anders Høg Hansen experienced something much sunnier though:  “While I was visiting the site in July 2005, people used the lower stones as a bench or were sunbathing on top, having lunch, or sleeping. Youngsters were kissing, or hanging out with a shoulder against a pillar while ’watching for opportunities’. Kids were playing hide and seek, and others were just strolling slowly through. If one walks too fast, you risk bumping into other visitors.” This behavior was something that Eisenman predicted. “I think people will eat their lunch on the pillars,” he said. “I’m sure skateboarders will use it. People will dance on top of the pillars. All kinds of unexpected things are going to happen.” 

I think that Eisenman has done some good decisions. He has created a living thing; the action-space of the monument and the controversies around it makes it come alive and constantly reshapes it’s being. I haven’t visited the memorial though, so I don’t know how successful it really is. But I’m hoping that it do force visitors to contemplate their personal relation to the Holocaust.  

There are some problems with the people who still looks for the walls with the name collections, the traditional memorial which they are sure how to read. And Memorials should belong to the people, not to the art world. Memorials should find it’s purposes and fill them. Therefore a memorial shouldn’t be too mysterious and artsy. In Berlin they solved the problem by sticking an information center below the monument itself. Another solution is to move the monument to a place with different laws. On the web I think there would be no such obstacles when leaving the traditional behind. I think people have more acceptance for experiments and are more flexible on the web.  

Another thing, concerning the experience design, is that too many people seem to describe it as a playground for the school children visiting. I think the aim to design a war experience is beautiful and I don’t like hearing that it now mainly works as a playground. The playing children can be seen as a part of the art work, letting the everyday life play out right on top of the graveyard-like memory sculpture. But if it takes away from the feeling of being close to those who lost their lives, i ‘m not liking it. Maybe there should have been some element making the experience more scary, so that the mixture with the the playing children and the laughter would become almost airy? Maybe he should have gone a little bit further.  

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By Sarah Quigley: 

By: Jon Brunberg: 

– Holocaust and war memorials in Germany 
By Anders Høg Hansen: 

By: Jon Brunberg:


9 Responses to “Functions of Memorials”

  1. 1 Anders February 12, 2007 at 3:49 pm


    I will do it in English since your site is mostly in English. Doesn’t really have time. But this is exciting. In addition to our discussion earlier – and the article you refer to – I may ponder a bit further on war monuments and memorial practices. Monuments as well as memorial practices can all be seen as forms of ‘vergangheitsbewältigung’ using a symbolic language or symbolic means.

    Let me suggest that war memorials may carry a potential to address a theme which is not easy to talk about. The monument’s artistic language may be a form or media with which this may be possible? War is incomprehensible – and so it can be hard to find a comprehensible language for its representation or ‘working through’ in an aftermath.

    Monuments often contain literal inscriptions with names, dates etc. The Holocaust memorial in Berlin as you rightly say is abstract is nevertheless joined by a basement exhibition (which I think I did not note in the article). You can say that another language has been added to the abstract ‘monumental’ language above ground. Below in darkened rooms you find the facts and numbers of the gas chambers and a range of personal histories.
    So here we have at least two very different languages coupled.

    Digital forms of memorial practice, another third form which you are exploring, invite a cluster of languages to come together, I’d presume, and it may free the memorial from a particular site, as well as its pedestal or its form of elevation or spirit of sacrality which often surround it.. It may also free the memorial from its static-ness and the muddled poltics it is often build upon (The former shrinking monument of Harburg is however and example of another form).

    There may also be a lot of trouble connected to the new forms you explore.

    Besides benefit and trouble, the Swedish artist’s initiative and your project may explore other forms of shared space which however can be modified in the same manner as our memories change – i.e. as a a new day at least cast a new light on some aspects of the past. In this way memory is not just a freezer, but also a processor as Alessandro Portelli once put it.

    Good luck

  2. 2 sara stiber February 13, 2007 at 11:45 am

    Thank you for taking the time to write this. It’s very helpful. We haven’t been able to find The Textures of Memory, but we did find another book by James E. Young; At Memory’s Edge, which seems to be really great. So if you haven’t seen it, we recommend it.


  3. 3 Anders February 16, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    Hi Sara/Andreas, An American museum curator, Eva Fognell, works with the project ‘Visual Voices: revwriting history in public art’ for the Communication for Development programme at K3.

    There are some overlaps in the debates you engage with. Here is extracted comments written to her, but you might reflect on bits of this…

    Hi Eva (copied to Trevor, Sara/Andreas)

    This is some ponderings primarily for Eva Fognell. By this I have tried to engage with some of your conceptual discussions in your PM. Use this as a sound board to develop your own position. Comments here is in many cases of a general character, relevant for others, and part of my own wonderings (process of clarifying things) which I think can be useful for others – so I distribute more widely. There are no particular personal criticisms, so I think it is ok to use for several…

    Raphael Samuel writes, intriguingly I think, in Theatres of Memory Vol 1 about ‘history’ and ‘memory’ – this is related to the debate you engage in: He refers to Halbwachs: History as a product of analysis and reflection, and Memory as something more natural and subjective, i.e. History as a craft/discipline and memory as our minds images and thoughts. History, on the oher hand, he continues, has the power of abstraction. We could continue and say (via Charles Maier) that the past is not History. History is the craft or form of representation with which we engage with the past and express the past. But then we may confuse ‘History’ with ‘Memorials’ – and here I think it is important to see memorials as artistic, symbolic and condensed forms or practices and History as another practice.

    Raphael Samuel continues (similar to David E Young and many others I think) to say that the distinction memory/history is not so clear-cut. First of all is memory not a passive storage system – it is a shaping force, dynamic etc (apropos Portelli’s memory as freezer and processor). Secondly, there is a part of memory which is – going back to Aristotle – which is a conscious act of recollection, anamnesis, a form of intellectual labour akin to memory (alse Paul Ricouer writes about this. He is an expert on writings on memory using the old philosophers).

    Here I would step in and say that the interpretation and writing of contemporary or ‘near history’ moulds memory and history together. Often history is thought of as something we write when memory fades – or?

    Somehow I think, Eva, that your interesting points on History p 6 (similar to the Halbwachs discussion I referred to earlier) should be connected to what yo say on p 2-4.

    So monuments can be seen as the symbolic means with which we engage with the past. History is not a symbolic engagement. Memorials may be symbolic tombstones (I think Young said that?), not literal ones, even though literal tombstone can become a monument – as the Prague Jewish cemetary. You use the word ‘preservation’ but I am not clear here… isn’t it rather about a form with which we can engage. On the other hand the curator, archaeologist the historian could be said to ‘preserve’ the past, by caring/kurating objects, documents etc?

    I may be too eager to create distinctions. But this just to say that your p2-4, 6-7 discussion trigger further debate and maybe some more clarification?

    Well, to continue… memorials can be heritage sites, but not necessarily. Heritage is some authority’s selection of what is to be highlighted, staged, narrated as precious. That authority can be a vilage, a nation, the European Union or an Aboriginal group etc. – One authority can also give a helping hand to a smaller entity; and say, hey, we give some money and space and you can have a memorial, a museum or etc…

    Many memorials as you write may indicate some plurality, but maybe not necessarily – if they all point in one direction? Another thing is that memorials may not at all help us to engage or to create development locally because they tend to be i.e. in stone, they tend to freeze something, being not interactive, but even though they sometimes carry a singular message… still, in the name of more progressive audience theory, we engage with ‘texts’ in critical ways and we read along with other people in various contexts. This is why virtual memorials may be of interest (Sara/Andreas and Swedish artist project, see the two links) where interaction and moulding may be stimulated in other ways? (Sara/Andreas will deliver an answer to this in a couple of months…)

    I have no comments to the last bits from point 6 and onward, ie. The various American sites. Look forward to see when you have worked more it and integrated theory with sites studies more – then I’ll try to help.

    Best wishes

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