June 21, 2010
The Smithsonian American Art Museum has awarded its 2010 Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in American Art to Kirk Savage, author of Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape.
Since 1989, the prize, named after a former director of the museum, has been given to the author of a book-length publication in the field of American art history that exhibits exceptional research, writing and originality. Savage’s Monument Wars, which chronicles the evolving memorial landscape of the National Mall and Washington, D.C., over the course of more than 200 years, certainly fits the bill. Jonathan Yardley, book critic of the Washington Post, called it a “superb study of monumental Washington,” and fellow author James E. Young declared it “the best single work I’ve read on the idea of ‘monument’ in American culture.”
I recently caught up with Savage—chair of the Department of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh—to discuss the past, present and future of the National Mall.
To you, what is the National Mall’s purpose?
Well, that has changed pretty drastically over time. In the 19th century, it was a sequence of grounds attached to the various buildings and institutions that were on the Mall. When you looked at them all together, it was kind of like a big park. The local population used it more as a Central Park for Washington, particularly in the last quarter of the 19th century and into the first couple of decades of the 20th. Now, obviously, it’s totally different. Its purpose has changed radically. Now, it’s the monumental core of the nation.
Americans were opposed to the idea of national monuments in the early history of the United States. Why was that?
There was an awful lot of skepticism about the whole idea of erecting monuments, partly because in the early national period, coming out of the revolution, grandiose monuments were associated with the monarchy and the British aristocracy. You couldn’t actually get people to admire [George] Washington any more by erecting a monument to him. He was already in the hearts of his countrymen. That was the argument. It’s a strong form of iconoclasm, kind of an anti-image argument.
What was the impulse behind clearing the Mall of its trees and organizing it on an axis, from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, and the White House to the Jefferson Memorial?
It really began in earnest with the McMillan Plan in 1901. The idea that you really needed to have a strong, symbolic core in the capital, something that really asserted the power and identity of the federal state was very, very important to the designers. To them, the core of Washington was very disordered. It was totally unacceptable that what could be the major symbolic space of the country would be run by this horticulturalist and that horticulturalist, this federal department and that federal department. The idea of making it into one unified landscape under one vision was crucial to them. Even though all those impulses and motivations did exist by the time the Mall was cleared in the 1930s, there was the added element of the automobile and the desire to use the Mall as a kind of road system for downtown Washington. That’s what actually made it a reality.
How have monuments in the capital changed in the past 200 years?
The Civil War monuments erected in Washington were, for the most part, not monuments to common soldiers but monuments to officers and commanders. That was very much a late 18th and 19th century mindset. The shift has gone very much to common soldiers. We might call this a democratization of the form of the public monument. Monuments were conceived basically as statues on pedestals in the 19th century. Now, the monuments are all-encompassing architectural spaces or landscape spaces. They reach out and grab the viewer and create a psychological experience. Our experience of the monument is what really matters.
What are your grievances with the current state of the Mall?
I have a lot of the grievances that a lot of people have with it. I think it’s very inhospitable. One of the downsides of clearing the Mall was that it created this huge swath of unshaded, basically barren landscape in the center of the city. So it’s that, and also the lack of amenities and good transportation around the Mall. I think some people are going back and looking more closely at the 19th century history of the Mall because they see it as a time when it wasn’t a monumental core but it functioned more as a user-friendly landscape.
Another issue I have is with the planning of the Mall, the whole idea that we’re going to close down the reserve area [to construction] and nothing is going to be built there.
In your book, you propose that temporary exhibits be allowed on the Mall during the moratorium on new construction.
My thinking behind it was that it could allow a much broader range of monuments and commemorative activities to take place than what is currently allowed in the monumental core. It could be much more experimental. It’s lower stakes. If you say, oh, it’s only going to be up three months or six months, then if people hate it, it doesn’t really matter because it’s going to come down anyway. Part of the point is to generate discussion, so works that are more provocative wouldn’t be failures. In fact, they could be thought of as successes because they might lead to some interesting conversations.
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