Pulitzer Prize-winning critic speaks about national memorials

Hayden Clark

When tourists visit the National Mall in Washington D.C., they aren’t aware of the work and planning that goes into determining the different memorials’ details, said Phillip Kennicott, Washington Post art and architecture critic, in a speech at the Harry Ransom Center on Tuesday.

Kennicott said the District of Columbia War Memorial, which commemorates the fallen soldiers of World War I, involved many underlying factors and decisions that the public is unaware of.

“It’s a subject that’s kind of hidden in plain sight in Washington,” Kennicott said. “What people don’t realize is  there is this whole political backstory that there are in fact these organizations, like the Commission of Fine Arts, that have power, they were federally appointed people — they’re still federally appointed — to kind of go through every single detail [of the memorials].

Kennicott said people don’t appreciate the complexity of the architectural planning involved in the memorials in Washington. Kennicott also said one of the things that goes unseen is the memorials transformation, and he said he urges students to visit memorials surrounding them.

“When we visit Washington, we go there, and we just sort of see [the memorials] finished, and we don’t see that process of evolution,” Kennicott said. “There’s a lot of authorities to sort of guide these things to looking better. You don’t necessarily know that when you see Washington, but, when that process works well, it actually works really well. … I would love for students to get out and look at the memorial landscape that’s all around them.”

Steve Enniss, director of the Harry Ransom Center, said remembering history and how it is construed plays a key role on how the present is characterized.

“The topic of how we remember the past is of vital importance to how we define who we are in the present,” Enniss said. “So that kind of historical memory, whether it’s expressed through monuments and memorials, is vitally important for defining who we are in the present.”

Elizabeth Garver, associate professor and co-curator of the World War I memorial at the Ransom Center, said the World War I memorialization shows the impact it still has today.  

“For memorialization, it’s much more about how we’re still under the influence of World War I and the peace treaty, and all these boundaries rewritten after the war, the boundaries of Europe, the boundaries of Africa, the boundaries of the Middle East and how we’re still under the influence of the first world war,” Garver said.