Monumentality in Washington: A Reflection

This weekend, I visited D.C. to volunteer and was shocked by the poverty-stricken corners of the capital I had not seen before. Since most of my escapades to the district have been touristy, I was familiar with the city’s gorgeous architecture, Parisian flavor, and historic monuments. Generally, I have never felt particularly touched by the works I’ve seen there. I recall feeling at ease at the tranquil FDR memorial, unsure how to connect my environment to the influential president. Granted, I was relatively young and unaware of Roosevelt’s legacy and the social tumult of the Great Depression (an ironic contrast to the serenity of the memorial site). In fact, nothing about any of the monuments I’ve visited have informed my historical knowledge. Still, I know the random guy on a horse represents valor and wartime bravery. I understand that the stoic granite faces embody hope and leadership. I know that to touch a marble hand or face would be irreverent, but I am never tempted because the stone would be cold anyway.

While I do believe in commemorating heroes, monuments can never be as evocative as eyes lit with passion, veins surging with determination, and voices overtaken by hope. Many times, this defective representation can be stirring in itself: while the thousands of shoes at the Holocaust Museum are unfilled, the distinct human presence saturating the air is inescapable. Some of the most powerful and ineffective attempts at remembrance invoke the sensation of reaching. Representation is only ever approached; it is not an arrival but a subjective ideal.

Ultimately, the inspiration and solemnity D.C.’s monuments and memorials grasp for is more honestly encompassed by their context. In deteriorated, struggling urban neighborhoods, the Capitol Building overlooks citizens largely neglected by the government. Homeless veterans brace for winter within miles of war memorials. The peak of the Washington Monument towers over protesters petrified by the executive branch. Irony infects the air, but it cannot pierce stone. Even if it could, most monuments are far from the dark regions of the city. If they are in sight, they only taunt citizens who need action, not ideals locked in granite.

Sarah Schurman 

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