Abe’s Odyssey

In General, Memorials on May 5, 2011 at 10:35 am

Well, I’m not going to lie to you, I was a bit disappointed by the reflecting pool. Looks a lot glossier than this on TV:

First day in DC, and I decided to get my bearings. Woke up at 4am, grouchy and hungry (having had the wisdom to buy only coffee and shampoo yesterday when I went out for supplies. Bear Grylls would be so proud). Dived out for a truly tragic breakfast in IHOP, and then spent about 3 days in Target, shopping for a 10 item list – still tired and grouchy (not to mention nauseous after the pancake fail), I found it quite difficult to navigate a shop that included an incline plane for taking trolleys upstairs. Anyhoo – Abe.

The getting of bearings continued down into the post-apocalyptic necropolis of Washington (locally known as Metrorail) and on to the National Mall. I must admit, as much as I adore America and History, my American history is sketchy. I have a vague idea of what happened in what order, but if it precedes the Clinton administration then I am decidedly unsure of myself. Today was a bit of an odyssey in terms of the past of the USA, as I walked all around the Mall.  That’s where all the stuff is, like this:

Woefully underestimating how tired/hungry/unfit I was at the time, I decided to walk from the White House across to the Washington Monument, and then to the Lincoln Memorial and back again. I imagined I would just flit past Lincoln, take some pictures and move on as I did with the previous two, but it’s actually a bit more entertaining than that. Obviously it’s imposing, even without the reflecting pool (undergoing some heavy-duty maintenance – it was leaking, apparently) and like a lot of things in a lot of capital cities, it has the X factor simply because it’s so gosh-darn famous.

Having spent a full 24 hours here now, I’m already quite fed up of the bright, off-white, neo-classical architecture (if a building doesn’t have a colonnade, it damn well better have a columbarium), but no offense should be taken on that score – I know about as much about architecture as I do about shopping in Target. Still, the Lincoln Memorial was modelled on the Parthenon for added gravitas, and its sheer bulk is very impressive (there are bigger columbariums all around, of course, but as Mr Lincoln will tell you, size isn’t everything. The isolation of the Memorial makes it seem a lot bigger than it is. The White House probably isn’t all that small – it’s just dwarfed on all sides by much bigger, uglier buildings).

I honestly thought it was just a shell. However, it’s looked after by the National Parks Service, who I will be spending a fair bit of time with. In fact, they are the reason I am here, really. Having asked the advice of several lecturers, the NPS kept coming up as the people to do a placement with. Also, one for my fellow heritage dorks, these guys gave the world Freeman Tilden (the second most informed heritage dude that ever lived, after David de Haan), whose 1957 book Interpreting our Heritage is still leading the field (not to mention having a better ending than Harry Potter). They are known for striking the right tone with some pretty difficult interpretation, and if the Lincoln Memorial is anything to go by, the reputation is entirely deserved.

As you can see, they weren’t afraid to get in there with some conservation in action – I LOVE museums doing this. It’s not exactly cutting edge any more, but people seemed as interested in the repair of these doors as they did in the giant Gettysburg Address right next to it. I wouldn’t have expected this inside a memorial, but I was very glad to see it.

There is an exhibition under the memorial, and it gives a small amount of info about Lincoln’s life and career, with relevant quotations from his oratory carved in stone above. It also puts the place into a more modern context – it is made very, very clear that the history of the monument did not end with the laying of the final stone. I had no idea about the extent of its role in the civil rights movement, for example. It was short, effective and enough for an ignorant foreigner to come away significantly more aware of Lincoln’s impact on America (beyond his admirable patronage of the Top Hat industry). And it really was short. I have the attention span of a 2 year old most days (which is why I hate glass case/ info board combos) and I can’t have been in there more than 4 minutes, but I came out knowing a lot more than I did when I jaywalked in front of the White House and nearly got arrested 20 minutes earlier.

Best bit of all, however, was the talk by an NPS Ranger (one Eric Pominville – excellent example of an American name, I think). His talk started at 2pm, and was pretty casual – he just stood and began to chat at the appointed time in a corner of the Memorial. It started off quite dry and discussed the obvious stuff that I expect Eric is legally obliged to discuss about architecture and the like, but he got that out of the way and moved on to the less obvious and far more interesting. For example, the frescos and inscriptions make a very big deal of how Lincoln ended the civil war and “saved the Union”, but the abolition of slavery is quietly consigned to a dark corner. Obviously, being built in segregation-era America is no good for you (who’d have thought something as dull as a Presidential Monument would involve hot interpretation?! Another one for the nerds, there). Eric then went on to describe how it had been the sight of so many protests and rallies in the name of so many causes that have shaped America. It’s still only a baby at 102 years, and Eric spoke passionately about how he believes that it has many more symbolic moments to come, and I think he’s probably right.

There’s not a lot you can do with a site like this to dramatically refresh it. I imagine that many DC visitors are here for a once-in-a-lifetime experience anyway though, so I can’t really see that being an issue, but I wouldn’t rush to return myself. I didn’t really rush down there either, mind – I only went because I felt I had to. I have reluctantly visited many places because I felt just that – I couldn’t walk past because they were too famous, regardless of how interesting they were (or, more often, were not), but I seldom leave these places glad that I visited. Today was a rare one. The Lincoln Memorial is subtly, brilliantly done – pitch perfect.

  1. Keep ’em coming!

  2. […] have briefly mentioned the Almighty NPS as the reason I am in DC – very true. As well as volunteering a  smidge for them, my […]

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