The Electronic Memorial signifies a radical shift in the tradition of memorialization: from the formal to the casual, from the sacred to the profane, from stone to screen. It will be the first “plug-and-play” presidential memorial. The distracting sight and sounds of visitors listening to and watching videos of Eisenhower on their electronic gizmos is not something associated with the tradition of memorials as places for quiet, undisturbed, unmediated reflection. These devices are certainly not appropriate in other sacred and set-apart settings, such as cemeteries and places of religious worship. The memorial will effectively have a sign posted: Please disturb.
These electronic äppärät are also isolating and contrary to the experience of the memorial as a communal gathering place, a site of national unity. The devices will insure that visitors are alone together. And once those electronic devices are in hand, visitors will no doubt use them for purposes having nothing to do with the memorial: texting, verbaling, gaming.
In Frank Capra’s 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” there is a famous scene in which Jimmy Stewart’s character is overawed by the stillness and grandeur of the Lincoln Memorial. That memorial has no electronic component, the very presence of which would ruin the solemnity. Audio-animatronic presidents might suit an amusement park, but they make a mockery of a national memorial.
The good news is that there is precedent for stopping such a multisensory mistake. In the 1960s, the selected design for the national memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt contained at its core a giant black granite cube that was to play recordings of the president’s speeches. Critics called it a “transistorized FDR” and the design was scrapped.
Our leaders ought to be emboldened by that example. They must delete this siliconized, trivialized Eisenhower — a first step in zapping the whole design.
Justin Shubow is chairman and president of the National Civic Art Society, which promotes and defends the humanistic tradition in architecture, urban design, and the fine arts.