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'Monuments'

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[January 30, 2008]  "Monuments: America's History in Art and Memory." Judith Dupre, Random House, 2007, 250 pages.

Review by
Richard Sumrall

"Monuments are history made visible. They are shrines that celebrate the ideals, achievements and heroes that existed in one moment in time. The best of them are redemptive, allowing us to understand the past in a way that is meaningful in the present." In her sweeping new book, "Monuments," author and preservationist Judith Dupre examines America's extraordinary history through its public monuments. The book contains descriptions of almost 40 monuments of varying composition, themes and historical context.

Although she includes the nation's most celebrated monuments (the Liberty Bell, Alamo, Statue of Liberty, Washington Monument, etc.), Dupre also identifies some lesser-known monuments that are equally important to our national identity. Here's a look at three of those monuments:

Freedom Schooner Amistad

Location: New Haven, Conn.
Dedication: replica 2000
Designer: unknown; restoration by Mystic Seaport Construction
Commemoration: The La Amistad revolt and Supreme Court decision of 1841

The saga of the slave ship La Amistad is a unique episode in American history. Although the original schooner was lost somewhere in the Caribbean, a seaworthy version has been reconstructed and represents an "interactive monument, as well as one that floats, illuminates how lost pieces of history can be retrieved, redressed and retold to new generations."

In 1839, 53 Africans were captured for the slave trade and shipped to Havana, Cuba. Upon their sale they were transferred to the vessel La Amistad for delivery to a Spanish plantation. After three days at sea, the Africans revolted, seized control of the ship and were eventually caught by the American Navy. Their ensuing trial on charges of murder and piracy came before the U.S. Supreme Court, with representation on their behalf by former President John Quincy Adams. The court ultimately ruled in favor of the Africans, and they later returned to their homeland in 1841.

The recreated La Amistad was built using 19th-century shipbuilding techniques and was launched in a ceremony on March 26, 2000. According to Dupre, the La Amistad incident was "one of the first human rights cases successfully argued at the Supreme Court level on behalf of people of African descent."

Irish Hunger Memorial

Location: New York City
Dedication: 2002
Designer: Brain Tolle
Commemoration: Irish famine and migration, 1845-1852

One of the most prolific migrations to North America took place between 1845 and 1852. "An Gorta Mor," or the Great Hunger, was a terrible famine that affected the European continent, particularly the island nation of Ireland. An estimated 1.5 million Irish citizens left the misery and starvation for a more promising life in the United States. This migration and the subsequent establishment of the Irish immigrants in America had an indelible impact on the nation's history and culture.

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According to Dupre, the Irish Hunger Memorial is "a veritable laboratory for multiple contemporary commemorative concerns. It offers moments of poignancy and insight."

Part of the monument's significance is its recreation of the Irish countryside and architecture within the urban landscape of New York City. The designer combined a standing stone monument with a two-room stone cottage in an open field. The cantilevering design of the landscape leads to a wedge-shaped base that resembles the western cliffs found on the Irish coastline.

As visitors tour the monument, they arrive at a location that provides a moment of great inspiration -- an unobstructed view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Dupre writes, "This connection is made between the famine and immigration, the old and the new, despair and faith, and sums up the journey from Ireland to New York."

Texas A&M University Bonfire Memorial

Location: College Station, Texas
Dedication: 2004
Designers: Overland Partners Architects
Commemoration: Those who died in the 1999 bonfire collapse.

On Nov. 18, 1999, 12 Texas A&M students were killed when the logs stacked for a traditional bonfire collapsed. The five-story bonfire was a ritual that began in 1909 and was associated with the annual football game with the University of Texas.

Today the monument erected in 2004 "conjures a mythic landscape that evokes fundamental ideas about the nature of sacred ground." It consists of three parts: Tradition Plaza, the transition between the public parking and the monument; History Walk, a 300-foot gravel path connecting the entrance plaza and the central ring; and the Spirit Ring, the monument's centerpiece and location of the accident. A black granite compass stands at the exact position of the bonfire's center pole and is inscribed with the date and time of the collapse.

The effect of touring the monument "draws the visitor into the larger cosmic circle. There is a palpable, physical sensation of having left ordinary time and entered an eternal dimension."

"Monuments" is an informative study of the role of monuments in our society and their impact on the American psyche. Accordingly, this book is about life; in fact, the book, "tells the stories of real people, the ordinary and the renowned, whose lives, though immortalized, exist fully in the mind and heart." This book is recommended to anyone interested in these physical expressions of art, history and humanity.

[Text from file received from Richard Sumrall, Lincoln Public Library District]

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