Commemorating the Past, Healing the Present, Working for the Future: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama

Monuments, Museums, Murals: Preservation, Commemoration and American Identity, Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University, Turkey · May 2019 ·

In April 2018, a new milestone in the presentation of American cultural heritage opened in Montgomery, Alabama: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, founded by the not-profit organization Equal Justice Initiative. In a memorial landscape widely dominated by the heritage of the Confederacy in the American South, this memorial sticks out: both by its clear intention to confront the destructive legacy of almost 4,400 lynchings which took place in the United States between 1877 and 1950, and by its exceptional design and pedagogical concept.

This memorial consists of two parts. The first is permanently installed in an open-sided pavilion on a hill overlooking downtown Montgomery. More than 800 steles, one for every county where a lynching took place, represents the victims. The standing six-foot-tall rusted steles recall graveyard headstones; but some of them gradually lift from the ground, evoking the sight of hanging bodies. While the memorial aesthetics are powerful, the interactive component is most striking: outside the pavilion, duplicates are waiting to be claimed by the counties where lynchings took place, which envisions a commemoration process yet to come. Thus, this memorial is directed towards the past, the present, and the future as it incorporates a vision of a more inclusive and just national identity based in the acknowledgement of its history of racial violence and injustice.

While this memorial is stylistically influenced by Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (2005), it also shares conceptual similarities with Gunther Demnig’s Stumbling Blocks. Demnig’s small markers in the pavement are the more modest in size than the steles in Alabama, but since the 1990s it has developed into one of the most popular European memorials commemorating Nazi victims. Both memorials convey the same message: that coming to terms with a shameful past needs active involvement from interested citizens as well as public manifestations. In our presentation, we will embed the memorial in the spatial memorial context of Alabama and the American memorial tradition, analyse its design, and discuss pedagogical concept using Anja Piontek’s Museum and Partizipation (2017).