If everything goes according to plan, sometime in 2012 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center will open in Washington, D.C., on a 5.2-acre site just west of Maya Lin's famous black granite wall.
Designed by Polshek Partnership Architects with exhibits by Ralph Appelbaum Associates—the same team that did the recently opened and much-lambasted Newseum, at the other end of Constitution Avenue—the center will be the latest, and likely the last, addition to the increasingly crowded National Mall. (Along with approval for the center, Congress passed a moratorium on future projects, citing a lack of space.)
While some Washington landmarks have visitors centers, the center as planned is unprecedented in its size and scope: more than 25,000 square feet of public space, buried partially underground, featuring 75-foot-high plasma screens with rotating images of the war's dead, a timeline of Vietnam-era events, and a selection of the medals, fatigues, and letters that are left at the memorial each year.
The goal, as retired Gen. Colin Powell says in a promotional video produced and distributed to donors by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the nonprofit responsible for building and maintaining the memorial, will be to “enhance the Vietnam Wall experience”—to add depth and context to a trip made by 4 million people each year.
It's a laudable aim. But given the power of Lin's design, why does the memorial need enhancing in the first place? Asked more directly, is the center an indictment of “the wall” itself? And if so, what does it say about American culture that we need something more at the site?
With its massive panels cutting a broad gull wing into the northwest corner of the Mall, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial diverges abruptly from the studied classicism of most Washington landmarks. Its stark minimalism set off controversy when the design was first unveiled in 1981—one critic called it a “shameful degrading ditch.” But time has proved otherwise: Since its opening 26 years ago, the wall has clocked 20,000 visitors a day, making it the most frequented monument in the country.
And it's more than just a tourist attraction; as an entire cottage industry of cultural theorists has documented, the wall and its 58,195 names have changed the very way we look at war. “The memorial has been the center of a debate on precisely how wars should be remembered,” wrote New York University media studies professor Marita Sturken in the journal Representations, “and precisely who should be remembered in a war—those who died, those who participated, those who engineered it, or those who opposed it.”
It has even altered the way we interact with memorials themselves. Despite—or perhaps because of—its cool abstraction, visitors have rendered the memorial an active space; every day, hundreds of people make rubbings of the names of lost relatives and friends, while some 110,000 items have been left at its base. Today it is less a memorial than a ritual space.
And since 1996, people don't even have to leave home to see it. “The Wall That Heals,” a half-size replica of the memorial in Washington, has visited 250 towns and cities—including a trip to Ireland—bringing with it a “comprehensive educational component to enrich and complete visitors' experiences,” according to the Memorial Fund, which now promotes education about Vietnam and the wall. Add that to the dozens of imitation memorials—black granite, list of names—that have gone up around the country, and the actual wall begins to take a back seat. In its place, we have the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: The Branded Experience.
The wall isn't alone. From the Oklahoma City National Memorial to the plans for the World Trade Center site, monuments are no longer objects but environments—we can stand in a Depression-era breadline at the FDR Memorial, and we can trudge along the Chosin Reservoir with weary soldiers at the Korean War Veterans Memorial.