As an undergraduate in the late 1970s I first became interested in public monuments, and more broadly art in the public sphere, because here art shed its mythical autonomy and seemed to connect with the “real world” of politics and power. In the early 1980s I grappled with the “real world” as a freelance writer and wrote essays on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, then newly built, and on the early history of the Washington Monument. I extended these interests into graduate school in art history at UC Berkeley, where I earned a PhD in 1990.
The book that emerged from this work, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, 1997) focused on the racial formation of public remembrance and public monuments. In this project, I entered the messy theoretical terrain of collective memory and its conceptual twin “identity”, which I chose to avoid as it tends to be anachronistic and even essentialist. Instead the book examined how notions of selfhood and citizenship were put to the test, reimagined or discarded, in the medium of the public monument, which, as it was understood then, centered on the depiction of the human body. This was a unique process, I argued, not reducible to other cultural media or domains, and therefore worth investigating in its own right on its own terms. For a short theoretical statement on these issues, see my essay in Harvard Design Magazine. For a more expansive review of the methodological issues involved in studying memorials and monuments, see my online essay written for the Organization of American Historians and the National Park Service.
My work on slavery and its representation in public monuments made me interested more generally in issues of traumatic memory. In the wake of 9-11, these issues came to the forefront in a new way and demanded reconsideration in historical terms. I trace the historical trajectory and philosophical dilemmas of the “therapeutic memorial” – with special attention given to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Oklahoma City National Memorial, and the World Trade Center competition – in a recent essay in Terror, Culture, Politics: Rethinking 9/11, ed. Daniel Sherman and Terry Nardin (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006), 103-120.
More recently I have broadened my focus beyond the standard 3-D arts of sculpture and architecture to the more encompassing notion of landscape, conceived aesthetically, politically, psychologically, and ecologically. My current book, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape, published in Fall 2009 by the University of California Press, reconsiders the key public monuments and spaces of the capital within a narrative of nation building, spatial conquest, ecological destructiveness, and psychological trauma.
Recent projects include essays on Krzysztof Wodiczko’s proposed memorial for September 11, on the Shevchenko Memorial in Washington, D.C., and on John Rogers’ sculpture of the Civil War and Reconstruction.