Last week (or the week before? what meaning does linear time still have?) in my Material Culture class, we did an impromptu scavenger hunt for as many different memorials or monuments as we could find. In the area around Penn’s Landing, with its open space and changing landscape, there were plenty.
The majority of monuments were permanent structures of triumphalist history, including memorials and statues for Christopher Columbus, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Others, dotting Spruce Street Harbor Park, were monuments to different cultural heritages, honoring Costa Rican, Javanese, and Korean traditions.
Afterwards, we were asked to somehow map the monuments that we found. To accomplish this, we tried to categorize them into some kind of taxonomy, such as by subject matter. Biographical, military, cultural…
However, I offered another kind of taxonomy: temporal categories. Especially having visited shortly after Veterans’ Day, we saw a collection of monuments taking up different amounts and kinds of time, in addition to different kinds of space.
The most populous, and expected, type of monument we saw were permanent monuments. These were mostly statues and similar constructions, paid for and maintained by private veterans’ organizations or government offices. These become sites of memory: a place to remember whatever is being commemorated.
A subset of this is future permanent monuments: permanent monuments that have not yet been built. We ran into one example of this, where spray-painted markings showed where a monument will soon be placed.
Another subset of this could be called finite permanent monuments. This would be a monument intended to be permanent, but no longer exists in whole or in part. This memorial commemorated the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, apparently through both a plaque and the planting of trees. While the picture doesn’t show it, there were no trees nearby — where did they go? Or is the text just misleading?
The counterpart to permanent monuments are, of course, temporary monuments. Doing this exercise right after Veterans Day, we saw plenty of flowers, flags, and tokens left at these sites, presumably by veterans, family, and others coming to honor the victims of war. In these cases, the act of placing the token at the site is as much a form of memorial as the physical objects themselves. A bouquet of flowers is one thing, but a bouquet of flowers placed on a memorial stone takes on an entirely separate meaning. These tokens also bridge the gap between inanimate objects being the holders of memory, and humans participating in that ceremonial remembering.
Before you think I’m setting up a dichotomy of permanency, I want to consider graffiti a form of memorial. In particular, tags — when a graffiti artist writes their name or similar pseudonym — commemorate an individual being in a particular place, saying “So-and-so was here.” Sometimes graffiti artists place tags in hard-to-reach areas as a proof of bravery, or in particular places as a way to claim territory. Graffiti murals can even act as a memorial for someone who has passed away. As a form of expression often associated with African-American culture, as well as with low-income neighborhoods, tags in an area such as Society Hill becomes a reminder of the presence marginalized people in a whitewashed space.
To fit graffiti into this temporal taxonomy is difficult, because graffiti evades this categorization. On the one hand, it’s permanent, in that artists often use spray paints that don’t wash off easily. On the other hand, officials often try to deliberately remove or cover up graffiti, making it impossible to know how long graffiti will last. Even then, one can re-paint the graffiti, making an image or an area have a nonlinear temporality.
I confess I hadn’t thought much about monuments or memorials before this excursion, to the point that I realize I’ve been using the terms interchangeably when describing this experience. That said, it has been interesting to consider the permanency of these structures, particularly within Philadelphia, which as a city has been changing considerably due to constant construction.