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Libraries and Museums, Memorials and Monuments

fine arts museums, traditional monuments, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Arlington National Cemetery, national memorials

The need to memorialize the past has a long tradition and is often associated with wars, heroes, and battles. In the United States, monuments exist throughout the country, from the Revolutionary site of Bunker Hill to the many Civil War battlefields. The nation’s capital features a large number of monuments to generals, war heroes, and leaders. Probably the greatest of all these is Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where there are thousands of graves of veterans of American wars, including the Tomb of the Unknowns and the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy. In addition to these traditional monuments to history, millions of people are drawn to the polished black wall that is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The memorial is a stark reminder of the losses suffered in a war in which more than 58,000 Americans died and of a time of turmoil in the nation.

No less important than monuments to war heroes are memorials to other victims of war. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in 1993 in Washington, D.C., is dedicated to documenting the extermination of millions of Jews and others by the Nazis during World War II. It contains photographs, films, oral histories, and artifacts as well as a research institute, and has become an enormous tourist attraction. It is one example of a new public consciousness about museums as important sources of information and places in which to come to terms with important and painful historical events. Less elaborate Holocaust memorials have been established in cities across the country, including New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Monuments to national heroes are an important part of American culture. These range from the memorials to Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to the larger-than-life faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt carved into Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Some national memorials also include monuments to ordinary citizens, such as the laborers, farmers, women, and African Americans who are part of the new Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Americans also commemorate popular culture with museums and monuments such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. These collections of popular culture are as much a part of American heritage as are fine arts museums and statues of national heroes. As a result of this wide variety of institutions and monuments, more people know about the breadth of America’s past and its many cultural influences. This new awareness has even influenced the presentation of artifacts in natural history museums. Where these once emphasized the differences among human beings and their customs by presenting them as discrete and unrelated cultures, today’s museums and monuments emphasize the flow of culture among people.

The expansion in types of museums and the increased attention to audience is due in part to new groups participating in the arts and in discussions about culture. In the early 20th century, many museums were supported by wealthy elites. Today’s museums seek to attract a wider range of people including students from inner cities, families from the suburbs, and Americans of all backgrounds. The diverse American population is eager to have its many pasts and talents enshrined. The funding now available through foundations and federal and state governments provides assistance. This development has not been without resistance. In the 1980s and 1990s people challenged the role of the federal government in sponsoring certain controversial art and culture forms, posing threats to the existence of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Nevertheless, even these controversies have made clearer how much art and cultural institutions express who we are as a people. Americans possess many different views and pasts, and they constantly change what they create, how they communicate, and what they appreciate about their past.

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